Block Island is the name most often used to refer to the town of New Shoreham, which occupies its eleven-square-mile extent. The island, shaped like a pork chop, is located in the Atlantic Ocean twelve miles from Rhode Island's southern coastline, twenty miles southwest of Newport, and fifteen miles northeast of Long Island's Montauk Point. It rises from a narrow spit of land at sea level on its north end and extends seven miles to the south across rolling terrain to high bluffs along the three-mile wide southern end. A large salt pond, breached on the island's west side, is at center, and several hundred freshwater ponds and marches dot the hilly, shrub-and-low-tree-covered landscape.
Early development by English colonists was slow and sparse. The first settlers came to Block Island in 1662, but the lack of a natural harbor hindered development. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the island had been cleared of its native lumber stock, first consumed, then cannibalized for construction of houses and barns. As late as the 1860s, the town had only several dozen houses, a church, one or two stores, two small hotels, and two roads that crossed in the center of the southern half. Only a handful of early buildings remains.
Significant development occurred in the late nineteenth century, following construction between 1870 and 1876 of a breakwater and harbor on the island's east side. Navigational aids, especially two new lighthouses, further promoted accessibility. Native-son legislator Nicholas Ball lobbied heavily for federal funding for these projects. Almost instantly, a commercial center with numerous shops and hotels developed at harbor's edge, and vacation houses began to appear across the island. This period saw the introduction of architecture far more style-conscious than any seen before, but its dissemination was slower and less considerable than at mainland watering spots. The most impressive of these buildings are the mansard-roofed hotels that cluster around the village at the harbor. Most Rhode Island water-oriented communities that developed a summer-colony patina had at least one of these, but nowhere else may they be seen today in such abundance and variety.
The hotel era flourished from the late 1870s until the end of World War I, after which the island drifted toward shabby desuetude. Little was built between 1920 and 1950. By the mid-twentieth century, Block Island had none of the cachet enjoyed by the other islands spread across the southern New England coast.
Block Island was rediscovered in the late twentieth century. The airport, completed in 1950, brought new accessibility. Block Island Race Week, instituted in 1965, familiarized many sailors with the island. Beginning in the late 1970s, many of the hotels were rehabilitated, thanks to federal tax incentives for historic preservation. By century's end, Block Island saw its largest ever building boom.
Today, Block Island is becoming a victim of its own success. During the last decade of the twentieth century, it changed more rapidly and more dramatically than any other community in the state. A place whose rolling, brushy topography long seemed eminently absorptive of significant amounts of new construction, Block Island did not anticipate the introduction of the many large-scale, prominently sited, view-oriented summer houses to which it has seemingly acquiesced. As the market for summer houses continues to burgeon, Block Island's reputation as a low-key, naturalistic retreat seems questionable.
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