Jamestown Historical Society Feature
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, summer visitors to Jamestown often settled in for the whole summer. They founded private clubs where they could meet and socialize. The only remaining private club from the era is the Conanicut Yacht Club.
Yachting became a popular pastime on Narragansett Bay about the time Jamestown’s resort era began. The Rhode Island Yacht Club was incorporated in 1877, and the Zephyr Boat Club, which morphed into the Bristol Yacht Club, began the same year. In the summer of 1891, a group of summer residents – most of them from the Philadelphia area – met to discuss a yacht club for Jamestown. In October 1892, the state of Rhode Island issued a certificate of incorporation for the Conanicut Yacht Club.
The following spring, a covered pier was erected on land purchased by the club on the east side of Conanicus Avenue at the end of Brook Street. (At the time, Conanicus ended at Brook Street. To go further south, one turned west on Brook and then south on what is now Old Walcott, but was then simply Walcott Avenue.) The first clubhouse, built partially over the water on pilings, opened in 1894. A general clubroom, committee room, photographic darkroom and similar amenities occupied the first floor. The second floor was devoted to a “ladies room” – that is, a lounge and changing room for women only – surrounded by a wide porch. By 1900, 122 member families paid annual dues of $5 each.
The roster of members of the Conanicut Yacht Club also listed most of the members in the Jamestown Club, a men’s-only social club. In 1916, as the first World War began to affect the social life of Jamestown, the “Jimtown Club,” as it was called, merged with the yacht club. The club immediately built a new and larger clubhouse designed by Philadelphian Herbert Wetherill, who also designed the Jamestown Fire Station. The new clubhouse extended further out over the pier and provided more rooms for both men and women to socialize.
The merged club devoted itself to enjoyment – mostly, but not exclusively, enjoyment of Narragansett Bay. Many of the older members owned fully staffed motor or sailing yachts, ranging in size from Wild Duck, a 143-foot power yacht owned by Charles B. and Madge Levey, to much smaller catboats and sloops. The younger set raced in the club’s fleet of pilots, dories and triangles.
The club sponsored an annual watersports – a daylong marathon of marine-related competitions open to all town residents. Diving contestants would jump from two diving boards, or from the roof of the pavilion at the end of the long yacht club pier. Swimmers swam laps between a float out in the bay and the float at the pier. Young people in canoes jousted with greased masts. And, of course, boat races for all classes – or no class at all – were held. According to club records, “townies” triumphed in most of the events.
The dance floors in the new clubhouse saw dancing through the night. The club hosted weekly balls. In June 1918, the club steward returned after closing the club for the evening to find a large party in process – hosted by a woman who wasn’t even a member of the club. Other times the unauthorized use of the hall was only discovered the next morning, when the debris of the previous evening had to be cleaned up.
Despite the social nature of the club, Rule No. 6 in 1900 read, “No liquors of any description can be used on club property, nor on board of any boat made fast to wharf or floats.” The passing of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Volstead Act to enforce prohibition in 1919 made the rule moot, but even after the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition in 1933, bar facilities remained private.
The “5:00 club” met almost daily for happy hour, and men in the reading room had access to stock in a private cupboard. The first club bar was established in 1948.
Other changes came in the post- World War II years. The population of Jamestown was growing quickly. Many new residents, with many interests, wanted to join. Tennis was added to the club’s sports inventory in 1951 with the leasing and later acquisition of the Conanicut Country Club tennis courts on Shoreby Hill. Canasta and bridge parties took the place of earlier whist parties. Races and cruises – and, of course, dining and dancing – continued.
The hurricane of 1938 had wiped out the yacht club pier, but based on the amount spent for repairs (only $1,850), it left the 20-yearold clubhouse relatively unscathed. Hurricane Carol in 1954 was a different story. The yacht club’s entire fleet was lost, the pier destroyed, and wave after wave crashed through the clubhouse. A year of controversy followed. Should the almost 40-year-old clubhouse be rebuilt or restored, or should the club move to a new location?
In 1955, the club settled into the 1890’s shingle-style cottage on Bay View Drive, where it still organizes social and sporting events for its members. Over the years the club has expanded the building to include an enclosed porch, a larger lounge and other facilities. In honor of its 100th anniversary in 1992, the Conanicut Yacht Club published, “Time and Tide: A Centennnial History,” from which much of this article has been abstracted.