The entire 9.7 square-mile island comprises one town, Jamestown, which approximately 5600 people call home. The actual town center is in the southern half of the island, and it has one main street running east to west called Narragansett Avenue, along which are lovely cottages, the town hall, the fire department, various other town offices, churches, pleasant shops, cafes, and restaurants, and a marker at the corner of Narragansett and the main north to south artery (conveniently called North Road), which tells me that Jamestown was founded in 1678 and named for King James II. Narragansett Avenue is almost exactly one mile long and extends from the harbor facing east towards Newport to the pier that faces west towards South County, or “from sea to sea,” as the General Assembly termed it in their 1709 order to improve the road.(1) Maps of eighteenth-century Jamestown show only the two roads I have mentioned and two ferry landings, called East Ferry and West Ferry, which are located at each end of Narragansett Avenue.
I am sitting at a table at the eastern end of Narragansett Avenue in front of the East Ferry Market and Deli in Jamestown, Rhode Island wolfing down a chicken salad sandwich while taking a last look back across the bay at Newport before I hop on RIPTA Bus #66 which will transport me over the Verrazano Jamestown Bridge and deposit me at the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus (URI) on the western shore of Narragansett Bay. A pleasant breeze sets the flags fluttering and makes the water a little choppy, and a few sailboats take advantage of the conditions to speed around the bay. Looking to my left across the water from my seaside table I see the majestic spans of the Pell Bridge which connects Newport to Conanicut Island and from there to the Verrazano Bridge to southern Rhode Island. My hectic morning schedule, which included a bus to Jamestown, followed by a walk I will describe below, and a quick return trip is planned to coincide with one of the few buses that stop on the island on their way to and from Newport and URI. Ferries connected Jamestown to the mainland as early as 1690, but today the only means of transport across the water is via a private boat or over the bridge.(2) Thus, what was once a trip of less than two miles, today requires a journey of eight and a half miles. That’s progress.
There is still a ferry from Newport to Jamestown, but it is mainly for tourists, meanders to various other spots in Narragansett Bay on the way, and only runs until Labor Day. Thus a similarly lengthy detour over the Pell Bridge is required to reach this spot from the waterfront across the bay, which I can see clearly with my binoculars. Therefore, in order to close the loop I have made of Narragansett Bay, following the two separate paths of the Post Road from Boston, one to Newport, the other to South County, I need to travel almost twenty miles by bus to walk one mile across Conanicut Island from East Ferry to West Ferry. In some ways this is the toughest mile on the whole trip. Of course, a mile-long stroll along a pleasant street on a picturesque island on a sunny breezy day in September is not exactly a hardship.
A ferry from Newport to Jamestown existed by 1675, when Caleb Carr was granted the rights to run the ferry. The Newport to Jamestown and Narragansett double ferry crossing was the only way to cross the 28 mile long Narragansett Bay from Rhode Island to South County, without going through Providence, until 1969 when the Pell Bridge was completed.(3) The boats in the early days were sailboats about 35-40 feet long which were too heavy to row, although they must have been lighter by the eighteenth century, as Alexander Hamilton noted that he “had a tedious passage to Conanicut. It being quite calm we were obliged to row most of the way,” when he crossed on August 24, 1744.(4) Often the weather was too stormy and the ferry would not run for days at a time. James Birket, traveling from Newport to Narragansett on October 3, 1750, had the opposite problem from Hamilton: “we landed in about 2 hours upon the Island of Connanicut being 3 miles but the wind blowed very Strong against us. We then crossed this Island being one Mile to the next ferry but it blowed so hard we could not get over so was obliged to dine with an ill natured scold at the ferry house...however after the Dinner we got over the ferry being 3 miles, in two hours the wind continuing to blow hard against us.”(5) Hamilton, however, had a “passage [that] was more expeditious over Naragantzet Ferry.”(6)
Conanicut Island had already been used by the Dutch as a trading post for furs prior to the arrival of Roger Williams in 1636, and may even have been visited by Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524.(7) Canonicus, one of the chief sachems of the Narragansett, maintained a seasonal residence on the island when he met Roger Williams and made an alliance against the Pequots, with whom the Narragansett were fighting at the time. Williams also reached an agreement to purchase lots of land on the island and permission to graze sheep there, which explains the sheep on the town seal. Settlement did not truly begin until the conclusion of King Philip’s War, which is why the ferries started to appear in the late seventeenth century.
