A Brief History of Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island

The Nineteenth Century
Growth of Commerce, Industry, Transportation and Summer Recreation


The first half of the Century

In the early Nineteenth Century, Newport benefited from the growth in maritime commerce with China.

Shipbuilding activities once again became a major driver of the area economy.

Whaling became an important industry, but then became more difficult as fewer whales were found.

As catches declined, whaling ships were idled. Many finding their ultimate home in California after transporting hopefuls to the gold fields in 1849. The final blow to the whaling industry was the appearance of petroleum products, which displaced whale oil.

Railroads, Steamships and their Impacts

The establishment and extension of steam powered ship and railroad service shaped the entire Nation in the Nineteenth Century.

These transportation innovations not only aided commerce in Rhode Island, they brought visitors who were seeking resorts and recreation. Shoreside communities and resorts blossomed as entrepreneurs provided facilities to meet this new demand.

In Newport the effects of improved transportation and the expansion of a wealthy leisured class combined in a particularly dramatic manner. Noticeable growth in the summertime rooming and boarding house business began in the 1830s. Soon visitors began to build their own summer homes. By the 1850s a real estate boom was underway with rapid construction of a series of ever grander summer "cottages" by many of the nation's most powerful families - mostly on or near Bellvue Avenue.

For over fifty years, from the 1860s to World War I, Newport was known throughout the world as an unparalleled center for opulent summer social activities for the extremely rich. To get a sense of life in Newport in 1873, and to see a panoramic sketch of Newport and the East Passage (as seen from Jamestown) visit a reproduction of an August 30, 1873 Harper's Weekly article.

In 1872, the town of Jamestown commissioned a steam powered ferryboat, which was built in Newburryport, Massachusetts. In May, 1873, service was initiated between Jamestown and Newport.

The 79-foot long side-wheel-powered steamship Jamestown, made five round-trips a day.


The availability of reliable and comfortable ferry service to and from Newport had a significant impact on agricultural Conanicut Island. Jamestown became a destination for both day trips and summer vacations.

The pace of home construction increased. The original, modestly sized, Bay View Hotel was built by W. H. Knowles in 1873. The East Ferry area rapidly evolved into the village center.

The impact of greater access to Jamestown can be seen in population figures for the five years between 1870 and 1875. The number of residents grew by 30% - to a total of 488.

In 1879, Rhode Island was the third state to adopt a state flag.

Elements of the flag's design trace to 1647 and the original colonies of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations. The anchor is symbolic of the Cromwellian Patent of 1643 under which Providence Plantations were established.

The flag also contains thirteen stars, representing the original thirteen colonies and the prominent word "Hope".

The Building Boom of the Eighteen-Eighties and Nineties

The Gardner House hotel was built on Conanicus Avenue in 1883 with 38 rooms. Jamestown's Town Hall was built that same year on Narragansett Avenue.

An annex was added to the Bay View Hotel in 1885. The Harbor View Inn was built in 1887 on Conanicus Avenue. Prospect House, on Green Lane, was built in 1888. In 1888, 16 rooms were added to the Gardner (and more would follow later).

The large Bay View House, complete with prominent turret, was built in 1889. So was the Thorndike, with 113 guest rooms and the Riverside, located between the Gardner and the Bay View. (The Riverside burned in 1894 and was replaced by a row of stores and housing). Around town, another half dozen smaller guest homes and cottages were being erected for summer rentals.

The most unusual building activity to take place in 1889 was the arrival, by barge, of the Bay Voyage Hotel. Formerly a country house erected in the 1860s in Middletown, the Bay Voyage initially had 10 rooms for rent. A year later, in 1890, it added another thirty.

Above: Crossing the Bay, 1889

Right: The Bay Voyage, 1890s

Private home builders were also active. Construction expanded into the rugged southern part of Conanicut Island near Fort Dumpling as the Ocean Highlands Company built a number of large summer estates in the "indigenous" Shingle and Colonial Revival fashion. Many of these were purchased by wealthy Philadelphia Quakers who wished to maintain a safe distance from the flamboyance of Newport society.

Ocean Highlands Residences
In 1886, Conanicut Island got a second lighthouse at its northern end. The Conanicut or North Point light marked the steamboat landing site built to serve a planned (but only partly built) summer home and hotel complex known as Conanicut Park. It also helped to guide steamboats traveling from Wickford and Providence to Newport. (Decommissioned in 1932, the lighthouse is incorporated into a private residence.)
Typical Conanicut Park Cottages

As a result of steamboat travel becoming increasingly popular between Newport and Jamestown, the steamboat Jamestown was replaced, in 1886, with the larger Conanicut, a 125-foot long vessel. The Jamestown continued to serve the island, however, shuttling between West Ferry and Saunderstown for another ten years. In 1896, the faster and larger Beaver Tail replaced it on that run.

Jamestown East Ferry harbor area, circa 1890
The Thorndike Hotel, Gardner House, Riverside, Bay View Hotel, ferry boat "Conanicut" and the Bay Voyage Hotel.

 
This photo complements the one above, showing "The Three Sisters", which are the three cottages just to the left of the Thorndike Hotel, built by its owner, Patrick Horgan, in 1897.

Originally rented out, they were named for his three daughters, "Betty, Nina and Myra", who later inheirited them. They still stand watch over Jamestown's harbor.

In 1898, Shoreby Hill, a neighborhood of Shingle Style and Colonial Revival houses was established on a rise north of East Landing, overlooking the harbor. Homeowners were a group of wealthy St. Louis families.


Strengthening Narragansett Bay Defenses

In 1890, a plan was established to improve and expand Narragansett Bay military fortifications. The Spanish-American War, which began in April, 1898, added emphasis to these activities.

New concrete gun emplacements were installed in the cliffs overlooking Newport. To accommodate the defenses, the beloved stone tower at Fort Dumpling, which had been a welcoming landmark to sailors for a hundred years, was demolished, along with the top of the hill on which the tower stood. It had been from this location that Colonists had fired upon British warships in 1776.

In the West Passage, work on Dutch Island's Fort Grebel began with the addition of a new battery.


As the Nineteenth Century Ended

Jamestown and Newport were experiencing changes driven by greater accessibility and growing wealth in the country. During the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century the population of Jamestown continued its rapid rise - from 576 residents in 1885 to just over 700 in 1890 to almost 1,100 in 1900. In fact, the island's population had almost tripled in less than 30 years as a result of the availablilty of steam ferry service.

The island was prospering. Photos of the day show the triving hotel area and many horse-drawn carts and carriages lining up near the ferry docks to transport goods and people. All of the current main roads on Conanicut Island were in place (except, of course, for the inter-bridge highway); many currently familiar buildings had been erected; the hotel district was illuminated by electric street lights; and Narragansett Street (the "ferry road" connecting the East and West Landings) sported a coat of macadam.

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Click the following link for the next installment of this history narrative

The Twentieth Century - Part I

1900 Through the Eighties - Hotels Decline - Bridges are Built

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