Jamestown Historical Society Feature
Almost immediately, land that for almost 200 years had been farmed by a small number of local families – the Carrs, Watsons, Howlands, Greens and Cottrells among them – became valuable as housing lots. In 1875 there were only 103 homes on the island, housing 488 permanent residents. By 1895, the population had almost doubled to 813. More dramatically, the number of houses had more than tripled, and almost 50 percent of the 325 single-family dwellings were unoccupied in the winter months.
Along with land development came the new-to-Jamestown profession of real-estate agent. One of the most prominent real-estate agents in this early stage was Daniel Watson, colloquially known as “Real Estate Dan.”
Daniel was the seventh of the 10 children of Dr. Daniel and Sarah G.C. (Arnold) Watson of Newport. The Watson family had a long history in Jamestown. Daniel’s great- grandfather Job Watson (1744- 1812) came to Conanicut Island from South County soon after the American Revolution. He and his five sons acquired large tracts of land – including all the farms on the west side of North Road from Eldred Avenue to Narragansett Avenue – and took an active part in the political life of the town.
Daniel Watson grew up in Newport, and on the eve of the War Between the States (1861-65) he was living there with his parents on Spring Street. Like virtually all young men in their 20s, he registered for the draft and he served as a hospital steward on several vessels in the Union fleet blockading southern ports during the war. In the early 1870s, he began dividing his time between Newport and Jamestown, developing a successful career selling the newly Jamestown subdivided farms.
The first development in Jamestown village was Ferry Meadows, platted in 1873 near the new wharf at East Ferry on the farm that had belonged to John Howland. Watson sold some of the lots there, but shared responsibility for developing the plat with other sales agents. The next year Watson’s cousin Thomas Congdon Watson divided his land near West Ferry, creating the Bay View development. Daniel Watson was made sole agent to sell the Bay View lots. The following year, Watson published a large map of Jamestown showing the subdivisions and advertising his responsibility for them. A copy of the map hangs in the town clerk’s office.
Over the next 25 years, Watson was named sole sales agent for every major development in Jamestown south of the Great Creek.
The Ocean Highlands Company was organized in 1875 to develop the Dumplings area. The plat contained about 200 acres, many of them on rocky coastline with splendid views. Transportation into the area was difficult, and development of the Dumplings proceeded slowly. The first house was not built there until 1881. Then, in 1883, Watson teamed up with the shingle-style architect Charles L. Bevins, bringing Bevins commissions for houses that were uniquely suited to the rough terrain – and in the process speeding the development of the area. Bevins and Watson worked together, sharing offices in both Jamestown and Newport, until Watson’s death. Bevins designed no buildings in Jamestown after Watson died.
The Bryer farm encompassed land on both sides of Conanicus Avenue north of Jamestown Harbor and had been owned by Caswell, as well as the Bryer and Cory families. When it was platted in 1884, Daniel Watson became involved in development of commercial as well as residential sites. In 1889, the Champlin House, later Dr. Bates Sanitarium, was built in the Bryer farm plat. The same year the Bay Voyage Inn was floated across the bay from Middletown to its site between the Champlin House and the water.
Shoreby Hill development began two years after the Bryer farm was platted. A group of men from St. Louis divided the Greene farm into 140 lots, averaging more than a quarter acre each. They reserved prime sites for themselves and gave Daniel Watson the responsibility for selling the rest.
Watson’s interests were not confined strictly to real estate, although his single invention would certainly be of use to real-estate agents. In 1887, he patented a door fastener to be used when there was no lock or when the lock was broken or the key lost.
The final development for which Watson took the lead was Ocean View, which subdivided the old South Beavertail Farm and included all of what is now Beavertail State Park. The plat was recorded in 1899, and he did not live to see the development to fruition. Watson died on June 13, 1899, at age 62, while showing a client land in the Dumplings.
He left behind his wife, the former Susan E. Commerford of Newport, whom he had married only eleven years earlier. They had two little girls and, at his death, his wife was pregnant with their third daughter.