Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

Resorts and Recreation

Industrialization of America and the development of the factory system, despite its attendant evils of child labor, long hours, and poor working conditions, provided impetus to recreational growth. The managerial classes could devote more time and money to pleasurable pursuits, and even the workers on their one day a week way from the mills could begin to enjoy limited leisure activities. Outings and picnics Long the shore became popular for rich and poor alike. With improved land and water transportation, it became possible to range farther afield. The rail and steamer lines created opportunities for shoreside resorts and communities to grow. A fortunate few began to take vacations, although the majority had to be content with their Sunday afternoon outings.

The rise of a leisured class directly benefited Newport. In the 1830s, Newport's rooming and boarding houses began to fill up in the summer months as Rhode Islanders and visitors from other states discovered the rich natural beauties of Aquidneck Island. Within a few years, a lively real estate boom was in progress and the first of increasingly grand summer "cottages" were built. After the Civil War, Newport's place as "the leader" in summer social activities for the extremely rich was secure. From about 1870 to World War I, the opulence of Newport society became world famous and attained a level unmatched in any other summer resort.

Meantime, there were other kinds of recreational growth to meet the needs of lesser folk. Spreading slowly down from the head of the Bay along both east and west shores, hotels, inns, shore dinner halls, picnic groves, and bathing beaches appeared, served by railway, by steamboat lines, and later by trolley railroads. On especially picturesque promontories and rocks private clubs were constructed for the leaders in commerce and industry.

Along the east shore, some of the noted recreational locations were Squantum (still a private club today), Vue de L'Eau, Ocean Cottages, Silver Spring, Golden Spring or Maxfield's, Pomham, Riverside, Camp White, Bullock's Point, and Crescent Park. On the west side, Fields Point (today the site of a municipal pier and sewage treatment plant), Turtle Cove, Mark Rock, Riverview, Bayside, and Rocky Point (1847). Somewhat later, with completion of the Warwick-Oakland Beach settlements of Oakland Beach (1873) and Buttonwoods Beach (1871) achieved popularity. There was a notable hotel at Bristol Ferry, across the passage from Aquidneck Island; another at Cold Spring Beach in Wickford; and several others at Jamestown on Conanicut Island.

The growth of recreational activity along the shores of the Bay in the nineteenth century seems directly related to the availability of Mya arenaria, the soft-shell clam. Clam digging at low tide was a pursuit picked up from the Indians of the Bay region, who had also taught the early settlers how to steam the bivalves on a bed of rockweed spread over white-hot rocks.

A Sunday outing in the nineteenth century frequently included a stint on the clam flats, barefoot, trousers rolled up and pail in hand. Remarkably good clamming could be found almost up to the head of the Providence River. Narragansett Bay innkeepers quickly learned that a traditional Rhode Island clambake would entice a crowd of city dwellers to the shore. Almost every hostelry of note put on weekly clambakes. Railroads, trolley cars, and steamers brought hundreds to partake. All the other appurtenances of a nineteenth-century Bay resort—dancing, bathing, swings, and amusement park rides—were of secondary importance to the drinking of clam broth and the eating of clams dipped in melted butter, plus other good things such as lobsters, fish, sweet corn, and buckwursts, all washed down with plenty of beer. A slice of watermelon finished the feast.

The "bakemaster," who directed the clambake crew, became an important keeper of the ritual. Not many of the old-time bakemasters are active today, and there are few genuine outdoor clambakes complete with hot rocks and seaweed. A poor substitute is the boiler bake, with the ingredients placed in a large steamer pot and heated on a kitchen stove or back yard wood fire.

The early visits to shore recreation centers by thousands of city dwellers probably helped to spark a substantial growth in waterfront home construction. Visitors from the urban centers found the Bay not only abounding in delectable shellfish but pleasing to look at and noticeably cooler than the cities. Why not live on the shore, at least during the warm weather months? Summer cottages and substantial two- and three-story homes sprang up along the fringes of the upper and mid-Bay. They were covered with shingles or clapboards, enclosed by wide verandas, and Decorated with scrollwork along the roof gables. Many of these summer homes "at the beach'' or "down river" exist today, some tacky with neglect, but almost all have been converted to year-round dwellings now. Today's Rhode Islanders are no longer content to live on the shore only in the summer.

