190926ind history

This historic photo shows the Saunders’ House in Saunderstown, an area that was forever changed thanks to the efforts of Stillman Saunders, who turned the quaint location into a transportation hub in the early 20th century.

There are a very few individuals who, in the course of their lives, had a lasting impact on their community. Stillman Saunders was such a man. He took the sleepy little seaside village named after his father John A. Saunders Jr. and made it into a transportation hub and a tourist attraction. He transformed the little fishing and shipbuilding hamlet into a place favored by the literati style celebrities of the age.

John A. Saunders Jr., along with his brothers Elias, Stephen and Daniel as well as partners William Caswell and Thomas Gould, came to Willettville, at the behest of investors Robert Rodman and the Carpenter family, quite simply to build boats. Stillman, who was born one year before the move, was the 11th child of 13. His uncles too had their share of children, so Stillman grew up surrounded by Saunders. Most of the male members of this large brood of cousins followed in their father’s footsteps and built ships of every size and description. Stillman, though, rose above his peers and with his brother and partner Martin Luther Saunders, took this noble trade to the next level.

Stillman Saunders saw the possibilities for Saunderstown. He realized that it was positioned properly to become the center of a transportation and tourism hub and he was just the man to take advantage of that opportunity. He designed and had constructed, there on the shoreline of Saunderstown, a series of steam-powered propeller driven ferry boats that he used to move people around the Narragansett Bay. The steam ferries Wyona and then Anawon were set up on daily runs that went from Saunderstown to Wickford to Providence and then back again. Across the years, he and Martin also designed and constructed ever-larger steam-powered ferries to carry folks from Saunderstown to Jamestown to Newport as well. These included the West Side, the J.A. Saunders, the Narragansett and finally the 373-foot-long Newport. Stillman, who also carried a master mariners rating as well, could often be seen at the helm of one of these vessels that he had designed.

Also, Stillman partnered with Providence, and later Wickford, resident Alonzo Cross, of Cross Pen & Pencil and constructed a grand summer hotel on the shoreline, just adjacent to his shipyard. That hotel, known as Outre Mer, or the Saunders House, became popular with travelers awaiting a ferry ride or traveling on the Sea View Electric Trolley, which had a stop just up the hill. He also built a number of rental cottages as well, that were reserved for the summers, usually years in advance. By the dawn of the 20th century, Stillman Saunders had his little village on the map for good.

Stillman Saunders died rather suddenly in 1911. He was buried along with his parents and numerous other Saunders relations in the family plot at Elm Grove Cemetery. His legacy lived on in the form of a grand hotel, numerous fine ferry boats plying the waters of Narragansett Bay, and a wonderful little village called Saunderstown.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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