Rhe Depression and World War II Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective
Modern Times

The Depression and World War II

In the thirties, the residents of Narragansett Bay faced the trials of the Great Depression. Jobs were scarce, and many families again found the fish and the shellfish of the Bay vital supplements to their meager larders.

Transitions occurred in the old summer colonies along the shores of the upper Bay. Some owners were forced to sell or rent their houses by the stringent economics of the Depression. The homes were occupied by destitute families from the urban centers. This was especially apparent in the old areas of Oakland Beach and along the Conimicut shore in Warwick. The newcomers gradually winterized the dwellings and year-round shore resident patterns were established.

World War II brought an end to the Depression. The Bay once more became a base for fighting ships and other engines of destruction; a continuous procession of freighters arrived empty and departed deep in the water with the stores of war. The naval complex on Aquidneck Island and new facilities at Quonset Point and Davisville throbbed with activity. The Quonset Point Naval Air Station was formally opened in 1941 and the Naval Construction Battalion Center in 1942, in part occupying land which had supported peaceful country vineyards and summer cottage colonies and in part fashioned by the filling of materials dredged from the bottom of the Bay. Thousands of servicemen and servicewomen poured into the centers on both sides of the Bay, and thousands of civilian employees arrived to provide support services. Training activities of all kinds filled the days and nights. Pilots dive-bombed the Bay on practice runs. The approaches were mined, and Navy tugs sealed off the East Passage with nets at its mouth to all but friendly shipping. Fishermen worked around the buoymarked torpedo-testing zone north of Gould Island, and kept a sharp lookout for the metal "fish" that occasionally darted off course and threatened their gear. Naval stores accumulated on the docks for transport to far- flung fleets, and naval tankers filled or withdrew fuel supplies from the underground tank farm in Melville. At Davisville, a new breed of sailor developed. He was called a Seabee and his mission was to build docks, airstrips, warehouses, or whatever was needed anywhere in the world—in arid deserts, steamy jungles, or polar cold—and he was trained to fight to protect these structures. The materials used by the Seabees were moved into Davisville on railroad flatcars and trucks and left in the holds of freighters. In later years, huge cargo planes replaced the freighters, but during the war, ships provided the basic transport.

Elsewhere in the Bay there were other signs of war. Shipbuilding began in Providence at Fields Point, where the Rheem Shipyard (which later became the Walsh-Kaiser) employed several thousand civilian workers. In Warren, the small Warren Shipyard produced wooden picket boats for coastal patrol. The high-powered wooden PT boats built in the Herreshoff Yard, in Bristol, were tested at 50 miles an hour across stretches of the upper Bay. A sailing dinghy, if caught in a PT boat wake, would toss like a bit of driftwood in a Scarborough breaker. It was wise to cross well astern.

The forts at the mouths of the Bay were all manned. More than 10,000 men were stationed in these forts, including grim old Fort Adams, the headquarters for coastal defense. Some of the defenders occupied innocuous-looking beach-front or bluff-front cottages and peered through slit windows for enemy craft to appear on the horizon. None ever did.

In the midst of this ferment, the Bay continued to provide employment to a hard-core group of commercial fishermen and food for families who supplemented their ration book purchases with fish and quahaug chowders. The black quahaug, a larger, offshore cousin of the Bay's prolific hard clam, had been identified a few years before the war as a potential new food source by the late Charles J. Fish, who was then at the Narragansett Marine Laboratory. F. Nelson Blount, Warren shellfish processor, wasted no time in negotiating a government contract to furnish black quahaugs to the Army at Camp Edwards on Cape Cod and at other training centers. (After the war, some years went by before the black quahaug again went to market, this time as the "mahogany" or "ocean quahaug," names calculated to meet less sales resistance.)

In addition to the quahaug fishery, the crab, lobster, and conch pot fishermen continued to work throughout the war, and a number of trawlers towed their gear across the Bay bottom. In the fall, scalloping was good. Oystermen tended their leased beds in the upper Bay and at least two shucking houses in Warren, By. Rooks and the Warren Oyster Company, continued to prepare oysters for shipment.

Of course, pleasure boating was sharply reduced for those who relied on power. Ration boards provided gasoline only for essential services. The sailing fraternity fared better, however, and many of today's veteran racing skippers, youngsters then, learned to sail during and immediately after the war years in little wooden catboats constructed before the war. The Beetle catboat was a symbol of the times, providing recreation and sail training for young and old alike. The youngsters raced their Beetles on weekends in Apprentice Beetle or Able Beetle classes, depending upon competence: Their parents, once peace had returned, competed in midweek events as "Peppy Pappies" or "Wet Hens." The big Beetle fleets were at the Barrington Yacht Club on the Barrington River and the Edgewood Yacht Club on the Providence River, and intense rivalry continued between the two until several years after the war. The graceful Herreshoff S-boats were the hottest racing fleet in the Bay and the racers developed such intense loyalty that they stayed together throughout the postwar years. The larger racing and cruising craft, all of wood and many of venerable age, were a polyglot group which were divided off into time allowance classes of various sizes. A typical regatta immediately after the end of the war would include events for Apprentice and Able Beetles, Herreshoff 12 1/2 and 15-footers, Town class knockabouts, husky 19-foot Indians, and the various time allowance classes.

