Jamestown Historical Society Feature
The U.S. Navy established the Naval Torpedo Station at Goat Island in 1869, three years after Englishman Robert Whitehead successfully demonstrated a selfpropelled underwater explosive device. It was the first permanent U.S. Navy installation on Narragansett Bay, although the U.S. Naval Academy had been temporarily relocated to Newport during the Civil War.
From the beginning the station had three distinct functions in relationship to torpedoes: experimenting, manufacturing and training. At the time the station was established, the term “torpedo” incorporated spar-mounted devices attached to boats, other devices propelled through the water, or moored and floating mines. In the 1870s, mine development was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers, although by World War I mines were also developed and built at the torpedo station.
From the 1870s onward, torpedoes outfitted for vessels were assembled at Goat Island from materials acquired elsewhere. The first experiments in shipboard electricity were conducted at the station in the late 1880s. In 1902, a wireless antenna mast 180 feet high was erected at the station to allow tests and evaluations of wireless radio communications.
The activities at the station had little direct effect on Jamestown until the U.S. Navy built a torpedo factory in 1908 and expanded in 1915. The new manufacturing facility gave Conanicut Island farmers, many of who were being displaced by the growing resort community, a place of steady employment and an alternative to the service jobs being created in Jamestown. It also brought new residents to the island, most of who settled in the growing village south of Narragansett Avenue.
As a result of Germany’s success in destroying Allied shipping with torpedoes at the beginning of World War I – over 11 million tons of shipping was lost during the war – America began to prepare for war. This resulted in the first large surge in civilian employment at the station. By the time the United States entered the war in 1917, the factory was on a three-shift basis with a workforce of about 3,200.
Over 100 of the men and women working at the torpedo station lived in Jamestown, employing about 18 percent of the working population. The station was the town’s largest single employer. Almost all of the men worked as machinists, although others were employed in the warehouse and with ordnance, and at least one woman worked at the station as a telephone operator.
Jamestowners working at the station did not have an easy commute. First they boarded a Newport and Jamestown ferryboat at East Ferry and crossed the bay to Newport. The schedule changed over the years, but in the summer, the ferry generally left Jamestown hourly from about 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. The return trips from Newport were scheduled on the half hour. With only one ferry in service in the winter, the departures were less frequent.
The ferry landed at the end of Mill Street, and workers walked to Government Landing near Long Wharf to take a second ferry to Goat Island.
Two explosions in the Goat Island complex in 1918 killed a total of 15 employees – none of them from Jamestown – and injured many more. The incidents underscored the need to relocate explosives at a site away from the manufacturing facility and military headquarters. Later that same year, the federal government seized Gould Island – which, like Dutch Island, is legally part of Jamestown – for use as an isolated place to store torpedoes and explosives, as a test area for all type of torpedoes, and as a base for the aircraft needed to test-fire aerial torpedoes.
Construction on Gould Island began in 1919. Air detail hangars for seaplanes and kite balloons and a concrete pier for torpedoes were built at the southeast point of the island. An old farmhouse was converted to a barracks for the Marines who guarded the magazines, and a wooden pier for personnel was added at the north end of the island. The following year torpedo and warhead storage buildings were added to the complex, and a railroad connected the concrete pier to the new buildings.
In 1921, two naval torpedo planes, modified for water landings by the addition of pontoons, arrived at the island station. In November, Navy Lt. Thomas H. Murphy, head of the air detail, made the first successful U.S. airdrop of a torpedo in the waters off the island.
Although the complex on Gould Island continued to grow during the late 1920s, the manufacture of torpedoes slowed and by 1930 only 34 Jamestowners, about 5 percent of the total working population, had jobs at the station. The number began to rise again in the mid 1930s when the Navy announced a build up in its workforce. By 1940, with World War II well underway in Europe, the station once again became a major Jamestown employer. The census that year listed 47 men employed in a variety of jobs, although the majority were machinists.
At the peak of World War II in 1944, more than 13,000 men and women worked 24/7 on Goat Island and produced 5,656 torpedoes in that year alone. It is unknown how many of the workers lived in Jamestown, although plans and problems with housing the workers point to a large number.