2017-12-14 / Front Page

REVISITING DUTCH ISLAND

Town eyes reopening 103-acre fort to public
BY TIM RIEL


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working since fall 2015 to secure former military structures, like these barracks, on Dutch Island and make them safe for visitors. With work nearly complete, the town wants to spark a conversation with the state about a management partnership. 
JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working since fall 2015 to secure former military structures, like these barracks, on Dutch Island and make them safe for visitors. With work nearly complete, the town wants to spark a conversation with the state about a management partnership. JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY As federal workers finish securing Dutch Island from its military past, the town councilors want to move forward with plans to open the 103-acre fort to the public.

The island, which is part of Jamestown but owned by the state, has been closed to visitors since 1990. That ban was enacted because of safety concerns with the abandoned military structures, which comprised Fort Greble until the end of World War II. When the federal government sold the land to Rhode Island in 1950, there was an agreement to protect the island as a conservation habitat for wildlife and migratory birds. With safety no longer an issue, the state has indicated that it wants to open the nature trails, erect historic signs and establish free campgrounds along the shore.


The Rhode Island National Guard detachment from Fort Getty arrives at Fort Greble on Dutch Island for review in July 1921. 
JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY The Rhode Island National Guard detachment from Fort Getty arrives at Fort Greble on Dutch Island for review in July 1921. JAMESTOWN HISTORICAL SOCIETY As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finishes the work, however, the councilors are concerned the project will sit in limbo if they don’t make the next move.

“If we do nothing, the state will do nothing,” Councilman Gene Mihaly said at Monday night’s meeting.

Town Administrator Andy Nota agreed, especially because the state has different financial concerns.

“With all the priorities that the state is facing, it will take some time for them to develop a management plan,” he said.

The Army began work in fall 2015 to transform Dutch Island into a safe destination. According to the bid specifications, workers removed three fuel tanks, closed two cisterns, mitigated drowning hazards at the reservoirs, closed the roofs on two coal bunkers, filled the mine pit, secured the powerhouse, removed stairs, and installed 2,600 linear feet of barricade railing. There also was extensive clear-cutting of overgrown vegetation to uncover historic buildings.

Dutch Island is located directly south of the Verrazzano Bridge in the West Passage. According to Nota, if the town were to endorse the island as a passive tourist attraction, the best sites for access would be from Fort Getty and West Ferry. The town could use existing resources, specifically parks department staff, to co-manage the island with the Department of Environmental Management.

“The party that essentially sets the parameters is more likely to get what it wants,” Mihaly said.

The primary problem, however, is recouping the costs associated with this project. Nota said the council would have to make policy decisions in order to make this a wise investment.

“The bottom line is, the sooner the town has access to the island when it’s ready, the better,” Mihaly said.

With news the town is advancing plans to open Dutch Island, the Jamestown Historical Society addressed its concerns with the council.

In a Dec. 11 letter by Mary Heath, its president, the group said it “strongly support the inclusion of historic preservation.” The island, the letter said, was used by the Dutch as a trading post in 1657 and the lighthouse, first lit in 1827, was only the second beacon built north of Beavertail. Moreover, the Rhode Island’s 14th Heavy Artillery, also known as the colored regiment, trained on the island during the Civil War.

“Preservation of the remaining historic relics and signage to ensure that visitors understand the importance of the island” should be incorporated into any management plan, Heath wrote.

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