Early History of Narragansett
When Roger Williams fled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in l636 to found a settlement he named Providence in a region that became Rhode Island, he was befriended there by the dominant Narragansett Native American tribe and their great sachem Canonicus. As the most powerful tribe in the area, the proud Narragansetts were highly respected by Roger Williams and the English settlers who followed him.
However, the mutual deference of the Native Americans and the settlers soon dissipated as covetous speculators eyed the vast, valuable tribal lands. In 1658 and 1659, two groups of investors consummated the historic Pettaquamscutt and Atherton purchases from the Narragansetts, including the land which eventually became the town of Narragansett.
The Town of Narragansett, of course, is the namesake of the tribe. At the beginning of the English colonization, the town site was merely part of a much larger territory called “Narragansett Country.” Most likely, the town simply adopted the name to distinguish itself from surrounding areas and villages, which had earlier selected appellations recalling their English heritage. (The Native American word “Narragansett” translates roughly into English as “people of the small point”.)
Following the mid-Seventeenth Century Pettaquamscutt and Atherton purchases, the bountiful Narragansett acreage – consisting mostly of three peninsulas called “Boston Neck” (north of Narrow River), “Little Neck” (now the Pier Village area), and “Point Judith Neck” (the south end of town) – served largely for grazing, farming, and fishing purposes.
17th and 18th Century
For the next two centuries – interrupted sporadically by the King Philip’s War (1675-1676 – versus the Narragansetts locally), the American Revolution (1775-1783), and the War of 1812 (1812-1814) – the population expanded slowly. Mills were erected and shipbuilding commenced. Large plantations emerged. Commerce evolved as the area gained a reputation for its produce, particularly for cheese, sheep, horses (“Narragansett Pacers”), and grain. Shipments departed via the adjacent Narragansett Bay (the namesake “Narragansett Pier” was constructed in 1781 in the center of the village next to the present location of The Towers).
1800 – 1860
The steady, but unspectacular, growth of Narragansett, however, changed dramatically in 1848, when Joseph Heatly Dulles of Philadelphia (the great-grandfather of John Foster Dulles, President Eisenhower’s cold-war secretary of state) visited Rowland G. Hazard of Peace Dale, a village nearby Narragansett. Dulles, a cotton broker, owned extensive properties in South Carolina, and Hazard, a textile mill owner, supplied him with cloth for his laborers.
During Dulles’ sojourn in Peace Dale, Hazard entertained him with a sightseeing tour of the region. Dulles was immediately enthralled by the spectacular beauty of the Narragansett beach, which, until then, was familiar essentially only to the relatively few area residents. So taken was Dulles by this magnificent vision that he immediately booked all the rooms at Benjamin Hadwen’s small local boarding house for himself, his family, and close friends for the following summer, an endeavor that became an annual event.
Dulles’ fascination with the Narragansett beach stimulated so much tourist traffic that “Uncle Ezbon” S. Taylor opened the first real hotel – The Narragansett House – in 1856, catering largely to Dulles’ family and friends from Philadelphia and New York. “Narragansett Pier’s” reputation as a marvelous “watering place” spread quickly, and soon the town attracted well-to-do summer visitors from throughout the east. In view of the travel limitations of that time and the wealth of the visitors, most of these tourists came for the entire summer season, rather than just days or weeks.
1861 – 1899
The Civil War (1861-1865) precluded the sustained growth of tourism shortly afterwards. But, as soon as the hostilities ceased, guests returned from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Louisville, Chicago, and St. Louis. In the five years between 1866 and 1871, ten new hotels were constructed in Narragansett Pier.
Narragansett’s popularity as a resort endured throughout the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century. This expansion was especially assisted by the construction in 1876 of the Narragansett Pier Railroad, another enterprise of the resourceful Hazard family, to link their textile mills in nearby Peace Dale and Wakefield to the Stonington Railroad (with connections to Providence, Boston, and New York). Their new line also extended eastward to Narragansett’s new south pier (built in l845), providing the Hazards with another shipping terminal. For the prosperous summer visitors, moreover, the new railroad spur furnished welcome relief from the heretofore painful experience of ten miles of stagecoach travel from Kingston to Narragansett over rough and rutted country roads.
Further travel enhancement arrived in 1896, when the railroad opened a second, more centrally located Narragansett station on Boon Street. The railroad improvements, of course, increased Narragansett’s resort appeal, and resulted in the construction of many more hotels. In addition, so pleased were so many of these visitors and the realtors who served them that many of them began to build their own private homes, the extravagant mansions demurely called “cottages.” By the century’s end Narragansett had some nineteen major luxury hotels and scores of owned and leased “cottages”.
