A Brief History of Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island

The Twentieth Century - Part I

1900 through the Eighties - Hotels Decline - Bridges Are Built

At the start of the Twentieth Century, Conanicut Island's economy continued to be driven by agriculture and summer recreation as well as construction and operation of coastal defense installations. Nineteenth Century industrial development, which had changed living and working patterns throughout New England, had totally bypassed Conanicut Island; largely because of the lack of water power.

Military Construction in the First Two Decades

Between 1900 and 1905, Fort Grebel, on Dutch Island, added Batteries Ogden, Sedgwick and Mitchell . In 1900, the War Department bought 31 acres for Fort Getty and fortifications were quickly erected. On the eastern side of the island, summer homes were condemned near Fort Dumpling to establish Fort Wetherill, which was built between 1902 and 1907. This new fort replaced Fort Dumpling and incorporated its land. In 1909, a portion of Gould Island was purchased by the Govenment.

Then, for almost a decade, construction ceased and the various island fortifications were disused; only to be reactivated during World War I. Between 1916 and 1921, more land was acquired at Prospect Hill, near the Conanicut Battery site, for establishment of an observation and fire control station. The Government also purchased the remainder of Gould Island in 1918 and established a torpedo station and test facility.

Then, as was the case a decade earlier, at the end of the war the Conanicut Island fortifications fell into disuse.

Life in Jamestown - The First Four Decades

In 1903, Jamestown was a bustling resort with nine hotels. The Bay Voyage had a capacity of 75 guests; Champlin House, 75; Thorndike Hotel, 250; Gardner House, 300; Bay View, 200; Prospect House, 50; Tennant Cottage, 25; Allen Cottage, 30; and the Bay View Annex, 50.

To better accommodate visitors and cross-bay travelers, a new ferry boat, the Governor Carr, began to serve the route between Jamestown and Newport in 1927.

The golden age of large resort hotels was brief in Jamestown and elsewhere. Patronage began to decline in the nineteen-twenties as wider ownership of automobiles made more vacation choices available to greater numbers of travelers. The decline of large hotels was rapid. As an example of the change from boom to bust, when the Thorndike Hotel was destroyed by fire in 1912, it was rapidly rebuilt. But the new Thorndike survived only until 1938, when it was demolished due to the combined effects of changing vacation preferences and the overall decline of discretionary spending during the Depression.

The Thorndike Hotel: 1889-1912   The Thorndike: 1913-1938

In 1938 a major hurricane caused much property damage and the loss of more than 300 lives in the Narragansett Bay region. It swept much of the sand from the Mackerel Cove beach and destroyed its popular Beach Pavilion. It also speeded approvals for a bridge to Saunderstown by destroying the West Ferry docks.

Change Accelerates - The Forties through the Eighties

The first Jamestown Bridge opened in the summer of 1940, replacing West Ferry service with a continuously available link to the western mainland. At that time, the population of Jamestown was about 1750. The bridge was almost 7000 feet long, 22 feet wide, and 135 feet above high water. It led to an acceleration of development in the northwestern part of the island (although most of the impact was delayed until after World War II ended).
In 1941 the Gardner House, one of the larger hotels, was taken down after being idle for several years.

A few months after demolition of the Gardner House, a USO building was constructed on its site. (After the war, the building was purchased by the town and is now known as the Community Center. It was extensively landscaped and remodeled in 2002.)

World War II brought establishment or reactivatation of military bases around Narragansett Bay, including Forts Getty and Wetherill on Conanicut Island, Fort Greble on Dutch Island, a torpedo factory on Goat Island and a torpedo station on Gould Island. It also brought a resurgence of shipbuilding to the Bay area.

The Naval buildup reached its peak, in 1944, when the Navy had a total of 162,000 military and civilian Naval employees in Rhode Island!

Although most war-related facilities were decommissioned shortly after World War II, the military presence in the area continued to be strong for several decades - through the Korean War, the Cold War and Vietnam.

Several major Naval commands remain in the area, all located on Aquidneck Island: the Naval War College; the Naval Education and Training Center, with its Officer Indoctrination School, the Chaplain School, and Surface Warfare Officer School; and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.

Following the war, recreational boating and boat construction blossomed in the Narragansett Bay area. Fiberglass craft gained favor over labor-intensive wooden-hull boats and more outboard-powered motor boats appeared on the Bay. Even so, sail boats continue to dominate the waters.

Ferry service for travelers between Jamestown and Newport reached a new level of comfort and efficiency with two new ferry boats, the Jamestown and Newport.

In 1969, the Newport (Pell) Bridge was completed, establishing Route 138 as a continuous highway from South County to Newport. Its construction led to elimination of traditional ferry service.

The bridge is celebrated on the Rhode Island commemorative quarters. Its deck is 205 feet above the bay, its towers reach an elevation of 400 feet and the distance between the east and west abutments exceeds two miles.

The Bay View Hotel, the last of the very large hotels that were a mainstay of Jamestown's economy in 1900, ceased operation in the 1960s. In 1975, a portion of the building was converted to commercial space. When no viable plan could be found to renovate and reopen the hotel, the building was demolished in 1985.

The Bay View Condominiums (shown above) opened for occupancy in 1989 on the site formerly occupied by the Bay View Hotel.

The exterior of the building was carefully designed to closely resemble its predecessor.

The Bay Voyage Hotel, (shown above in the 1970s and on the left as it looks today) is the only survivor of the many hotels that once lined Jamestown's eastern harbor area.

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Click the link below for the final installment of this history narrative

The Twentieth Century - Part II

The 1990s to the Present - The Challenge to Island Identity

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