NARRAGANSETT — Those spending a day at Narragansett Pier during the summer of 1888 probably felt greatly relieved.
One of the worst blizzards in history, the Great Blizzard of 1888 surprisingly struck on March 12 of that year, killing scores of people up and down the east coast. Those who made it to Narragansett – be it the wealthy vacationers or local residents working at the hotels – were most likely thrilled to be enjoying summer, having survived the devastating storm.
To be at Narragansett Pier for the summer season those 125 years ago, to ride in a horse-drawn carriage under the newly constructed Narragansett Casino with its stone porte-cochere spanning Ocean Road, to gaze from its open windows, or listen to a concert in its open garden, must have erased any lingering memories of the Great White Hurricane of 1888.
Months before summer arrived – and just days after the blizzard – Narragansett had attracted the attention of the General Assembly.
According to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission’s “Historic and Architectural Resources of Narragansett, R.I.,” published in 1991, “the character and economy of the Narragansett area with its extensive commercial and resort development prompted the General Assembly to incorporate the district of Narragansett in March, 1888.”
That March 1888 date inspired a group of local residents to establish a 125th anniversary committee celebrating Narragansett’s official designation as a separate voting district from South Kingstown. A committee has been meeting for several months, making plans for an open house to be held at The Towers this weekend, with exhibits and other events.
According to Maureen Crowley, Narragansett’s economic development and marketing coordinator, The Towers will be open to mark the event Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, for various events.
During the past several months, committee members, historical society members and volunteers have been researching town history to get an idea about life in the seaside town those 125 years ago. Foremost among them is author and URI Professor Emeritus Richard Vangermeersch of Narragansett.
“It really wasn’t the General Assembly, it was Rowland G. Hazard who was the prime motivator,” he said of efforts to split Narragansett and South Kingstown. “He originally wanted to grab the industrial spots and he wanted to control the coast.”
Vangermeersch said Hazard, an influential South Kingstown mill owner, felt South Kingstown’s agricultural interests “were keeping them down.”
“Hazard wanted to gut South Kingstown from everything but farmland.”
What exactly was Narragansett like in 1888 as efforts were made to set it up as a town separate from South Kingstown?
Those involved in this weekend’s events have theories and images, including John Miller and Jim Crothers of South County Museum who are preparing an exhibit.
“Narragansett was THE place to go before Newport,” Crothers said. “It attracted all kinds of extraordinary visitors.”
Several of the huge hotels distinguishing it as a resort had already been built, including The Continental, the Revere House, the Massasoit and the Atlantic. So it was already a busy place, with large summer cottages, too, going up at the time.
Crothers said it was South Kingstown’s Hazard family that saw Narragansett as having commercial potential and joined in the proposal to separate the two areas. The Narragansett Pier Railroad, which was constructed by the Hazards, opened in 1876 and improved access to the Pier area from the Kingston Station almost 10 miles away.
“The society at the Pier and in the vicinity is select. Merchants, manufacturers, statesmen, men of letters and practical science, and eminent professional characters of every sort, choose this as their favorite summer retreat,” quotes an 1880s guide book to Narragansett Pier referenced in the Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission’s book.
Miller, a longtime Narragansett resident, has conducted extensive research into the town’s past. He thinks 1888 was among its busiest years.
“This place was really booming,” he said. “It was thriving.”
But he also adds, that in 1888, it was pretty exclusive, with significant names found among those building or renting homes, such as The Rev. Francis Wharton, legal adviser to the State Department in Washington, and R.G. Dun of New York, who is said to have welcomed President Chester A. Arthur to his Narragansett fishing grounds.
Miller suspects the Philadelphia and New York visitors were attracted to Narragansett over Newport for a number of reasons, one being “the beaches were better,” he said.
In “A Sketch of Narragansett Pier, Its Past, Present and Future,” a booklet published by the Narragansett Times in 1888, notes: “One of the greatest features, if not the greatest in the popularity of the Pier is its bathing beach ... Imagine a mile or more of broad glistening sand sloping gradually to the waters (sic) edge and sweeping northward in a crescent like curve until its contour is broken on the north by the waters of the Pettaquamscutt river.”
“There were hoards of people coming here,” said Miller, noting the many stores in the downtown shopping district, and the international polo matches held here.
Checking a Rhode Island Manual, he noted that in 1890, Narragansett is listed as having a population of 1,408. Fishing and farming were still major sources of work at the time, but in summer, the hotels – at one point there were at least 17 – employed many.
