Approximately 9 pages
Even if the amusement parks and the midway were intended to be a showing of social recreation, the middle class version of a promenade, there were other ways of showing that they had the makings of a lifestyle as rich as Newport. The shores of Rhode Island became spotted with shore resorts and beach colonies that were intended to be middle class versions of places like the Elms, Chateu-Su-Mer, or even the Breakers. They stretched from Westerly to Bristol and came in all sizes.
These vacation places were less for the daytrippers and more for those that could afford the short vacation. Shore resorts, one of the earliest recreational developments, tended to have a hotel and a shore dinner hall, perhaps a dance pavilion. Beach colonies tended to have plots of land laid out for houses that were usually nothing more than five rooms and a porch, sometimes known as "shore tents". These houses had no further function than to house a family for short stretches when they could afford to get away.
There were two other types of water based recreation sites. Regular beaches had the ability to support daytrippers and provided small amusements. Non-seaside recreational areas, like Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet, provided more substantial recreation away from the beach for water loving daytrippers.
Each of these four types of water recreation had their own social ramifications. Surely they were originally designed to be part of the "re-creation" of body, but by taking residence at a beach colony, one showed that they had enough money to take longer periods away from working. Attending a shore resort for a short time made one look like a weekender, while a beach or non-sea area only allowed you into the daytripper category. Yet, each of these places were all middle class. They could never reach the level of Newport, no matter how hard they struggled.
There was one Rhode Island recreational site that at least ranked on a social scale, though. Perhaps because this place struggled the most and was a place that could not be placed in any of these categories easily it ranked on the social scale. This place was both a beach colony and summer resort and started its life as a superb beach. Narragansett Pier was like a Newport for the middle class.
Narragansett Pier had its beginnings as a simple freight wharf. Farmers would bring their materials to the wharves to be shipped off to Providence. They thought nothing of the restorative features of the sea. But vacationers were thinking just that. By the mid 1840's, Narragansett Pier started to have local tourists from farther inland come to the waters and the fine beach. They would have to stay at local homes and would only stay for short periods.
Soon local capitalists found a major market for hotellery in Narragansett Pier. The first, Narragansett House, was built in 1856. More followed, and by 1871 there were ten hotels in the small area of the Pier. Upper middle class people came to the Pier to use the beaches and to build summer homes. Cotton brokers, lawyers, mill owners, writers, physicians came to play croquet or walk the beaches. They stayed for the season, basically from mid June to mid September, or stayed a few short weeks.
Eighteen seventy-six saw the coming of the Narragansett Pier Railroad. This railroad allowed easy access to the summer resort and more people flowed in to town. Soon the summer resort slowly evolved into a beach colony. Summer vacationers started to build homes, usually larger than a typical summer home. This was their struggle to be Newport.
The big change in the area came with a McKim, Mead, and White designed structure, the Narragansett Casino. This large building was used for all manner of recreation. Narragansett Casino provided a focal point for the community. In the forward of The Narragansett Pier Towers and Casino At the Turn of the Century, Albert Klyberg gives good overview of the Casino.
The Casino provided an outlet similar to the Newport Casino and was initially ranked quite near the lifestyle Newport had going. Of course, Newport did not have the arrival of the Vanderbilts and the Breakers yet, but until then Narragansett Pier was a close second. At one point the register for the Casino registered persons from over 30 different states and five different countries.
People began to live at Narragansett for longer periods of time during the summer with the ease of the Casino. They started to build homes in small developments, like Earl's Court and Sherry Cottage. A country club was started in Point Judith by some of the people who were "excused" from the Casino. The Pier was in full swing by the late 1890's.
But in 1900, the Casino burnt to the ground. The fire started across the road at the Rockingham Hotel, spread to the Casino, and took most of the Hazard Block, a commercial section behind the Casino. The porte cochere was all that left after the fire and remains as a testament to the summer resort that was Narragansett Pier at the turn of the century.