After the war, recreational boatbuilding began again. At first, traditional wood construction methods were used and a bewildering assortment of craft joined the weekend regattas—new Beetles with standard gaff-headed sails, variations with triangular Marconi rigs, Snipes, Lightnings, Comets, Blue Jays, and others. Plywood became a popular material for a time, and then Fiberglas appeared, sweeping away most of the older construction methods. With molded Fiberglas hulls available for both power and sail, more Rhode Islanders than ever before were able to use their Bay for recreation. The era of the plastic boat didn't occur overnight, but it came on like a rolling snowball. From one-at-a-time production in a garage or small shed to assembly line techniques didn't take long. Recreational fishermen who had pursued their sport in leaky wooden skiffs or plywood runabouts appeared in growing numbers in sleek, fast Fiberglas outboard craft. Molded Fiberglas soon dominated the Bay sailing fleet as well.

Although the costs of boat ownership, even with the new construction materials, were never really low, postwar prosperity, shorter work weeks, and longer annual vacations helped to bring new boat owners onto the Bay in numbers which virtually doubled annually until the most recent years. The market for recreational boats created several new marine industries, which in aggregate, while hard to measure accurately, may represent the third most important factor in the Bay's economy, trailing only the Navy and commercial shipping. Among them were the builders of recreational boats and yachts of every description, the marinas which today cover the shoreline in most of the navigable coves and estuaries, the marine supply houses and dealers in new and used boats, motors, and assorted hardware, and the bait and tackle shops which outfitted thousands of sport fishermen.

Postwar development of the outboard motor had a significance perhaps equal to that of Fiberglas. Outboard motors had been around for years prior to the war, but the modern versions were more dependable, sturdier, and bigger. By transporting a Fiberglas runabout with an outboard motor to the water's edge on a trailer, the average Rhode Islander of modest means could go anywhere the more well-to-do yacht club member could and some places he couldn't.

Bigger outboards had an interesting impact on the commercial quahaug fleet. As manufacturers boosted horsepower, the quahaugers turned in their smaller outboards for larger ones. Their flat-bottomed work skiffs turned out to be wonderfully adaptable as planing hubs the thrust of the big motors. Bay fishermen always have been a tough, independent lot, and now, with their engines wide open, standing nonchalantly and dangerously erect at the stern, they planed across the water at 30 and even 40 miles an hour, obviously scornful of those who pattered about in far more expensive pleasure boats. For a time, state conservation officers, intent on driving these fishermen away from rich shellfish beds in polluted waters or areas where young undersize quahaugs were maturing, bit their nails in frustration. Their patrol craft were unable to catch them. If they instated larger motors, the quahaugers bought still larger ones. Only with development of the Boston Whaler could the fisheries-enforcement men run down their adversaries, and then it was necessary to use 100-horsepower outboard motors, wear lifejackets and crash helmets, and get their patrol craft planing at 50 miles an hour.

Agents of the Department of Agriculture and Conservation (later the Department of Natural Resources and now the Department of Environmental Management) had to contend not only with those among the tongers and but/rakers who crossed pollution lines or worked surreptitiously on closed grounds at night but with power dredges from Tiverton as wed. The larger power dredge boats, some operated by skippers who were veterans of the rum-running days, also ran illicitly at night. They had been given certain deep-water tracts in the upper and mid-Bay and the Sakonnet River to work over legally at various times, but some refused to follow the rules and would slip out for an illegal harvest on moonless nights. When pursued, power dredgers and hand operators alike would jettison their bags of illegal shellfish while underway and try to mark the spots for later retrieval. If caught "red-handed," they would flail away with shovels or other crude weapons to prevent boarding while a partner dumped the evidence overboard. In those days, conservation officers were not avowed to carry guns. They had to rely on muscle, quick reactions, and an authoritative manner. Often this was not enough.

Eventually, a combination of better and faster boats, the use of two-way radio to coordinate land and water forces, better training, and district court judges who took a sterner view of shellfish violations changed the odds and peace prevailed. The power dredgers were denied legal fishing rights anywhere in the Bay—in terms of efficient fisheries management probably not a sound action, since substantial amounts of the fish lie in waters too deep for hand operations, but probably effective in maintaining higher prices for the hand operators. It was also realistic politically, since the tongers and bullrakers could fill the corridors of the State House in Providence with an awesome crew of noisy and effective lobbyists when necessary.

