Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective
The Scenic Bay
The bridges that bring together the east and west shores and link the major islands are the most striking changes to the appearance of the Bay in the years since rail the end of World War II.
There are several massive structures of concrete, steel girders, and thick wire cables. Earlier, bridge buffs admired primarily the Mount Hope Bridge, opened in 1929, the largest suspension bridge built at the time, and the cantilever Jamestown Bridge, of 1940 vintage. The Washington Bridge and Red Bridge across the Seekonk in Providence, the bridge across the Taunton River at Fan River, the venerable Stone Bridge, and the nearby railroad bridge at Tiverton were all relatively low, swinging open or drawing up to permit the passage of vessels to waters above.
In the postwar years, five new bridges were built. The first were the trussed Sakonnet River span, running downhill for half a mile between the highlands of Tiverton and the marshes of Portsmouth, and the high-level bridge over the Taunton River between Somerset and Fall River at the head of Mount Hope Bay. The Newport Bridge and a replacement for the old Red Bridge in Providence were completed in 1969, and the last, finished in 1971, was a sister to the Washington Bridge, providing traffic separation between Providence and East Providence.
Of them all, the Newport Bridge is the undisputed queen. This giant suspension bridge, with 400-foot towers and a roadway 210 feet above the water, was a drastic change to residents who used to ride the ferry between Conanicut and Aquidneck Islands, and there was some resistance to its construction. Yet today it is accepted and admired as an engineering work of considerable grace and artistry. It provides an elegant gateway to Narragansett Bay.
There is another striking change. The massive buildings of the Goat Island Torpedo Station in Newport Harbor have almost disappeared. In their place, a strange rust-colored structure, not unlike the aboveground parts of a western silver mine, rises at one end of the island to provide hotel accommodations for visitors, while two-story townhouses of white cedar shingles and picture windows occupy another section. Once 14,000 persons arrived here daily by ferry to manufacture torpedoes.
In Providence, at the head of the Bay, there are two significant the massive gates of the hurricane barrier, which when closed prevent the storm surge from flooding the city center, is one, and India Point Park is another.
On a summer Sunday there is another impression of change: the Bay is filled with pleasure craft, like the darting life of a water droplet viewed under a microscope. Traffic streams in and out of a dozen coves and cuts the surface of the Bay into textured waveless. Sails of white, blue, red, green, and combinations of strips and triangles move slowly across the water on courses dictated by the winds, while power cruisers and runabouts set a faster pace. The difference here is in number. There were pleasure boats on the Bay before, but hundreds have turned into thousands.
Careful observation will uncover many other alterations but nothing that shows that the Bay as it grows older is less able to accommodate the demands humans place upon it. A land tour will show that fine opportunities for viewing the many aspects of the Bay still remain for those with wheels and the price of gasoline. One can start at the top or the bottom, on the east or the west, and find vistas of sparkling water, cooling breezes, and the cries of water birds.
Some of the best views are on private land, of course, available only to owners and their friends. The way to overcome this problem is to go by boat. This was once the only way to go and it is still the best. From a boat you can look back on the shores, whether public or private, and revel in the thought that here on the water you are trespassing on no man's domain.
The recreational boat people are of many kinds. There are the racers, the fishermen, the social sailors who use their boats as floating hospitality centers, the day sailors for whom movement across the water is sufficient purpose, and the cruisers whose enjoyment comes from the changing scene and stops in quiet anchorages. Intent as they are on their special activity, they all share a common experience which is stated in an almost universal belief that it is "good to be out on the water."
The boatmen have various places they like to visit, depending upon wind direction and the purpose of their travel across the water. While the larger boats gather in Potter Cove on Prudence Island, often rafting their craft together for greater sociability—the expression "gunkholing" was coined to describe these activities—the small boat fleet works between the islands of Patience and Prudence, dropping anchor or pulling up on shore at Coggeshall and Sheep Pen Coves on the Prudence shore. This northerly end of Prudence is rich in natural values and almost completely undeveloped.
The cruising sailors utilize Brenton Cove in Newport Harbor and Dutch Island Harbor on the island of Conanicut as first-night stopping points before departure for Block Island, Buzzards Bay, or the Elizabeth Islands of Vineyard Sound.
When the winds are northerly, Pine Hill Cove, around the corner from Coggeshall Cove on Prudence, is a favorite lunch and swimming stop. The Sakonnet River's western shore offers shelter from southerly winds at a couple of good locations, and Fogland Point serves the same purpose on the easterly shore. The tiny harbor at Sakonnet Point affords another departure point for offshore cruising.
A boatman under power, preferably with a shadow draft vessel, can poke into nooks and crannies: Wickford Harbor and its back coves; Allen Harbor at Davisville; the Potowomut River; Greenwich, Apponaug, and Warwick Coves; the Occupessatuxet Cove behind Greene Island; Pawtuxet Cove at the Warwick-Cranston line; Bullock's Cove in East Providence; and the Kickamuit and Lee Rivers. It is possible for the smallest craft to maneuver among The Dumplings rocks on the Conanicut shore of the East Passage and in behind the rocks at Hope Island.
Hope Island, incidentally, once used by the Navy as an ammunition storage depot, as was the entire south end of Prudence Island, has now been taken over by birds. Each spring hundreds of egrets, glossy ibises, black-crowned night herons, and gulls nest there. The fledgling birds mature rapidly and by midsummer are able to fend for themselves. Landings on the island in spring and early summer are carefully controlled. Bird watching from the water, of course, causes no harm.
The racing sailors use the navigational buoys of the Bay as turning marks and can range over considerable distances on precise courses known only to themselves. In pursuing their sport, they frequently encounter and sail through congregations of sport fishing boats. Not infrequently, they are cursed as lines caught on keels and rudders are spun off the reels of unfortunate fishermen. Aside from some well rounded oaths, little else transpires. On the other hand, the sport fisherman when trolling is not about to give ground. He may, in a perverse "I was here first" attitude, troll directly through a close-bunched racing fleet, then fume and sputter when an expensive lure and 300 feet of line vanish in the wake of a charging sloop.
For the most part and for the present, there are no serious incompatibilities among the humans who use the Bay for recreation today. Friction points exist, but tempers have not worn through. There are conflicts between some user groups, however. One example is the resentment sport fishermen feel for the menhaden seiners who visit the Bay on occasion. They believe that the seiners can ruin the bluefish and striped bass fishing, although these two species seem to arrive annually to search out other food when menhaden are not present. Commercial fishermen are concerned about the deposition of dredge spoil and fight against dumping on fishing grounds offshore. All share concern about oil spills, yet rely on petroleum products to power their craft. And everybody, boat people and shore dwellers alike, worries about water pollution.
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