Harper's Weekly kept good tabs on the lifestyle at Narragansett Pier for most of time that the Casino was in use, but provided an interesting account of life after the casino. A resident, Brander Matthews, describes the Pier:
"...here the houses are truly cottages; but out on The Rocks, on the way to Point Judith, the places are far more spacious, and the houses are, many of them, not fairly to be termed cottages, even if none of them are sumptuous enough to vie with the marble palaces of Newport...There is truth in the assertation that Narragansett's chief charm is not to be sought in any merely physical combination of land and water and air, but rather in certain of its social aspects...the tone of the summer's colony at the Pier is rather Southern than Northern, with the warmth and the heartiness of the one and without any of the frigidity and affections which only too often chills social intercourse in the other."
Louis Sherry, the caterer who was in charge of most of the Casino's food for most of its lifetime, built a new casino in the classical revival form across the street from the Towers, as they were now called. This casino never had the impact that the original did. During the teens and twenties, the new casino provided little of the same recreation as the old casino did. Dining and dancing, strolling along the water, and mingling were the prime sources of enjoyment in the new casino. Population dipped and a low of 993 residents was recorded in 1920.
Slowly, the summer life just died away from Narragansett Pier. The hurricane of 1938 did damage, the depression took its toll, and many just did not return to support their once fantastic homes. With the ease of the automobile, many middle class Rhode Islanders journeyed to the beaches and the Pier became a daytrippers place. The last summer colonists found the daytripper's style repugnant and formed an exclusive club, the Dunes Club. This would be the last remaining vestige of the social elite of Narragansett Pier.
There were other "exclusive" style summer resorts around Rhode Island, none as upper middle class as Narragansett Pier. Watch Hill was a summer resort out at the end of Rhode Island, in Westerly. In 1833, Jonathan Nash established the Watch Hill House. This was followed by small developments around the area until the resort began its big swing in 1870. A bathing beach, which basically means that it had bath houses, and several cottages were built. In 1879 a stroke of luck brought Watch Hill's most famous resident to live.
The Watch Hill Flying Horse Carousel, a major landmark in Rhode Island and on the National Register of Historic Places, was left behind by a traveling carnival. It is considered one of the two oldest carousels in America. The other, located in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, may only be a few years older. Designed by Charles W.F. Dare, the horses are suspended by chains, which gives rise to the name "Flying Horse." The National Register nomination provides a good summary of the carousel.
"Each horse is said to have been carved from a single block of wood, although the legs appear to have been carved separately, and each horse has a leather saddle and bridle and real horsehair tail and mane. The saddle, bridles, tails, and manes have been replaced several times, as is common in carousels, but the horses' agate eyes are the originals.
The technology of the carousel was also of some interest. Again the National Register nomination provides the best insight.
"The carousel was originally powered by a calico horse, who spent his summers walking in circles, and music was provided by a hand organ. In 1897 horsepower gave way to water power, which, in turn, was replaced, about 1914, by electricity. By the turn of the 20th century, the hand organ had been replaced by a band organ which played paper rolls...The ring dispenser is of uncertain date."
The carousel was battered in the Hurricane of 1938 and most of the horses were buried in the sand dunes, from which they were recovered and restored. Restoration has been ongoing since the 1940's. It is only through these efforts that this important piece of American recreation history is preserved.
Even if the carousel is the most endearing part of Watch Hill, it certainly wasn't the only part. In the 1880's, a group from Cincinnati began to sell house lots that have for the most part survived and provide a solid base for the beach colony that was Watch Hill. Steamers ran to Watch Hill daily and even more came when the trolley line came to town. Hotels were built all through town. Ocean House, one of the most significant hotels is the only remaining structure to recall the bustling life during the summers.
In other parts of Westerly there were other resorts. Weekapaug provided a place for summer residents. The Weekapaug Inn was built in 1899, and throughout the early parts of the twentieth century small summer residential homes were erected. Misquamicut, originally known as Pleasant View, was started in 1894. A hotel was built, but the whole colony was even less substantial than Watch Hill or even Weekapaug. Even into the first parts of the century another resort was developed. Shelter Harbor, or Music Colony, as it was known at times because of its brought many singers and artists, was a small attractive area. The homes were mostly shingle style or English Tudor. In an effort to further the name of Music Colony, each of the streets have been named for prominent musicians.