Today the island maintains a rural feel, and there is a large amount of green space devoted to farms and to salt marshes and forests. The small town is easily crossed in a half hour’s slow walk. I look west across the water and can see the buildings of the URI Bay Campus at South Ferry, as well as high hills that rise up behind the shore. One of these is McSparran Hill, where I spent the night (see the last entry), and in order to complete the loop I need to cross to South Ferry and hike up the hill. As I watch a tern feeding its young as they sit (and defecate) on a sailboat a few yards offshore, I reflect that for once I am looking west instead of south. I sense a chapter in this project is ending today. Time to catch the bus.
The map at left is an enlargement of a Rhode Island map of 1798 showing Conanicut Island, with West and East Ferry connected by what was then called Ferry Road but is now Narragansett Avenue. Newport is at right, while South Ferry is at left across from West Ferry. A second, less utilized ferry to the north came into existence in 1707, hence there are two areas marked West Ferry on Conanicut and a North Ferry on the mainland.
The view back from South Ferry to Jamestown is more pleasing even than the view from Jamestown to Narragansett, if only because it means I am further along in my journey. What a nice place for a campus, I think to myself, and regret not becoming a marine biologist as I turn from Narragansett Bay and head up South Ferry Road, and begin the steep walk uphill to reach the plateau where the Post Road from Providence meets the Post Road from Newport. This unprepossessing road, almost a lane in character, with a chicken farm on one side and a scenic white church steeple on the right, is not only the modern version of an Indian Trail that followed the shortest and easiest route up the steep hillside to the plain above; it also is the start of a highway laid out in 1703 from South Ferry to Westerly that became part of “the great way traveled between Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.”(8) This is the road I shall essentially be traveling on for the remainder of this project. It has variously been called the Great Way, the Post Road, the Queen’s Highway (it was laid out during the reign of Queen Anne), the King’s Highway (since everyone after her was called George up to the Revolution), the Narragansett trail, the Pequot Trail (since it heads to the Pequot lands in Connecticut), and I am sure other names that elude me at the moment.
After fifteen minutes walk along South Ferry Road I reach the intersection with Route 1A (which we last encountered at the entrance to the village of Wickford.) This road is also called Boston Neck Road, another name for the long finger of land that terminates at Point Judith which today comprises the town of Narragansett. After writing about the Narragansett country for so long I am actually in a place called Narragansett. This town has been a favored resort for over a century and formerly was part of South Kingstown, from which it is separated by the Pettaquamscutt River, which in places is so wide it resembles a large lake rather than a river. The location of South Ferry was likely determined by the fact that the river is much narrower where it meets South Ferry Road, which is called Bridgetown Road after it crosses over Boston Neck Road. Bridgetown Road curves sharply as it reaches the river, crosses it at the narrowest point and curves back again before beginning a rather steep ascent uphill. At the top of McSparran Hill it intersects Tower Hill Road (US 1) at the point where I ended my walk the day before and began my excursion to Jamestown this morning. After almost seventy miles of walking I have completely encircled Narragansett Bay, following both branches of the Post Road from the point at which they separated in Pawtucket, to the top of this hill where they are rejoined in South Kingstown.
After a morning of walking the pleasant lanes of Narragansett and the tidy main street of Jamestown I look south towards Tower Hill, about two miles walk, and prepare for a long, hot walk alongside speeding traffic on Route 1. Birket commented that from South Ferry “we had 5 miles to one Casey’s at Tower Hill very bad stony road,” and I concur that it is a bad road, if not stony.(9) I take a deep breath and hit the road. It turns out to be not too bad. By now I am becoming accustomed to the traffic and the scenery is actually quite superb. There are horse farms along the road, lots of woods, occasional views out over the countryside to the ocean, where I can actually see cargo ships plying the waters presumably to New York.