In the latter 1800s, “Narragansett Pier” had begun to rival Newport across the Narragansett Bay in terms of elegance and social prestige. Accordingly, the wealthy and prominent summer visitors decided that they needed a social center or meeting place, where they could assemble with fellow summer residents to convene, relax, and recreate. The result was the magnificent Narragansett Pier Casino, erected next to the original pier, designed by McKim, Mead & White, the most prominent American architectural firm of the era, landscaped by the revered Frederick Law Olmstead, and populated by many of America’s most affluent and important citizens.
The splendid new edifice attracted scores of new, socially ranking visitors – from as close as Newport to as far away as St. Louis and beyond. The wealthy customers of the Casino (a word then connoting more general recreation than its gambling implications of today) were able to indulge themselves in all sorts of sports, cultural, and culinary pursuits. This was the “Gilded Age”, and those fortunate enough to possess the requisite opulence, leisure, and pedigree, reveled in it. Hence, the Narragansett Pier Casino was indeed one of the nation’s leading places to see and be seen in.
But, the Narragansett Beach remained the primary focus of the town’s burgeoning reputation. Harper’s Weekly, a leading periodical of the time, noted, “It is the beach which is the center of life in Narragansett.” Louis Sherry, the famed New York restaurateur, who had been engaged as the Casino’s first chef de cuisine and manager, was so charmed by the beach’s sublimity that he quickly erected a massive McKim, Mead & White-designed bathing pavilion thereon, supplementing the existing eclectic collection of smaller bathhouses mainly owned by the hotels. The Sherry Pavilion, in addition to its dressing rooms, offered music, roller skating, and a bicycle rink. Further up the beach, a new pier was built, facilitating steamboat travel from Providence, Fall River, and Newport directly to the seaside. For the youngsters disembarking from the steamers, they were immediately rewarded with the opportunity to ride on a full-fledged Looff Carousel adjoining the pier at the boardwalk.
Underscoring the village’s enormous resort appeal and in recognition of the success of the railroads and steamship lines, a new light rail company was formed in 1898 called the Sea View Railroad. This mode of transportation basically a trolley system ran from Peace Dale to Narragansett to East Greenwich, with a connection to Providence. The relatively simple and less expensive travel via the steamships and the Sea View made Narragansett much more accessible to tourists – often day-trippers – resulting in some friction with the more entrenched, long-term vacationers.
Meanwhile, at the south end of town construction began on a federal project to build a Point Judith Harbor of Refuge. Despite the installation of the monumental Point Judith Lighthouse in 1857 (the third light at that stormy location, and often featured in U.S. Marine Corps recruitment advertising), prevailing treacherous conditions at Point Judith for heavy ocean commerce provoked interest in taking corrective measures. Accordingly, the U.S. Government began construction of a series of lengthy jetties in 1890, which were engineered to culminate in a secure breakwater refuge.
In 1894, a group of wealthy summer visitors established the Point Judith Country Club just south of the Pier area. This elite social organization offered tennis courts, and constructed the first golf course as well as polo grounds in Narragansett. The tennis courts at the country club (as at the Casino) hosted championship matches, while the polo grounds became the site of frequent international tourneys.
As the “Gay Nineties” drew to a close, Narragansett had emerged as a booming resort, possessing splendid natural assets, providing relatively convenient transportation for that era, offering superb accommodations, and attracting a prosperous, influential clientele – who booked for the season generally, not short-term, and returned year after year.
Narragansett’s special resort way of life also resulted in a change of political status. For years, the village had been part of the neighboring town of South Kingstown to the west. But, recognizing how different Narragansett’s hectic resort operations were from South Kingstown’s slow-moving pace, the State of Rhode Island decreed Narragansett a separate voting district from South Kingstown in 1888, and allowed Narragansett many of the privileges of a town. Because the new arrangement worked satisfactorily, Narragansett was incorporated as a fully-vested separate town on March 28, 1901.
1900 – 1916
Thus, at the end of the Nineteenth Century Narragansett’s economic and political environment conditions were rosy. But, then things began to change.
In 1900, at the start of the Twentieth Century, two developments transpired that had a radical effect on the dynamics of Narragansett. The first was the introduction of the automobile. The internal combustion engine (gasoline-powered) had been invented in Germany in 1885, and the first auto (a Duryea) was sold in the U.S. in 1898. By 1910 500,000 cars were sold in America.
In Narragansett, visited each season by very wealthy people with much free time, the new machines were an instant hit. Francis S. Kinney, the owner of the Kinney mansion and bungalow as well as Sweet Caporal cigarettes, America’s leading brand, shipped three automobiles back to New York from Narragansett at the end of the 1899 season. In 1900, Walter A. Nye, the proprietor of the elegant Imperial Hotel, advertised two autos for rent at the hotel’s garage.
