2012-11-22 / News

Jamestown Historical Society 100 years: From island to peninsula


Before the advent of the railroad and adequate surface roads, Narragansett Bay was a highway that served island and mainland towns alike. After transportation on land became faster and more reliable, the bay became a barrier. Ferry service – troubled by the weather and inconvenient schedules – was inadequate. A bridge that would, in the words of one supporter, “Transform the inconvenience of a natural island to the conveniences of an artificial peninsula,” seemed the answer.

A West Passage bridge was first seriously proposed in the early 1920s. Lobbying for and against its construction continued through the 1930s. The issue was finally decided by the devastation of the 1938 hurricane and, at the federal level, by the growing certainty of war in Europe.

In April 1937, state legislation created a Jamestown Bridge Commission, with a charter to construct, operate and maintain a toll bridge. The commission was an independent body, and its members were elected by the people of Jamestown, making it a quasi-governmental function of the town. The state assumed no responsibility for the cost of building or maintaining the bridge.

Construction workers in 1939 worked on the Jamestown Bridge without safety harnesses or nets, though some wore hard hats. 
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY Construction workers in 1939 worked on the Jamestown Bridge without safety harnesses or nets, though some wore hard hats. PHOTO COURTESY OF THE JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY The commission asked for federal funds through the Public Works Administration. The War and Navy departments supported the bridge proposal – the bridge would shorten the time needed to travel between the increasingly important military facilities in Quonset, Jamestown and Newport – and in mid-1938, the PWA recommended approval of a grant for $1,404,000, almost half the cost of the bridge. The Bridge Commission arranged for a loan of $1.7 million secured by bonds to cover the remaining cost.

Approval by the voters of Jamestown was the final hurdle. A Jamestown town meeting to vote on the bridge was scheduled for Sept. 26, 1938. Five days before the meeting – on Sept. 21 – the 1938 hurricane virtually destroyed the West Passage ferryboat docks at Jamestown and Saunderstown, cutting off for a time all traffic between Jamestown and the mainland. The devastation convinced most of the remaining doubters in Jamestown. At the Sept. 26 meeting, the vote was 240-23 in favor of the bridge.

The PWA grant stipulated that construction must begin before the end of the year. Three of the five major contracts were in place before the PWA deadline. Under the gun for an approved design, the engineers at Parsons, Klapp, Brinckerhoff and Douglas relabeled the plans for Charleston’s Cooper River Bridge, which the firm had built in the 1920s, “The Jamestown Bridge,” and added a note that advised, “Details will be furnished later.”

Riley Engineering and Drilling Company of Brooklyn, N.Y., immediately began test borings. Merritt-Chapman & Scott had two contracts, both starting in January 1939, to build 69 piers of various types, in preparation for the steel superstructure and concrete deck. Harris Structural Steel Company had the bulk of the work above the water line: a $939,962.42 contract for the superstructure, including all the steelwork and the concrete deck. Several smaller contractors supplied support services.

Construction took 18 months. Despite accidents, such as the sinking of a lighter used during the test boring, and weather delays, it was only two months behind schedule. The total cost (to the penny), $3,002,218.02, was almost $118,000 less than budgeted.

At 9:40 p.m. on July 26, 1940, the ferryboat Hammonton left Saunderstown on its last round trip across the West Passage. At 6 a.m. the next day, the bridge opened for traffic. A three-day celebration followed from August 2-4.

The Jamestown Bridge Commission ran the Jamestown Bridge as a non-profit public utility, expending the money taken in as tolls to maintain and operate the bridge and to retire the bonds sold to raise funds to build it. Initial tolls on the bridge were high: a one-way ticket for a car cost $.90, or about $14.40 in 2012 dollars. Traffic exceeded projections, and the tolls were progressively lowered, until in 1969, a one-way ticket for a car was only $.35, or about $2.25 in today’s dollars.

When the Newport Bridge was completed in 1969, tolls were removed from the Jamestown Bridge, the Jamestown Bridge Commission was dissolved after paying off the last of the bonds issued to build and maintain it, and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation took over responsibility for its maintenance. The negotiations that led to the dissolution of the Jamestown Bridge Commission were convoluted and acrimonious.

One important thing to remember about the Jamestown Bridge is that, although PWA money partially financed the building of the bridge, it was built by the Jamestown Bridge Commission, backed by the town of Jamestown. As one of the commissioners said, responding to upstate criticism of the commission’s actions in 1966: “There isn’t a nickel of state money in our funds; and not a dime in the bridge construction.”

This is the 21st in a series of articles chronicling the history of Jamestown in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Jamestown Historical Society.

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