Hamilton was impressed by the landscape around Tower Hill. More surprisingly the Reverend Bailey, our crusty fellow traveler who was so unfavorably disposed to the landscape and inhabitants of Warwick and Greenwich, observed about Tower Hill: “the people here live in better position than in most parts of the government.” (10)
Well they should have, as this area was occupied primarily by “Narragansett Planters,” wealthy landowners who owned large farms here and often maintained a residence in Newport across the bay as well. These “plantations” were primarily dairy farming and horse breeding operations, and they also provided food for the large population at Newport as well as for export to the Caribbean. They were large enough to need a lot of laborers, and it comes as something of a surprise to me to discover that not only did “Rhode Island hold more slaves than any of the other colonies in the North,” but that “at one period, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the township of South Kingstown exceeded, with the exception of Newport, the remainder of the colony in the number of enslaved negroes.” (11) Of the 3077 blacks counted in the 1748 census of the Colony of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations (that makes sense now, doesn’t it), 380 were in South Kingstown, while North Kingstown held 184 and neighboring Charlestown to the west held another 58. Most of the rest were in Newport, a major slave-trading port along with Bristol in the eighteenth century. There are still horse farms along the road here, and one working farm run by Historic New England, Casey Farm on Boston Neck, appears to be basically unchanged since the days of the Narragansett Planters.
If you are driving on Route 1 in South Kingstown, you will completely miss Tower Hill, the county seat until 1752 and the primary settlement in the area in the eighteenth century until it was supplanted both as the primary settlement and the county seat in 1752 by the village of Kingston to the west, currently the home of the main campus of the University of Rhode Island. (12) I almost miss it myself, and I am walking and specifically looking for it. The sole remnant of a once bustling village at the intersection of Tower Hill Road, Torrey Road, and Saugatuck Road, is a small cemetery that was once adjacent to a Congregational church built in the early eighteenth century. A plaque in the cemetery tells me that the land for the church was donated in 1707 by none other than Justice Samuel Sewall, the man who placed the first two milestones out of Boston and a frequent companion on my journey. Small world. Here too was the tavern run by Robert Case, who was so proud of his establishment that at least two of my fellow travelers had occasion to comment on his manner. Reverend Bailey tells us that the tavern was “well known as our host did not neglect to inform us, to all Gentlemen travellers from Piscataqua to South Carolina,” and that his host was “a most prodigious loquacious man,” while Hamilton, who was obliged to stay two nights as travel was forbidden on Sunday, commented that Case was “a talkative, prating man, and would have everybody know that he keeps the best publick house in the country.” (13,14) Even James Birket, who did not even stop there was informed that “this is reckon’d one of the best houses of entertainment in the Government, but being court time and a number of people there we did not stop.” (15) For a brief moment in the first half of the eighteenth century Tower Hill was the place in South County but was superseded first by Kingston, then Wickford, Wakefield, Peacedale, and Narragansett, until it ceased to exist at all, except as the name of a hill and the road that passes over it.
Back on the road, I pass a modern “village” called South County Commons, a self-contained mixed residential and commercial development meant to recreate the small town feeling of a real village, except that the stores are basically chains like Applebee’s and the development is at least a mile from any other inhabited place, necessitating a drive to do anything. I don’t see the appeal, but apparently it must work because this is not the first one I have seen on this trip. Except for South County Commons the views over the countryside to the ocean from this high plain are fantastic, and for the last two miles I can enjoy the views and pretend I am not walking on the side of a four-lane highway. I get lucky because for a few hundred yards one of the Old Post Road spurs that I have mentioned in previous entries allows me to escape the traffic and walk along the older quieter road, which is what it was probably like before they widened and straightened the road in the 1930s.
A sign indicating an exit from the highway to “Historic Wakefield” is a welcome sight. As I leave Route 1 for Old Tower Hill Road in Wakefield, I pass another old cemetery immediately adjacent to the exit road. This cemetery was once attached to a Quaker meeting house built here in 1700. The exit ramp off Route 1 is so close to the cemetery that I am surprised it has survived at all. Wakefield is the major commercial center of the southern part of South County. Old Tower Hill Road is lined with shopping malls and car dealerships until it intersects with Route 108 which heads north from Narragansett to Kingston. Then Old Tower Hill Road becomes Main Street as it passes through the more traditional town center, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. A bike path from Kingston Railroad Station to Narragansett passes through the town. Wakefield owes its success to the Saugatucket River which passes through the center of the village and was the source of power for the textile mills that developed here and in neighboring Peacedale. Today the mills have closed and many of the buildings have been transformed into condominiums and offices. I cross the pretty Saugatucket River and reach the intersection of Main Street and High Street. A few yards along Main Street, at the western edge of the town center, Old Post Road begins again. Only from now on I will head predominantly west instead of south as I have since I began this trip from Boston. The journey from Massachusetts Bay to Long Island Sound has ended, and the long journey along the northern shore of the Sound to its western terminus at New York City has begun. I watch the sun as it slowly descends over the horizon, and I start to walk toward it.
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