At first, the automobiles were an exciting diversion in Narragansett (although there were frequent accidents with horses, horse-drawn vehicles, and other autos). But, for the town’s tourist trade they acted as a ticking time bomb. No longer would summer visitors be virtual captives in town. Automobiles gave them mobility – the ability to move from resort to resort (or simply tour) – without depending on trains or ships. Of course, this new freedom accelerated as the autos and roads improved.
(An early victim of the automobile craze was the Sea View Railroad. The trolley line was quickly overtaken by the new competition and failed in 1920.)
The second disaster of that year occurred on September 12, 1900 – called “the darkest day in the history of the Pier” – when the prestigious Narragansett Pier Casino burned to the ground (except for the granite foundation and walls of its magnificent porte-cochere archway, The Towers). The fire had started in the nearby massive Rockingham Hotel, and eventually consumed most of the village’s center. The Casino, of course, had been the centerpiece of the town’s social activity, and its loss had an immediate negative effect on the town’s appeal as a tourist destination.
Nevertheless, Narragansett reacted quickly to the conflagration of the old Casino. In 1905, a new Narragansett Pier Casino was erected on the previous site of the Rockingham Hotel. Like its predecessor, the new Casino was designed by McKim, Mead & White, and received much praise for its excellence. But, more bad news soon followed with “The Great Panic of 1907.” This financial meltdown and the ensuing recession eventually settled by President Teddy Roosevelt with the assistance of J.P. Morgan had a serious impact on many of Narragansett’s monied summer visitors.
Some familiar and important old structures failed the test of time shortly thereafter. The 1897 steamboat landing pier on the beach lasted only a decade, and was demolished in 1908 following persistent damage by heavy surf.
In 1909, “Canonchet” (namesake of the heroic Narragansett Tribal chief sachem during the King Philip’s War), the more than 60-room landmark mansion, built in 1867 by Civil War Governor and Senator (as well as Narragansett’s first town council president) William Sprague, burned to the ground. As the site of many historic and romantic encounters, the loss of this enormous building was deeply felt.
In 1910, some progress returned as a permanent breachway from the ocean to Point Judith Pond was excavated between the coastal hamlets of Galilee and Jerusalem (previous outlets had been unstable and subject to closure as a result of storms). The channel correction was an important part of the lengthy federal project to improve navigation and security for the important travel and commerce passing through these stormy waters. When the great Point Judith Harbor of Refuge project – initiated in 1890 – was completed in 1914, it not only provided safe harbor for the important maritime industry, but it also became the foundation for the thriving commercial and recreational fishery that exists today.
Another positive event that took place in 1910 was the restoration of The Towers, the entrance way to the original Narragansett Pier Casino. Somewhat fire-resistant because of its granite foundation and walls, the porte-cochere had partially survived the conflagration of 1900. Re-roofed with its wooden interior replaced, the magnificent structure was able, phoenix like, to rise from its ashes and resume operations only ten years later.
1917 – 1945
Responding to belligerent threats and other provocations the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, thereby becoming a participant in World War I. By July of 1918, more than a million American troops were in France supporting the British and French. The war effort seriously constrained tourism activity in America.
“The Great Epidemic of 1918” (which lasted into 1920) killed 548,000 American influenza victims and 2 million (possibly as many as 50 million) people worldwide. Americans were so apprehensive about contagion that they were afraid to travel. Hence, Narragansett tourism suffered from the epidemic.
A mild recession took place after World War l. But, a much more significant happening involved implementation in 1920 of the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for the 18th Amendment to the Constitution: the prohibition of the manufacture, sale, or transportation of alcoholic beverages. As in other resorts, prohibition had an immediate negative impact (at least at its start) on tourism as vacationers feared the inhibiting effects of the strict
new federal regulations.
On Tuesday, October 29, 1929, the stock market crashed, signaling the beginning of The Great Depression. During the decade that followed, fortunes disappeared, U.S. unemployment exceeded 24 percent, hundreds of banks closed, the worldwide economy collapsed, and resort activity contracted everywhere.
Mother Nature aggravated conditions even further. On September 21, 1938, The Great Hurricane of 1938, the first such major storm in the area since The Great Gale of 1815, struck New England. The hurricane killed 312 people in Rhode Island, almost half in the southeast portion of the state including Narragansett. Millions of dollars of property damage resulted from the storm as well.
In the aftermath of the hurricane The Town of Narragansett acquired the town beachfront previously owned privately, and constructed two new town-operated public bathing pavilions. The only exception to this arrangement involved the privately owned Dunes Club at the north end of the beach, which catered to an exclusive clientele. The Dunes Club was built in 1928 (after a flawed earlier venture at Scarborough Beach in Point Judith) and then rebuilt in 1940 after the hurricane.