Most of these summer colonies dissipated in the 1930's with the Depression and the Hurricane. There are still many of the small houses and, of course the carousel. Watch Hill and Westerly are now sleepy areas with summer residents that slip in quietly and leave just as quietly.
The best way to examine the rest of the summer resorts and beach colonies, for their are many, is to create a "catalog" of sorts. Each of the entries are a short description of the place with little discussion of the social ramifications of each place, for they were not greatly different from each other. Most of these fashionable places were on par with each other. Rhode Island catered to the middle class and provided them space at the many summer resorts and beach colonies. Most had hotels and housing stock. Some had amusements of one sort or another. But altogether the summer resorts were for middle class citizens that could afford the time away but could not afford the luxuries of Newport.
This catalog of sites starts at the western end of Narragansett Bay, where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. The sites start after Westerly, then they follow around to Cranston, jump the Bay to East Providence, and end with Aquidneck and Jamestown Islands.
Charlestown was host to the Sea Lea colony and the popular Charlestown Beach. There are a few hotels that survived from early developments, but overall this part of Rhode Island was seldom used until the advent of the automobile. By 1937, there were hotels, surf fishing, and bathing at Charlestown Beach, a regular beach. Nineteen thirty-eight and its hurricane took care of that in short order. The Sea Lea colony is a small year round residential area. Down the beach a bit is Quonochontaug summer colony.
Quonochontaug was made up of three communities, East, Central, and West Beach. West Beach was the first to develop. It was provided with a small cluster of homes and several hotels. East beach had several homes as of 1895. This was a quiet resort, not unlike the rest of Charlestown.
Further on, in South Kingstown, the number of resorts started to escalate as one approached Narragansett Pier. Matunuck was the prime area for beach life. As early as 1857, maps identified the area as Beach House Cove. But as compared to its big brother, Narragansett Pier, the beach was nothing if not "dull and stupid." It wasn't until the arrival of the automobile, as in the case of Charlestown, that the area saw any life. Hotels were built, homes were put up, and many more visitors came. One of the most interesting components of South Kingstown was the Theatre-By-The-Sea. Alice Tyler converted a former barn near the beach into a small theater, typical of the summer stock varieties.
Originally it was part of a family farm, but it was soon opened to summer guests. A small inn was opened and was run as such until 1921. When the Tylers bought the land they used it as a farm until Mr. Tyler's death. His wife, with her deep interest in theater recruited out of work theater designers who reworked the barn into a regular theater. It was damaged in the Hurricane of 1938, but was rebuilt with more capacity. The theater closed in 1962, but was again reopened in 1967 and has been used as a summer entertainment location since.
Narragansett, as a town, has a few other places for summer beach recreation beside the Pier. Scarborough beach was developed in 1914 when a bathing pavilion was placed there. Shortly after this, the State of Rhode Island bought sixteen acres and it became a state beach. Bonnet Shores is the only other major site for beach and summer recreation in Narragansett. Bonnet Shores has become a thriving beach colony, but was not developed until the 1920's. The developers pronounced the community to be "the equal of Newport's finest." There was a beach club built here, the Bonnet Shores Beach Club, but the plan mostly sputtered out. It wasn't until after World War Two that any great development was made. Baby boomers returning from the war took Bonnet Shores as their summer resort.
Continuing up the coast to North Kingstown, the same pattern of shore resorts and beach colonies is maintained. Plum Beach is the most southerly of North Kingstown's beaches. Again following the pattern of development like Charlestown and South Kingstown, the beach was not developed until after the turn of the century. There was a trolley that ran along the sea coast called the Sea View that provided much of the inspiration for these developments. Hotels, such as the Barber's Heights Cottage, were constructed. By 1923, there were over seventy homes and a beach club. Most were built in the shingle style, a typical summer home design.
A short deviation from this cataloging of summer resorts would serve well to be discussed at this point. The shingle style was a popular summer design. McKim, Mead, and White used it for a long period before the turn of the century. They were also the first to tie it to the Colonial revival style. Vincent Scully is regarded as the expert in shingle style construction, and it is his explanation that would be best suited.
