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Jamestown

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What initially strikes the visitor coming from Newport is the simple, unaffected quality of Jamestown. To the excesses of Newport's summer social season during the Gilded Age and its aftermath, in fact, Jamestown was a rebuke. Not that those in other communities took a different stand on the most extravagant highjinks of Newport's summer elite; nor did many Newporters, who nevertheless felt a degree of pride in the luster as well as delight in the profit their city acquired from its special place among American resorts.

But Jamestown, more conspicuously than any other Rhode Island community, came to epitomize an opposite view of summer bliss and to exemplify the different values in life that this disparity implied. There is a considerable record of Jamestown's reservations about Newport, expressed not only by its residents, but by visitors to the island as well. Listen to this rhapsody from a Brown University professor (let us hope not of literature) who visited the island toward the end of the nineteenth century:

On Narragansett's azure breast
There sleeps an isle—an isle of rest—
No gorgeous palaces uprear
Their walls of pomp and folly here
No glittering monuments of wealth
But in modest dwellings scattered wide
Among the hills and water's side
Lift their gray roofs, with woodbine hung.…

But why should antipathy to Newport come to such focus in Jamestown? Doubtless because both evolved as summer colonies which physically and psychologically confront one another on opposite sides of a shared bay. Those vacationing in Jamestown equated summer with the quiet, relaxed life, preferring a hammock slung from the rafters of a shadowed veranda to a continuous round of fabulous feasts and dazzling balls. There was wealth in Jamestown, but the luxurious shingled houses in which summer was spent remained close to the styleless vernacular. There were banquets and dances at the Yacht Club and the hotels, but entertainment in the cottages remained informal. In its formative years as a summer colony, the social elite among its seasonal residents came especially from Philadelphia and from certain mid-western cities (especially St. Louis), not from New York. And the sense of the simple agricultural past of the island persisted throughout its early period of summer colonization. So did the village quality of the center of the town that gathered around East Ferry, across East Passage from Newport. Indeed, by lucky chance, even at the end of the twentieth century a sense of the past rusticity of the island persists to an exceptional degree, however precariously.

To have chosen this island as a summer place in itself indicated a wish, not for isolation (there were lonelier places to summer), but for a degree of seclusion, separated from the frantic and theatrical frivolities on the opposite shore. Indeed, for the Jamestown elite, there seems to have been positive satisfaction in nearness to Newport. They could partake of its aura through proximity, even occasionally take advantage of its availability, but with its nearness providing a keener sense of pleasure when one set it aside to cross the harbor into the different world that was their summer.

Though it is usually referred to by its English name, Jamestown is also frequently called Conanicut, especially when mentioned in conjunction with Aquidneck Island. Less than half the size of Aquidneck, Conanicut is the other substantial island buffer between the open ocean and the shelter of Narragansett Bay. The principal entrance light to the bay sits on the tip of this island, dividing water traffic between the two principal channels into it. Conanicut, like Aquidneck, is long and narrow. Bedded side by side, their lengths in the direction of the bay (roughly eight and fourteen miles, respectively) account in considerable degree for the sheltered quality of the water behind them.

To the south, coves erode Conanicut, and a peninsula off its southwest corner is virtually a separate small island linked to the rest by a sandbar, built up to carry a causeway. Its seaward thrust terminates in the shape of a beaver tail, which names its point and the lighthouse on it. Conversely, therefore, to Jamestowners the rounded northern end of the island is Beaverhead, on a knob of which (Conanicut Point), North Light once marked the passages for outgoing vessels much as Beavertail Light serves incoming traffic at the opposite end.

A surprising number of Conanicut's farms have survived from colonial and slightly later times with fields and early houses substantially intact, often through generations in the same family. Fortunately, two of the larger and older farms, contiguous with one another, have been placed in permanent conservancy, and there is at least hope at the start of the twenty-first century that more farmland nearby may survive the lure of development. Close by these farms is one of Rhode Island's two surviving shingled coastal windmills for grinding grain and meal, and the only one from the colonial period. Close to this on Windmill Hill, the tiny Quaker Meeting House also remains from the colonial period. So Jamestown is among the best places in Rhode Island in which to gain a sense of its early coastal farms.

As with many other coastal communities, the shift in Jamestown's economic base from agriculture to tourism was encouraged by new modes of access: first steam ferries and later, in the mid-twentieth century, bridges. Only a pioneering few summer colonists predated the inauguration in 1872 of the new steam ferry Conanicut, connecting the island with Newport. The coming of the ferry promptly transformed the fields that sloped down to the slip into potential cottage sites. By the mid-1880s, a cluster of hotels in clapboard and shingles rose behind the ferry landing where before a single establishment of modest mien had stood pretty much alone from 1875 throughout a fallow interlude brought on by the panic of 1873. The competition began with more hotels on the same scale, then some a bit larger, culminating in the simultaneous completion in 1889 of two (neither now extant) which set unsurpassed standards on Jamestown, both for size and carpentered splendor. The Thorndike (sometimes given the fancier spelling of Thorndyke) and the Bay View were extended blocks of four and one-half stories, as compared to the earlier two-and-one-half-story compact blocks. At their showiest (because in later efforts to economize both saw some diminution of exterior features designed merely for effect), the Thorndyke featured the thrust of a centered block with abutting tower through a stretch of gables and dormers, the tower culminating in a tall peak with bowed profile. The Bay View caught the eye by the swell of a rotund, conical-capped tower at the busiest intersection in the village, the swell further swollen by the tiered projection of a porch around the dining and function rooms surmounted by a stack of three open porches, all fitted to the curve of the water side of the corner tower to provide a multilevel overview of the harbor across to Newport. Together, the Thorndike and the Bay View served as the island frontispiece for those arriving on the ferry from Newport.

Along with the hotels, Jamestown offers two opposing kinds of luxury cottage development in outstanding late-nineteenth-century examples: the dispersed cottages of the Highlands and the Dumplings, most raised on isolated eminences with spectacular outlooks; and the precinctual semi-village of Shoreby Hill, fitted into an actual village so as to put the vacation facilities of its harbor situation within easy reach.

And outside such ambitious developments, shingled cottages were going up elsewhere all over the island. Of the result, here is the conclusion of the Jamestown report in the series covering all cities and towns published by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission: “The neighborhoods of Jamestown, especially Ocean Highlands and Walcott Avenue, are the best places[italics added] in the state to see and appreciate the charm and sophistication of shingle style architecture. Some of the region's first big, casual shingle-clad summer houses are here—they are the characteristic buildings of the island and testimony to its special appeal for summer visitors.”

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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