Fox Island offers real and fictional tales of adventure

A wind generator occupies the eastern side of Fox Island, where life can be full of adventure. (Photo by Michael Derr)

I’ve got to say, Fox Island has always been a place that has caught my attention.  As a boy, it, like nearby Cornelius Island, always captured my imagination; heck what young man in the age of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson could resist daydreaming about islands, even islands as close as these two are.  Fox Island in particular was intriguing; it was easy to see from the shoreline anywhere south of Wickford, and it had a wonderful looking house on it as well. I wasn’t the only Wickford lad who wished he lived on Fox Island, that’s for sure. And then when I got a little older and found out that my ancestors once owned Fox Island; well I was hooked for sure — a certified lifetime fan of a little island just off the coast of our fair town.

Fox Island first shows up in the historic record in 1659 when it, then known by the Narragansett people as Sowonexet, was sold to Warwick founding fathers Randall Holden and Samuel Gorton along with the parcel of land known as the Homogansett just north of Rome Point. A decade or so later Gorton sold the two parcels of land to Col. John Cranston, son of the colonial Gov. Samuel Cranston. Col. John later deeded the land to his son Samuel who then sold it to Richard Smith of Cocumscussoc in June of 1686. The land stayed in Smith/Updike ownership until January of 1814 when the island, being of six acres in size was sold to Joseph, Giles, and John Pearce. During the early part of the 19th century, it was also owned by the Place and Northup families.

The first person known to live full time on Fox Island was Elder Jimmie Hammond, an itinerant preacher of the Gospel who shared the island with a great flock of chickens that he raised there throughout the middle half of the 1800s. Besides his faith, the island, and his chickens, Elder Hammond had two things he cherished above all else, his fine little cat boat that he sailed around the bay and his unabiding, unrequited love for the beautiful Wickford lass Rhoda Baker who lived on Pleasant Street. He courted her with a vengeance it seems, even naming his cherished catboat “Rhoda,” but his advances were always met with cold disdain and he was destined to remain a bachelor ‘til the end of his days. After finally realizing all his efforts were in vain, the dispirited preacher renamed his sailboat “Rhoda Wouldn’t” in remembrance of his fruitless wooing. Elder Jimmie Hammond died in November of 1873 as a result of being thrown from his wagon while on one of his many preaching trips on the mainland. Undoubtedly his last thoughts were of Rhoda.

The next time Fox Island shows up in the local lexicon is in 1889 when a former pastor of the Quidnessett Baptist Church, Rev. William P. Chipman, used it as the setting for a book for boys he wrote called “Budd Boyd’s Triumph – The Boy Firm of Fox Island.”  The tale featured Budd and his friend Judd Floyd, who ran away and lived in an abandoned house on the island, earning their living with the aid of their sloop the “Sea Witch” clamming and fishing and taking out sailing parties. The story includes thrilling adventures involving jewel thieves, jails and ambergris and is loaded with local references to places in the area. An interesting read if you can find a copy.

Perhaps the most interesting adventure associated with Fox Island, one that did not occur in a fictional world but in real life, was the tale of brothers Howard, Joseph, and Edward Sprague and Howard Jr., Earl Jecoy, Harold Baker, and William Rice, all carpenters working for retired Providence jewelry factory owner Harvey Prew. Prew had purchased the island in May of 1938 from its owner Annie Breslin, then hired the local men to build the big house that exists there to this day for his family to use during the summers. These men had no idea what awaited them one cloudy day in September of that same year when they motored out to Fox Island to continue working on the big house they were building. As the sky darkened, the seas increased, and the winds picked up, the men knew something was seriously amiss with the weather. The high tide came bigger than ever and Prew’s motor launch “The Lone Ranger”, which was tied up at the dock broke loose from its moorings. Howard and Edward Sprague left in the work boat to try to catch the runaway launch just before the storm surge from the Great Hurricane of 1938 hit the island.  The remaining men on Fox had retreated to the unfinished house sitting in a small dory in what would be the living room waiting for they knew not what, fully expecting the worst. The sea continued to rise until the entire island was submerged four feet under the seas. They listened to the sounds of howling storm just outside the walls of the unfinished home as they awaited their fate. In the meantime, Prew’s launch was dashed against the rocks on Wild Goose Point and the workboat, with Howard and Edward in it, met the same fate along the shoreline of Poplar Point. Miraculously both men were able to swim ashore just adjacent to the old lighthouse, and survived their harrowing ordeal. Back on Fox Island the men in their little rowboat, within the shell of the unfinished house, witnessed the full wrath of the storm. The seas swept away most of the island’s other structures and deposited them on the shores of Quonset Point. Boats, docks, and even small houses flew by them in the roiling seas as the storm surge passed by and then swept past them again on its way back out to sea. When the storm and its killer surge finally abated, the men hiding in the house were astonishingly, amazingly still alive and intact.  They were rescued around midnight that night by a search party consisting of William Rice Jr., Rollin Mason, and T. Morton Curry in a battered but serviceable watchman’s boat from Mason’s oyster company. Although one of the men understandably said, “No thanks, I’ve seen enough of Fox Island to last me a lifetime!” most of them returned and finished the job they had started before the storm hit.  The fine sturdy house they built, standing there to this day, is a testimony to their bravery and a reminder of the power of the sea.

Fox Island, albeit a bit smaller at 4 ½ acres now after the ravages of the Great Gale of 1815, and the 1938 Hurricane, is still a beautiful and inviting place. Its recent history includes ownership by a pediatrician that allowed some of his patients to visit this little slice of paradise and a well known local dentist.  It sits out there still, taking hold of my imagination as a great place to live; except of course when the next 100-year storm hits. Hold on to your hat for that one!

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

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