"The Shingle Style has much the same content and base [referring to Impressionism's content and base]. True enough, it can have a wonderful darkness in it, a rough animal presence and something wild of the mountains and the sea. Yet it is in the end an architecture of suburban relaxation and country joys. It reflects an American middle class grown rich after the Civil War, prepared to enjoy itself, and, despite the nostalgic yearning toward Colonial simplicity and a smaller, cleaner America which helped give the style birth, it is in the end as gently warm and sheltering as the well-intentioned middle-class families who built it...."
The actual design of the structures, and the outward expression of that construction, came from the distinctive shingles which covered the structure. Most homes used shingles that have weathered to the dull gray that is so common among summer resorts today. Scully again provides an insight into the decorations and coverings.
"Finally came the shingled surface, from which the name was derived. This was a true skin, covering up the old, actually or symbolically exposed, frame of the Stick Style and subordinating the inner structure of the building to a whole range of surface effects free of structure. Out of this opportunity, or instigating it, a varied repertory of decorative details arose--from fancifully cut shingles to plaster panels, mullioned windows, sunflowers, scrolls, screens, and eventually, gleaming white columns, pediments, and dentilled cornices. Visually intoxicating as they were, most of these details were also alive with an intensely symbolic content, asking to be recognized as culturally charged quotations and referring generally to identification alike with the Colonial past and with the new English "Aesthetic" taste. The shingles were normally dark, the details shadowy masses of the building. So the houses were both new and old, freely serving and suggesting every kind of domestic relaxation while at the same time linking modern life with an American past seemingly more primordial than it had ever been in fact and endowed with a national history freshly valued and newly loved. It all added up to an eloquent architectural language, free and easy but with its depth, at once rational enough and endlessly resourceful in fancy."
This style was preceded by a style called the Stick Style. The stick style had an outward expression of its structure, by showing framing pieces on the outside of the building. A key proponent of this style was Andrew Jackson Downing, a landscaper by trade that wrote one of the most famous house books of the early nineteenth century, The Architecture of Country Houses. The homes were designed to be in settings back in the woods and glades of America's expanding rural middle class. It is worth contemplating that perhaps if the Stick Style was an expression of the verticality of the trees in the woods of America, then the Shingle Style was an expression of the softly undulating dunes of the American beaches. This may even provide an understanding to why the Colonial was an obvious outreach from the Shingle Style. As summer visitors lived life in their homes, they began to see themselves as early arrivals, living a life of early Americana. Although this cannot be substantiated, it is certainly a worthy postulate.
The reason this small foray into the world of architecture is worth discussion is because the shingle style was all but born in Rhode Island. Born in the dunes of the sand, the style has become "America's style," much as Newport has become "America's Playground." The style provides insight into how class filters down to the masses, and where else has "conspicuous consumption" become mass culture, but in Rhode Island's seasides. Overall, the shingle style could be considered the connecting fiber between all these summer resorts in this catalog of places.
This seaside resort catalog has been left behind at North Kingstown. Saunderstown, like Plum Beach, was a simple development. There weren't many large houses or hotels, but it was developed earlier than Plum Beach. Saunderstown has a distinctive feature, only paralleled by the Herreshoffs in Bristol, as having a great shipwright. John Aldrich Saunders began building schooners and steamships here. He built one of the fastest and largest boats, the steam screw ferry Newport. Because of the ferries at Saunderstown, many vacationers traveling from New York to Newport would stop for the day. Many stayed enjoying the "working village-on-the-bay." They built large shingle style homes and spent their summers in "vigorous outdoor pursuits--swimming, camping, hunting, fishing, riding--in the North Kingstown countryside, interspersed with equally vigorous discussions of matters scholarly, literary, and civic. It was a remarkable flowering."
Moving northward, one encounters Warwick. Warwick is the home to Rocky Point, but also had several summer resorts and beach colonies. These colonies ranged from a religious camp to the small colonies that dotted Rhode Island.
Buttonwoods, a colony similar to those established on Martha's Vineyard, was one of Warwick's most well known. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission's statewide preservation report provides a concise description of this beach colony.
