Jamestown Historical Society Feature
Naval activity on Narragansett Bay stayed strong between the world wars. In addition to the torpedo station and the Naval War College established in Newport in 1884, fleet-support facilities were increased and Newport’s Naval Training Station became the center for recruit training on the Atlantic coast.
Gould Island and the waters around it continued to be the Navy’s primary torpedo-testing site. The purpose of the proof firings of torpedoes in Narragansett Bay was to determine if a torpedo’s propulsion systems functioned satisfactorily, and if its guidance systems correctly controlled the torpedo’s course. A torpedo’s course was tracked using hydrophones on the bottom of the bay – its depth was established by reference to recorders inside the torpedo itself.
The actual targeting and firing mechanisms of the torpedo were not tested. For the tests, an “exercise head” replaced the warhead. The exercise head contained water that was blown out at the end of a run so that the torpedo would surface and could be retrieved. The last live test of the torpedo warheads was conducted in 1926 in waters outside the bay. Therefore, the tests failed to identify targeting and detonation problems with the Mark 14 torpedoes that plagued the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific during World War II.
All told, there were more than 75,000 proofing tests on the station’s ranges. The test firings, many of them from the firing pier erected at the north end of Gould Island in 1942, affected many activities on Jamestown’s northeastern shore and the waters nearby.
Pairs of torpedo range markers were placed along Jamestown’s eastern shore at 1,000-yard intervals, starting at a position 1,000 yards north of the firing pier and continuing to the southern tip of Prudence Island. The markers facilitated the realignment of hydrophones on the bottom of the bay along the course of the firing range.
More than 50 range boats, including 35 torpedo-retriever boats, were moored north of Gould Island. They and the Coast Guard warned local mariners away.
During firings, a red signal flag flew at the firing pier, and before each firing a whistle was blown. Because the whistle could not always be heard at the YWCA camp at Conanicut Park, a cable was run underwater from the firing pier to the camp. Whenever the whistle blew, a light flashed at the camp pier, alerting lifeguards to warn swimmers to get out of the water.
The Jamestown Town Council often worried about the safety of the torpedo range. And with good reason.
Accidents with the test firings were not uncommon. A torpedo fired on the range in 1937 from the submarine Cachalot passed between two yachts, struck a ledge, leapt into the air, and ploughed through an iron fence near what is now the New York Yacht Club. In a similar incident in 1938, a torpedo fired by the test-firing barge off Gould Island came to rest in Brenton’s Cove near Beacon Rock. The USS Capella, a government freighter, was accidentally torpedoed and damaged in 1942.
About 7 percent of the torpedoes that were fired were lost – that is, they left the range. Most of the lost torpedoes were quickly recovered although some were still turning up many years later. A Newport Daily News story in 1960 tells of two Jamestown teenagers spotting a stray torpedo in the bay a short distance north of the East Ferry landing.
Even before World War II began, the Gould Island air facility had become an auxiliary landing area for seaplanes whose main operational base shifted to the Naval Air Station at Quonset. After the war, the Navy ended its involvement in the actual production of weapons and changed its focus to research and development. The change in mission spelled the end of the torpedo station.
In 1951, the Naval Torpedo Station, including the test facility on Gould Island, transitioned from an industrial activity to a full-time research and development center operating out of Coddington Cove. The Naval Torpedo Station in Keyport, Wash., took over the responsibility for proofing, storing, maintaining and issuing fleet torpedoes. The new organization – after several name changes now called the Naval Undersea Warfare Center – continues to employ a large number of Jamestowners and draws new residents to the island.
In 1960, Goat Island was declared surplus land, and in the mid-1960s, the Newport Redevelopment Agency purchased the island, demolished most of the Navy buildings, and constructed a causeway to the island, eliminating the need for a ferry. The Gould Island complex was abandoned and between 1975 and 1989 the Navy transferred the southern 70 percent (about 39 acres) of the island to the state of Rhode Island. The remaining Navy buildings within roughly 17 acres that are still Navy property were torn down in 2000 and 2001.
Only the base of the firing pier remains and is still used occasionally by the undersea warfare center for in-water testing.