190530ind History

Walker Armington served aboard the Civil War ship USS Monongehela, which saw heavy action against the Confederate navy and against various shore batteries.

You know, one of my pet peeves is local street names that have absolutely no connection to the community they are in. You find these mostly in new neighborhoods — vast stretches of suburbia with streets named ironically after the trees that were uprooted and the birds and wildlife that were displaced in the almost crass and certainly obscene process that created them.  Why here in our fair town we’ve got numerous “glen” this and “field” that streets and avenues situated in locations where glens and fields are only a hazy memory of long time residents like myself.  But the older neighborhoods are a different matter. Don’t get me wrong, just as many bucolic vistas were truncated in their creation as there were in the newer neighborhoods, but at least in these older neighborhoods the street names mean something, they commemorate something; even if most folks have forgotten what that something was.

Take Poplar Point for example. The street names here tell a story of sorts; for the most part the story of the place. Steamboat and Newport Avenues commemorate this location’s connection to the steam-powered ferries of the Newport & Wickford Line which once sailed daily from her shores. Lexington & Concord Avenues remind us that this place once served as the location for a cannon that protected Wickford Harbor during the Revolution. Lawton Avenue is there to remind us of Beriah Lawton, the man who owned this little peninsula during most of the 19th century, and Wright Lane harkens back to the Wright Family, the 20th century folks that were responsible for old Beriah’s land being turned into a neighborhood. And then there’s Armington Avenue, named after a remarkable man named Walker Armington.  Let’s take a gander at Walker Armington and his connection to this neighborhood.

Walker Armington was born in the first half of the 19th century into an ancient Rhode Island family with roots that extend back to the colonial era.  His name speaks proudly of his ancestral connections not only to the Armingtons, but to the Walkers as well, another clan with a long history in New England. By the time of the Civil War, his branch of the family had relocated to Worcester, Mass., and were prominent merchants in that community. Walker Armington served throughout the Civil War in the US Navy on the warship Monongehela; a vessel that saw plenty of action during its involvement in the siege on Mobile Bay, the naval battles off the shores of Galveston and the many blockades across the Gulf Coast. When the war was over, Walker Armington returned to his family in Worcester and entered the family business; eventually making the Armington clan of Worcester the most successful grocers in all of central Massachusetts. As he began to think about retirement, he also was drawn back to the sea and longed for a place where he could be on the ocean. With that in mind, in 1894, Walker Armington purchased a two acre parcel of land on Poplar Point from Beriah Lawton and commenced construction of a fine summer home there. At that time the only structures on Poplar Point were the old lighthouse, then also used as a summer home by textile baron Henry Tiffany of Providence and New Bedford, the ancestral home of Beriah Lawton situated where the town beach parking lot is now, and the numerous buildings utilized by the Newport & Wickford Line all located along the peninsula’s northern shore. Indeed it was the Newport steam ferries that sailed from Poplar Point that had brought Walker Armington to Wickford in the first place, as he often took his family on holiday to Newport via Wickford.

Now, as Walker Armington was desirous of having some sort of a sheltered cove to use as both a family beach and to allow him to dock a small sailboat there, he created his own cove of sorts by beaching the hulks of two old schooners along either end of the shoreline in front of his home. Eventually Armington docked his fabled small sailboat, the “Chesapeake canoe” Ethel Ford here to the delight of his family. The Ethel Ford’s 28-foot hull was constructed of three enormous hollowed-out logs and she was originally designed as a vessel to be used on the Chesapeake Bay to harvest oysters. A novelty of sorts on the Narragansett Bay, she was also one of the original sailing vessels to be a part of the first incarnation of the Wickford Yacht Club.

The Walker Armington House stayed in the Armington family for the better part of four decades and delighted numerous generations of Armingtons, including Walker Armington Jr. and Walker Armington III.  The house was finally sold in the early 1930s and the Armingtons left Wickford behind. But they are forever commemorated by a little street near their old home called Armington Avenue.

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

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