“The pavilion and beaches were there, everything was in place,” Crothers said from the South County Museum office, which sits at the center of land that once held Canonchet, the 60-room mansion built by William and Kate Chase Sprague. William was Rhode Island’s governor in 1860, a two-term senator and the first president of the Narragansett District Council in 1888.
Kate was the daughter of Salman P. Chase, secretary of the treasury under President Abraham Lincoln and later chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1879, Kate was romantically linked with the flamboyant New York Senator Roscoe Conkling.
It is said that Conkling stepped off the train in Rhode Island in the summer of 1879, headed for Narragansett Pier. He reportedly was enjoying little neck clams when William Sprague, in a jealous rage, rushed into the seaside restaurant where Conkling was dining, searching for “the damned scoundrel,” as noted in the book “Kate Chase for the Defense.”
The Spragues would later divorce and William would bring another wife to Canonchet before it was destroyed by fire in 1909. (Kate left Narragansett, but returned in 1890 for the funeral of her son, Willie, while Conkling – who insisted on trudging home through the March Blizzard of 1888 from his Wall Street office – died of pneumonia.)
The shell of the carriage house remains across from the central buildings of the South County Museum, a reminder of what it once was.
“If what existed in Narragansett then existed now, we, Narragansett would be on a par with Newport,” said Crothers, who will be bringing some of the museum’s historical clothing collection to the weekend exhibit.
According to research provided by Joy Emery, project director of the Commercial Pattern database located in the University of Rhode Island Library Special Collections, bathing suits or costumes of the 1880s were often woolen and rentable. Women often wore stockings and bathing slippers while at Narragansett’s beach, and the only flesh exposed was the face and hands.
When not at the beach, women probably wore “a corset, chemise, stockings, a bustle, a fitted long-sleeve, high-neck bodice, skirt and overskirt swept into a bustle. For strolls on the beach, kid gloves, lace hats and parasols were recommended. Gentlemen wore high stiff-collared shirts and ties, trousers, usually with braces (suspenders), a waistcoat (vest) and a jacket. Straw boaters were very popular for summer,” she noted.
At the time, Newporters were coming to Narragansett by boat, docking and embarking by carriage and foot to any number of establishments, most notably, the Narragansett Casino, a very different place from the current usage of the word casino.
Designed by the New York firm of McKim, Mead and White, it was built between 1883 and 1886. The impressive, large structure stretched across a city block from the oceanside span to Mathewson Street. It was said to offer at the time, indoor and outdoor dining, tennis courts, a ballroom and concert hall. Merchants are said to have had shops on the first floor.
A 1900 fire that destroyed the famed Casino, towering Rockingham Hotel and business block, was called the darkest day at Narragansett Pier and some say, turned visitors elsewhere.
But the advent of the automobile and a shifting culture also affected the resort town, and though another Casino would be built, and The Towers restored and damaged several times over the century, the 1880s- and 1890s-type seaside resort changed with the times.
And in March 1901, Narragansett was chartered as a separate town.
What remained of the Casino served and suffered in many ways during ensuing eras, including as rentable apartments, an ice cream shop and a dance hall. The stone towers at times were left cold and closed to the public. There was even talk in the 1960s of tearing down this last link to the resort town. But the late Gov. John H. Chafee apparently used contingency fund money to purchase the building from Harold C. Arcaro, turning it over to the Narragansett Preservation and Improvement Association. That group raised money to repair the building before turning it over to the town for further improvements.
While the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce has used a ground floor office for many years, the remainder of the building was opened only on and off as money was raised and grants procured and private funds donated to restore it. After years of fundraising and restoration, what was left of the Casino reopened in 1991, and these days, the building is often the site of weddings, concerts and other social events, and this weekend will be a reminder of what was and what evolved since 1888.
“March 1888 is a significant moment in Narragansett’s history,” Vangermeersch said, adding simply: “It took us out of South Kingstown.”
Douglas M. Vogel, of the newly reorganized Narragansett Historical Society, said a collaborative effort to put together a commemorative stamp and post mark for this weekend’s event was made possible by a donation by fellow Narragansett Historical Society member Richard Vangermeersch, who will also have an historic memorabilia exhibit at the event. The stamps and post marks will be sold by the Narragansett Historical Society as a fundraiser. A temporary postal station will be set up at The Towers Friday from noon to 5 p.m.