"At the other end of the spectrum [from Rocky Point] was the cottage colony established at Buttonwoods. The Nassauket shore of Greenwich Bay had been a popular destination for picnic excursions for decades when the Reverend Moses Bixby of Providence's Cranston Street Baptist Church suggested that his congregation establish a summer colony similar to the Methodist campground at Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, where they could relax, play, and worship in a wholesome environment. In 1871, the Baptist formed the Buttonwoods Beach Association, purchased land from the Greene family, platted it, and sold lots with restrictions that forbade commercial development and required that houses of a certain minimum cost and quality be built...A hotel was built here and operated for a number of years, but when it proved to be a money-losing operation and a disruption of the community it was closed and demolished. The Association built a chapel in the 1880's which is one of the handsomest small Late Victorian churches in the state and erected a Casino sometime around 1900 to house social events."
In the early parts of the century, a business man opened a campground, making the area even more middle class than it had been previously. An early airport was opened here as well. Overall, Buttonwoods was a middle class haven for those that were of the faithful.
There were places in Warwick, like Mark Rock, which brought completely disparate types of beach goers. Mark Rock had the types of unsavories that horrified the local people. "Drinking and gambling were the principal diversions at Mark Rock, and newspapers of the period horrified their readers with accounts of the lurid pastimes of their fellow citizens." Soon Providence police learned to meet the steamer arriving from Mark Rock and arrest the rowdy daytrippers as they disembarked.
Oakland Beach, discussed as part of the amusement parks, was also part of the summer resort/beach colony boom. After the amusement park ventures failed, the land was platted out, and with the arrival of the trolley line, began to be built upon. Working class families moved into the area because unlike Buttonwoods there were no design restrictions. This created a building boom, but was stifled by the Hurricanes of 1938 and 1954 and today most of the homes are in bad shape, only noting the passing of time on the Bay.
Jumping across the Bay to East Providence, one of Rhode Island's most important summer resort areas is discovered. Starting in the early 1840's, East Providence began to acquire a reputation as a summer place. The Vue de l'Eau Hotel was constructed for wealthy residents who went for the mineral spring and longer periods of relaxation. By 1870 the hotel burnt to the ground and was never rebuilt. Perhaps this end is symbolic of the changes in East Providence and what clientele were coming to the town. There are a few places that survive as exclusive clubs. The Squantum Association, started in 1872, is still in use. The club has a billiard hall from 1870, a dining hall for clambakes, and the main clubhouse, that is indicative of the then new Colonial revival style.
Shore dinner halls began to sprout along the coast line. Ocean Cottage, Silver Springs, an the What Cheer House were all hotels that catered to the daytripper with large clambakes and shore dinners. Beach colonies like Camp White and Cedar Grove were started in the late 1860's and offered the middle class a tent atmosphere they could use for short periods. All of these places had buildings that were "simple, unpretentious structures providing basic but not luxurious accommodations. Their principal spaces were the large, barn-like dining halls where fresh seafood was served in large quantities at low prices."
But as is the form in Rhode Island's shore development, the summer resorts slowly evolved into beach colonies. Cedar Grove evolved from a tent colony to a more permanent setting. It is Cedar Grove that may have led to the naming of the region as Riverside.
"There, roads followed irregular, curving forms in miniaturized version of model American suburban developments such as Riverside, Illinois, designed two years previously by the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead. The similarity may have been more than coincidental, for Flagg's enterprise was named the Riverside Land Company and local tradition credited his inspiration to a midwestern community he had recently visited."
Riverside slowly developed into an area with homes, usually no more than a porch and three rooms. Some had decorative features, some did not. The late 1890's is considered the heyday of the development. There were eleven hotels, and Riverside was considered to have the largest concentration of summer homes anywhere on the Narragansett Bay.
By the 1920's the summer resorts had slowly faded and the beach colony was more permanent. With the 1938 Hurricane most of the hotels were destroyed and the summer cottages were rehabilitated into regular homes. Even today, in exploring the area, one will find small cottages, reminiscent of the summer resorts, being used all year.
Places like Bristol, Barrington, Tiverton, and Little Compton all had similar characteristics. Although they had varying sorts of summer recreation, where Barrington and Little Compton were more upscale, while Bristol and Tiverton were a bit more downscale, they all had summer residents, which slowly became permanent residents.