The "quahaug wars" on Narragansett Bay were exciting. The newspapers leaned hard on the agents of the state and demanded an end to the violations but reported with relish the cops-and-robbers chases across the Bay. A frequent tipster to the press in those days was a Touisset Point resident, a ham radio operator, who called late at night to complain that '`the dredgers down at Tiverton are getting ready to go out." When they started their motors, his transmitter sputtered with static. Greenwich Cove was polluted, but the nutrient mix was right to produce one of the; finest' crops of "little neck" quahaugs in the state. A full-scale state police investigation followed a reporter's story of night after night observation of illegal harvesting in the Cove. Undersize shellfish from wherever they could be obtained were bagged and transported by truck to Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where residents favored them for inland clambakes, or else to Chincoteague, Virginia, where a dealer let them mature on his private beds before marketing them, in competition with the legal shellfish gathered in Narragansett Bay.

Commercial fishermen were not the only culprits. Some dealers were not fussy about where their supplies came from, and some shore residents earned pocket money by "treading" for illegal shellfish with their bare feet or digging them out with their fingers when the tide level would permit.

The frenzy and frustration of the conservation officers were based on real concern. The Campbell Soup contract held by the Blount Seafood Corporation in Warren was worth $2,500,000 a year to the fishermen and processors. Dozens of smaller operations depended on the fishery. The threat of pollution was serious, especially if disease could be traced to Narragansett Bay shellfish. The U.S. Public Health Service could cancel interstate shellfish shipping privileges if quahaugs from polluted areas were traced to markets outside the state.

It is interesting to note that when the "quahaug wars" ended, in the middle fifties, the size of the outboard motors on the quahaug skiffs decreased. Today few of the boats are equipped with the most powerful motors.

There was little change or innovation to the commercial life of the Bay in the years after World War II. The bulk cargo carriers were principally at first the familiar T-2s that had been used as workhorses during the war. Later these were "jumboized," and eventually the first of a new generation of tankers appeared. The larger ones, however, drew too much water to negotiate the main shipping channel. Freighters brought in lumber, cement, and other building materials, and efforts were made repeatedly to build a general cargo business. The municipal dock at Fields Point was constructed to accommodate up to six vessels at a time.

India Point, where once square-riggers were loaded for the Orient, for years had been the center of a scrap metal export business. Then Providence civic leaders, led by Mrs. Henry D. Sharpe, decided that this mound of scrap was aesthetically - unpleasant. They arranged for India Point and the adjacent shoreline to become a city park and persuaded the business to relocate at Fields Point. As powerful shredding if, and compacting equipment was developed capable of pressing the family car into a neat rectangular package, the scrap operation expanded and became the major export from the port of Providence and the biggest business of its kind in New England. As scrap automobiles departed, new cars began to arrive from foreign ports, in time becoming the second most valuable import landed in Providence.

Tanker traffic continued to be Narragansett Bay's leading commercial operation. Petroleum products refined elsewhere arrived at the head of the Bay for local storage and use in tank farms in Providence and East Providence or for pipeline transmission to central Massachusetts and other inland points.

The long campaign to deepen the ship channel to 40 feet began in the late fifties and ended with final dredging of certain rocky outcroppings in the upper Bay in 1977.

The Navy meantime maintained its role as the Bay's single biggest economic force and the state's largest civilian employer for more than a quarter of a century after the war. The big naval torpedo station in the Bay was closed, its tasks reassigned to facilities on the Great Lakes, but other Navy programs continued unabated. The overhaul and repair unit at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station changed its name to the Naval Aircraft Rework Facility, one of nine in the nation, and continued to employ almost as many skilled mechanics and artisans as it had during the war. The Cold War with its emphasis on security from submarine attack, the needs of the Sixth Fleet in support of NATO, the Korean War in the early fifties, finally the Vietnam War kept installations around the Bay busy. The Seabees had little chance to relax. There were overseas bases to build and then the challenge of building and maintaining long-term support facilities for the scientific exploration of the subcontinent of Antarctica.

Then, in 1974, Quonset was totally decommissioned; the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Davisville, where 100,000 Seabees had trained in World War II, was reduced to a skeleton housekeeping detail; the destroyer fleet at Newport was reassigned; thousands of civilian employees were pensioned, transferred, or laid off; and several hundred million dollars disappeared from the economy of the Bay region.

The naval presence didn't fade entirely. In the Newport area, emphasis changed from fleet support to officer training. The venerable War College continued to function, as did a number of specialized schools. In an, 8,500 military staff, students, and civilians remained behind. So did four naval reserve destroyers and two naval reserve mine sweepers. The big Naval Underwater Systems Center, a research and development arm, remained active. But in aggregate the naval withdrawal was massive and spectacular, and for a while it appeared devastating.



Next Chapter: The Scenic Bay |  Table of Contents