Inland from these waterfront settlements, generally, there was sparsely settled farmland, cut by carriage roads, and just in back of the beach settlements were the tracks of the railroad or streetcar line. These settlements lined the shores on both sides of the Providence River to Nayatt and Conimicut Points, extended south along the western shore to Warwick Neck, grew up at Oakland Beach and Buttonwoods on Greenwich Bay, at Bristol Ferry, on Prudence Island, and at a few other places.

Most of the summer colonies were served by steamer as well as rail. By 1888, according to a guidebook of the time, there were three coastal navigation companies operating in the Bay. The three were the Providence and Stonington Steamship Line to New York; the Providence. Norfolk, and Baltimore Steamship Line; and the Windsor Line to Philadelphia Three local lines linked the Bay communities: the Fall River and Providence Line; the Continental Steamboat Company to Newport, Rocky Point, and other places; and the Shore Transportation Company to the east shore communities. In addition, the little steamer George W. Danielson plied daily from Providence to Block Island during the winter, and other vessels did the same in the summer months. The Queen City ran from Providence to Sakonnet Point in the summer. Ferries ran from Saunderstown to Conanicut, from Conanicut to Newport, from Bristol to Portsmouth, and from Bristol to Prudence Island.

In the nineteenth century, boating became more than a convenience; it became a prime source of recreation. Privately owned catboats and gaff-headed sloops of all sizes began to fill the Bay. The first yacht clubs were formed. The Rhode Island Yacht Club took over the charter of the old Providence Yacht Club in 1886, and by 1888 its 500 members had 80 yachts moored near the clubhouse on a rock off Pawtuxet Neck.

The less affluent were not denied the pleasure of boating. Most of the shore resorts rented skiffs and other small craft to weekend boatmen. Canoeing was popular until well into the twentieth century on the Pawtuxet River and elsewhere, and a number of canoe and boat clubs flourished, sending their most muscular members forth to compete in open-bay canoe and whaleboat races. The Narragansett Boat Club, one of the oldest of these and still in existence, was started in 1838.

The surge of interest in recreational boating brought changes to the art of shipbuilding, best exemplified by the Herreshoff Yard in Bristol. Karl Friederich Herreshoff came to Rhode Island from Germany in 1790 and worked in John Brown's firm, and later married his daughter. His grandson, John Brown Herreshoff, started; the boatyard in 1863, and his younger brother, Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, joined, | him in 1878. In the following year, the firm became incorporated as the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. It was Nathanael Greene who designed the famous steam and racing yachts. From 1893, when the Vigilant defeated the Valkyrie II for the America s Cup, Herreshoff Cup Defenders reigned supreme. The Vigilant was followed by the Defender, then Columbia, Reliance, and Resolute.

These were huge racing machines of up to 144 feet in length, with masts | rising as much as 199 feet above the water—too high to sail under the present Mount e Hope Bridge. They carried crews of up to 66 men. The Herreshoff Yard produced a galaxy of other craft as well, from little sailing dinghies to cruising sailboats and power yachts.

The Rainbow, built at the Herreshoff Yard but not designed by them, defeated T.O.M. Sopwith's Endeavour in 1934 and was the last of the Herreshoff Cup Defenders. The races in 1937 were won by the Ranger, an American yacht built outside Rhode Island. After World War II, the day of the super racing machines had ended; costs were prohibitive even for syndicates of wealthy sportsmen, and when the Cup series resumed in 1958, 12-meter boats were used.

The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company had been sold at auction to R.F. Haffenreffer in 1924, but operations continued until 1946, when the yard was closed down. In 1975, Halsey C. Herreshoff acquired some of the land and opened an office in one of the old buildings. A Herreshoff was again designing sailboats and yachts.

Writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were fascinated with both the panorama of the shoreline and the boating activity on the Bay. Their prose, though sometimes extravagant in style, provides intriguing glimpses into the past. Edgar Mayhew Bacon, for example, writing in 1904, sounds like a real estate developer when he describes the attractions of Conanicut Island:

There are a thousand home sites, as cheap as they are desirable, waiting for tenants. though situated in one of the most salubrious climates in the world. I do not know any place where as great a result may be obtained by a little intelligent and scientific foresting as upon the islands of Narragansett Bay. Nature seems to have planned here a great sanitarium., where the clean breezes of the ocean, tempered by the great heat storage of the bay, promise immunity from had the ills to which human flesh is heir. For many years Newport has been a health resort, yet Newport has in that respect not one iota of advantage over Jamestown, or Conanicut Park, or Prudence Island. For a century and a quarter the State and the people have been blind to the advantages of tints archipelago of sunshine and salt air.

Up the Bay at Barrington, Wilfred H. Munro, writing in 1881, found admirable things to say about the Nayatt Point section:

Barrington abounds in delightful bets of scenery, but by far the most beautiful spot within its borders is Nayatt Point. No one gazes upon it from the waters of the bay, or drives quietly past its well-kept lawns, without bestowing a spontaneous tribute of admiration. Nature has done much for Nayatt; the art of man has been employed mainly to carry out the plans her lavish hand suggested. Its little cluster of houses has not been allowed to grow up in the careless, hap-hazard way that has marred the beauty of so many American towns.... The owners of the little peninsula do not intend that it shall become only a summer camping-ground. It is meant to be a home, a place to which one can flee for shelter when the snow-flakes are covering all the landscape with a fleecy pall, as well as when city streets are staling those who dwell upon them with a pent-up volume of heated air. Happy would the State be, U all its villages were managed under the excellent system which has done so much for this favored community.

Munro liked the view of the Portsmouth shore from the water for a special reason:

Among the most prominent features of the Portsmouth landscape today are the great windmills that surmount some of the loftiest hills of the town. No traveler passes by on the water of the Bay who does not admire their picturesque appearance as their long arms revolve against the eastern sky.

The windmills are gone now except for one or two preserved as historical structures. In some respects, however, the Bay hasn't changed in its impact on the senses since the days of Munro and Bacon. For instance. Bacon described boating activity in this manner:

One of the delightful features of the bay is its animation. Freighters, yachts. excursion steamers . . . and launches appear and disappear around the numerous islands and capes. They pass in the narrow channels with much blowing and shrilling of whistles, for, great craft or small, they are all as careful as hidalgos about the observance of the highway—the rules of the road.'

Members of the present-day Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Power Squadron are doing their best to make certain modern boatmen do the same thing.

Writing about the annual rendezvous of the New York Yacht Club, Bacon said:

At any time the display of lights that at night are stationary along the wharves or upon the vessels at anchor. or dart to and fro, Meteor-like, amid more stable constellations, affords a spectacle of unusual attractiveness; but when the vessels are multiplied and the lights increased a thousand fold; when, instead of hulls that adorn the bosom of the harbour, there is a continuous blaze of kaleidoscopic radiance. from a countless multitude of craft, that lie so close that it seems as though the harbour had disappeared, then one sees the water side of Newport in its supreme glory....

The steamboats passing to or from the upper waters of Narragansett Bay must pick their way. inch by inch, through lanes of light, between the crowded hulls that block the channel....

Those search-lights, thrown from Government vessels or from private yachts, show here and there the outline of hulls and spars that are otherwise only defined by the tracery of innumerable jewels. Emerald and topaz, ruby and amethyst, cross and recross in unending lines, like the meshes of a flaming net. There a great yacht rides at her anchor, ablaze with parti-coloured lights even to the water's edge; another, near at hand, carries the emerald panoply of the most gallant Challenger that ever contested for the America's cup ISir Thomas Lipton]…. A man-of-war has draped her colours aloft, where they are illuminated; but before and beyond this and every other spectacle, for exalted sentiment, the flag over Fort Adams flies alone in the steady white beam of a search-light.

The next day, the fleet set sail for Buzzard's Bay "like a flock of majestic seabirds." It would have been interesting to see what Bacon would have done with the Sagres, Christian Radich, Eagle, Danmark, and the others assembled for the Tall Ships spectacle in 1976.

Next Chapter: Saltwater Cornucopia |  Table of Contents