Ferry Hill in Bristol was developed to have summer residents. The most important of these developments was Blithewold. Blithewold was, as many others were, characterized by large amounts of land, huge houses, sophisticated stylistics, and elaborate landscapes. Most of this development has been stifled. Some small middle class development has occurred in Bristol, but mostly it has become a full time residential area.
Little Compton, a far flung, out of the way place, that "took longer to get to than New York" at the time, was slow in developing. When people from Providence came they brought their lifestyle and began to change the area.
"The changes imposed on Little Compton by summer visitors were directly related to the kinds of visitors it attracted. Short-term visitors encouraged the development of hotels and dinner halls--most now gone--that sprang up around Sakonnet Point, while summer residents lived in houses bought or built throughout the community--not concentrated in one or two locations. Unlike Newport or Narragansett, Little Compton never developed into a resort with hierarchical routine or strong geographic focus to its summer activities."
Seaconnet House, a major hotel in Sakonnet was one the more well known of the developments. There was a shore dinner hall and large inn near the lighthouse, built in 1883-84. Most of these have been destroyed from fires or hurricanes.
A real estate development, Warren's Point, was one the more successful developments. Most houses were shingle style homes. The people that lived in these homes were, for the most part, from Providence, New Bedford, or Fall River. Another development was Seaconnet Park. This development had restrictions that the homes cost no less than $3,000 and had to be set back 15 feet. Commercial development and development of any summer amusements was prohibited. This was an obvious attempt to steer clear of the daytrippers that populated Sakonnet Point.
The key development in the Little Compton area was the change in architectural tastes. No longer were rambling farm houses the style. Summer architecture took a new turn.
"What distinguishes summer residential architecture from vernacular dwellings are changes in building program, introduction of non-local forms and plans, and--perhaps most important--conscious design, often by an architect. Summer houses looked different because they were different: they were designed not to house a working farm family year round, but to provide a place of leisure for family, guests, and sometimes servants only during the warm summer months. This difference encouraged increased attention to the house's appearance and variety in forms and plans. The plans of summer houses reflected this change in function: they emphasized common sitting rooms and bedrooms, and the buildings themselves were oriented to their gardens and the view beyond by means of porches and large windows. The introduction of conscious design process to the construction of houses broadened the range of forms that houses could take."
Moving past Aquineck Island to Jamestown Island, there was a large quantity of summer resorts. Most likely this place was developed because Conanicut Island was located right in the path of ferries from Providence to New York, the island grew quickly after 1870.
"The last three decades of the nineteenth century, however, were among the most dramatic and exciting in the town's history, a time of profound change. While much of the town remained agricultural, four separate and distinct residential tracts were established. The greatest development occurred near the East Ferry landing, which became a full-fledged village. Growth here was mostly fueled by the construction of several large hotels and the establishment of boarding houses. A summer colony called Conanicut Park was started at the northern end of the island. Remote and isolated from the village, this development, relying mostly on steamboats for contact with the outside world, was an ambitiously planned but scarcely realized resort, attracting Rhode Islanders and other New Englanders. At the opposite end of the island, in the Ocean Highlands tract, wealthy Philadelphia families, among others, built the island's finest mansions, most perched on rock outcrops, on the high elevations and along the scenic and southern coast--sites that provided some of the most beautiful vistas in Rhode Island. At the northern edge of the village, a group of wealthy St. Louis families established Shoreby Hill, a private enclave, in the closing years of the nineteenth century."
Conanicut Park was barely built beyond this earliest of stages. The land was originally planned in a similar design as the Methodist camp in Martha's Vineyard. A surveyor was brought in to lay out the land. John Mullin, the surveyor, planned a park with ornamental plantings, a commercial area, residential areas, and a large layout of roads. Most of the land was plotted out as small homes for cheap prices. However they were not taken up and the land was mostly left alone.
For some reason the land had a connection to providing recreation to those that could scarcely afford the time. "Seaside Cottage" was "established in 1878 by the Providence Fountain Street Society..." The cottages were available at three dollars a week for city women and children. This cause would later be taken up when the YWCA built a small camp with some of the older houses in the development.
Land around the village proper of Jamestown was starting to be platted and many houses were being built by the 1880's. Hotel construction at the village began in earnest as the ferry landing became more popular with travelers. Some small commercial developments and civic improvements were made to the town.