Meanwhile, the State of Rhode Island had begun to claim the attractive beachfronts at Scarborough and Galilee, and run them as public beaches.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. became engaged in World War ll. The government had foreseen the strong likelihood of conflict, however, and coastal fortifications were already under construction, including four 16-inch cannon (range 25 miles) bunkers and assorted other armament protecting the bay and sound at Fort Nathanael Greene in Point Judith (still an Army Reserve training base) and an antisubmarine net installation at Fort Kearney in the north end of town.
Of course, the Second World War had a tremendous impact on Narragansett, especially its tourist economy. Full mobilization meant not only the absence of 16 million young men and women serving in the armed forces, but also defense production, price controls, abundant regulations, and all kinds of shortages. As a somewhat distant, rural destination, Narragansett’s resort business was heavily affected by the stringent rationing of gasoline.
World War ll ended in 1945, but peace proved elusive in the second half of the Twentieth Century, as the U.S. faced conflicts and confrontations in the Cold War (1947-1990),Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1964-1973), the Middle East, and other hot spots. Domestically these engagements tended to disrupt economic stability.
1945 – Present
Nevertheless, after the Second World War Narragansett began to regain some of its vigor and optimism. The U.S. economy and its population boomed in the postwar years. Narragansett benefited too as its permanent residents in 1950 grew by 47% over the prewar total, and then increased again by 50% in 1960. These increases resulted from postwar family formation, plus new and improved roads allowing easier commuting to jobs north of the town.
Narragansett’s development was stymied somewhat when another major (category 3) hurricane – the second in 16 years – struck on August 31, 1954. Like its predecessor, Hurricane Carol caused massive property damage and killed 19 statewide.
More ill fortune followed on May 29, 1956, when the Narragansett Pier Casino burned to the ground. Like its predecessor, the “new Casino” had opened as an exclusive club for the socially prominent. Then, as the mores and mobility of the times evolved, the elite tended to center their activities around the more removed Dunes Club and Point Judith Country Club, and the Casino became an unrestricted public facility. Despite the changed circumstances, however, the new Casino played an important role in the town recreationally, particularly in the bleak prohibition and war years of the 1930s and 1940s, when it featured many of the prominent dance bands of the popular swing-music era, providing entertainment for thousands of enthusiastic customers.
Nevertheless, Narragansett persevered. In 1971-1972 the town embarked on an urban renewal project in the central Pier section, replacing some antiquated, fairly dilapidated structures. So far, realization of this plan has been slow, due primarily to adverse economic factors. But, the town remains hopeful for more progress as the nation emerges from the current Great Recession.
In the meantime, Narragansett continues to grow rapidly (population up 660% from 1950 to 2000) as new residents, attracted by the town’s splendid natural assets and accessibility to urban centers (30 minutes to Providence or Newport, 90 minutes to Boston, 3 hours to New York City) decide that the town remains a very special kind of place in which to live.
In the north end of town, the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus continues to expand with its celebrated Oceanographic School (featuring its great explorer/educator Professor Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic, and a host of other talented people).
In Point Judith at the south end of town, fishing remains a vital industry in the picturesque port of Galilee, while swimming, surfing, and sunbathing abound in and around the three magnificent state beaches: Scarborough, Roger W. Wheeler, and Salty Brine.
During the first decade of the Twenty-first Century, Narragansett pursued a number of avenues to further its renaissance. Regarding preservation, the town established four historic districts (Central Street, The Towers, Earle’s Court, and Ocean Road) to protect the integrity of the many remaining Victorian cottages (including some designed by McKim, Mead & White) and monumental buildings (e.g., Hazard’s Castle 1884, St. Peter’s Church 1870).
The Towers itself (built 1883-1886), devastated by two fires, battered by three hurricanes, and abused by decades of neglect, serves as a vivid example of the continuing care required in preservation. In return, The Towers has rewarded the town for all the attention bestowed on it by becoming an extremely popular venue for weddings and various other celebrations. Similarly, the town-owned Kinney Bungalow (1899), a historic clubhouse in Point Judith, has attracted a growing trade for celebrations since its recent renovation.
Narragansett has also made more progress in the last decade with respect to conservation. Planning is well under way for a handsome town park in Canonchet Farm, the 160-acre forested area opposite the town beach. Similarly, the recurrent problem of winter storm sand erosion on the beach is being ameliorated. Simultaneously, the two bathhouses are receiving careful treatment: the south pavilion has been refurbished; the north pavilion is undergoing a thorough overhaul.
In the three-and-a-half centuries since the arrival of the English settlers, Narragansett has evolved from a rural farming and fishing community to a dominant tourist economy and now to a suburban categorization (as designated by the state), with significant tourism attributes. Despite the wrenching changes often entailed by these transitions, however, Narragansett remains a very popular place to live in or visit.