By 1895 more than 2,500 summer visitors were recorded. Soon visitors became summer residents. The housing stock was not very much different than the rest of Rhode Island and many were constructed in the Shingle Style. With the more resident population more amenities were added. "...A casino, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, a modern bathing pavilion on a sheltered shore, fine hotels, boarding houses, garages, schools, churches, and an active yacht club," were all present on the island.
Surprisingly, Jamestown did not suffer at the hands of the 1938 Hurricane as much as other places. Unfortunately the downfall of Jamestown came with the arrival of the automobile and the Jamestown bridges. Allowing people to pass more easily between shores of the Bay, they had little reason to stay for any sort of summer recreation.
But there is one place that people still love to stay at, Aquidneck Island. On its northern shore is the town of Portsmouth. Portsmouth is a small rural development that had a few developments around the Sakonnet River and Mount Hope Bay area. As discussed previously, Island Park was an important development, especially as Rhode Island's only true trolley park. It was also a summer colony. "The houses, or cottages, were small, simple, nondescript shanties, many built on stilts. In 1914, there were more than eighty houses at Island Park." But there were other places. Hog, Patience, and Prudence Islands were all developments in the later nineteenth century. Prudence Park was a development began in 1876. By 1889, there were small homes as well as "a casino, complete with a bowling alley, pool, billiard tables, and a dance hall."
Other small summer colonies were centered around the Bristol Ferry. A religious camp was started as early as 1891 near Headley Street in Portsmouth. The Hummocks was across from Island Park and was started by people from Taunton, while Common Fence Point was built further north in much of the rag-tag manner of Island Park.
Most of the development in Portsmouth is still extant, but is much diminished from its early exuberance. Small traces of homes can still be found in and around the town.
Down Aquidneck Island was the spectacle that was Rhode Island's pinnacle of recreation, Newport. A ranking by "the last and probably greatest of a species known as the gentlemen," Frank Crowinshield, created in 1908, showed how one could meet people of higher ranks, how to move about these places, and how Newport rested on its lofty perch.
"1. Palm Beach--Not Exclusive, but merry, sumptuous, and expensive. Chance to meet many men in gambling rooms.
Newport was the certainly the Queen of resorts. As early as 1720, Newport was distinguishing itself as the playground of America's rich. The first summer visitors were generally wealthy plantation owners from the South and the West Indies. Each June they would sail up to Fall River or Providence for fertilizers and nitrates needed for their crops. Their ships would sail home with the cargo and the families would stay until September, when their ships returned to the area with crops. This style of summer living was popular until after the American Civil War.
Before the Civil War, intellectuals, trying to escape the crowded conditions in Saratoga Springs, New York or the White Mountains in New Hampshire, began to arrive and mingle with the longer staying visitors. By 1830, Newport had several affluent hotels, such as the Bellevue, Whitfields, Aquidneck House, Perry's, the Freemont, and the Filmore. People flocked to the city to escape the atmosphere of Saratoga Springs. Soon though they began to stay. Dona Brown, in her book Inventing New England, provides a broad overview of the creation of Newport from 1860.
"Newport by the 1860s was the most socially exclusive and fashionable American resort. Its rise to prominence mirrored that of the White Mountains in almost every detail, from the "discovery" of its scenery in the 1840s to its "discovery" by the wealthiest New Yorkers in the 1860s. Its social and financial requirements were becoming more rigorous than those of any of the other resorts of New England. Although it was not yet exclusively the home of millionaires that it was to become by the 1880s and 1890s, its name was already synonymous with money and high society."
It was after this development as a summer resort that the town began to become more of a beach colony, albeit a high class colony. One of the first homes built for the high society of Newport was Chateau-sur-Mer, built from 1851 to 1852. This home was second empire style, with grand High Victorian furnishings and decoration. Chateau-sur-Mer signaled the start of the build up in Newport. Later houses, like Marble House, the Elms, Rosecliff, and the Breakers, all built between 1888 and 1905, were even more extravagant and amazing. Marble, glass, gold gilding, all filled the summer homes. This is an important fact to remember. These were summer homes only. Even if there were over seventy rooms, as in the Breakers, it was still only used from mid June to mid September.
Soon the hotels began to disappear, for there were no summer visitors to stay in them. As this exclusive society began to settle, they dissociated themselves from the general public, and created their own inner circles. These circles held a multitude of activities, such as yachting, fox hunts, polo matches, horse shows, and huge dinner parties. Every afternoon at three o' clock Bellevue Avenue would be besieged by the carriages and personalities of Newport's social elite parading up and down the street.
Newport was not all fancy balls and parading coaches, though. It was also the place for beach time. Bailey's Beach was established by the Spouting Rock Beach Association in 1896. Families of social grace could rent private cabanas and were required by social standards to make a daily appearance. Supposedly the club was so difficult to enter that American presidents were snubbed. This was the home to the delicate maneuvering that was described by Frank Crowninshield in his report on how to enter the society.
But Newport was not all delicate maneuvering and careful posturing. Out past the elite homes, on Easton's Beach, a small amusement area was added in the earliest parts of the twentieth century. A convention hall, dance hall, dining room for four thousand, bath houses were all added along the beach. A roller coaster, bowling alley, merry-go-round and even a small movie house, were built as well. The park was open to the general public, and even today First Beach, as it is known currently, is a town beach, although the amusements are mostly gone, with only a carousel remaining on the beach.
So Newport was more than the opulent houses. But it is that great society for which Newport is remembered. Once reaching the highest levels of society, one could never go back. This was the height of social recreation, and as such provided the longest vacation time. Newport was for those that could afford to spend an entire summer. With the Great Depression, residents could not afford to stay at these huge homes anymore. Most of the homes were left to abandon. Today many of the houses are open to tourists who come as daytrippers. Of course that is the ultimate irony, for daytrippers were never allowed into this type of beach colony and would have been scoffed by the citizenry.
There were several places around the state that had connections to water, but not to the seaside. Gloucester, an unlikely place for summer recreation, had several lakeside communities. Bowdish Reservoir Lakeside Community was a common example of simple homes built around the lake for summer residences. Keech Pond was another example. Waterman Reservoir was one of the largest. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission report on Gloucester states that this community was "typical of many small summer colonies that were established along most of Rhode Island's ponds, lakes, and reservoirs in the between-world-wars era." As with many of the seaside colonies, the lakeside communities would soon become residential rather than the summer transient form in which they started.
Completely different from the seaside or lakeside resorts were recreational places that had nothing to do with living by the water. The middle class daytrippers came to these places. Cranston, a short trip from Providence provided the best outlet for the middle class. Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet was the Newport or Narragansett Pier for the daytripper.
Thomas Rhodes (for that is whom the site is named for, and not the state itself) opened a clambake pavilion and boat rental in 1872. With its increasing popularity the venture was expanded to include a new casino for dancing and a new pavilion for shore dinners. Canoe clubs started to be formed at the casino and became a defining feature for the area. By the first decade of the twentieth century, there were seven canoe clubs at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet. The Providence Board of Trade Journal for August of 1914 reported that "next to the Charles River in Boston, it is quite probable that there are more canoes on the Pawtuxet River than any other American river of comparable size." `
The Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet site has been an important part of the Rhode Island recreational scene. Dances and dinners have been held there every year. Most of the site was destroyed in 1915 by a damaging fire, but the Ballroom was rebuilt the very next year. This had a dance area that could hold nearly a thousand dancers and a canoe livery in the basement that held about 750 canoes. Canoeing's popularity waned through the depression and the last clubhouse for the canoes was destroyed in 1941. Rhodes, a center for middle class summer recreation, is now left to its Ballroom, of which its future is uncertain.
The last recreational site in Rhode Island that had a direct connection the waterways and seasides was one that had further reaching importance upon the social landscape of the state than many of the previous summer resorts. Hunt's Mills was a place of recreation that included a small amusement area and picnic area. Canoe clubs again sprung up around Omega Pond. There was great fun canoeing in the pond and up along Ten Mile River. Yet it was not the pond nor the river that was important to Rhode Island's social recreation; it was the Agawam Hunt Club along the river that was one of the leaders in the outdoor recreation of Rhode Island.