NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A little over 250 years ago, farmers who lived near what’s now Wilson Park constructed a causeway in the salt marsh to allow for more open space in the growing village.
“The farmers used the Wilson Park area of the mainland to graze their cows and have their wood lots and their farms, so they had to have a way to get their carts and their cows back-and-forth and so mucking through a salt marsh turns to mud very rapidly, so the farmers built this back in 1770 and it’s been in use ever since,” Land Conservancy of North Kingstown Project Coordinator Gidget Loomis said.
Over the years, the herds of grazing cattle have given way to families, joggers, dog walkers and others out and about at Wilson Park since the town acquired the area in the ‘90s. Like many things in nature and the elements, however, the causeway began showing its age.
“There was a culvert underneath the causeway to get water into the salt marsh, (and) 20 to 25 years ago that culvert under the causeway collapsed and that’s an emergency,” Loomis said. “A salt marsh is living, there’s all kinds of marine life in there, so the town went in with a backhoe and just dug a trench across it into the marsh and then they left it, so for 20 to 25 years that has eroded, but in spite of that, people still walk the causeway daily. We’ve got a lot of walkers and dog walkers in the Wickford area and then we’ve got all the trails in Wilson Park. People even rock hop across the stream.“
With that in mind, the LCNK knew something had to be done to ease access in Wickford and around the popular walking area.
“For many years we bugged the recreation department to either put a culvert in or put a bridge across, but either one way or another to connect the trail and they saw the value in it but with all the other athletic fields and parks that have to be taken care of, they went ‘yeah that’s a good idea,’ but they never did it,” Loomis said. “So about three years ago our local land trust, the Land Conservancy of North Kingstown, offered to take the project on on behalf of the town and they said yes and so we have spent the last three years grant writing and fundraising to come up with the money and working cooperatively with the town to get coastal resources permits.”
Loomis said the LCNK has received plenty of financial support from state organizations and the town as well as local foundations such as the Champlin Foundation, Rhode Island Foundation, the Kimball Foundation and more.
“We have some legislative branch as well as some fabulous support from residents as well as from small businesses,” Loomis said, including Waterman Engineering, National Grid, Kaiser Tree Services, Oak Hill Tavern, Cassie’s Cans and Pleasant Street Wharf.
Initially work was slated to begin in December, but with the statewide two week pause in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, plans were pushed back until the weekend of April 17 and 18, with supplies brought over to the sight on the 16.
“(On April 16) we went over to Public Works and uncovered the pallets and loaded them onto pick up trucks and Pleasant Street Wharf brought their big, long boat hauling trailer, because the bridge is 35 feet long, so a bunch of the pieces are 35 feet long, so last Friday afternoon in the cold and rain we loaded them up and deliver them to the site and then Saturday morning volunteers showed up and we started building and the whole thing goes together with nuts and bolts and being in a marine environment we had to pay extra for marine grade stainless steel hardware that’s going to survive in the saltwater environment and so (after the first weekend it’s) about 80% complete,” Loomis said.
After the first weekend, Loomis said they were waiting for Imperatore Crane from Cranston to have some time in their schedule to come in.
“They have a small crane with a telescoping arm that will come in next to the gourmet shop and pick it up with slings and once that’s in place the town can come in and put in the anchors and then we can tighten up all the bolts and put on the decking and the safety rails and will be ready to roll,” Loomis said.
“We’ve had tremendous support from businesses and so the crane company is greatly discounting their normal price so we have to sort of fit it into their busy schedule because it’s their busy season, so hopefully we can get it done in the next month or two,” Loomis said.
One of the challenges Loomis said of constructing a bridge with volunteers during the pandemic is ensuring social distancing measures.
“I took the original building instructions and totally re-wrote them so that we could build each side independently so that we could keep people distanced,” Loomis said. “The people that did the majority of the building, which is holding the pieces together and putting the bolts in and you’re literally working on top of each other so those people we had household pairs and then we had other people bringing in parts.”
Loomis said the work the first weekend was done a lot faster than she anticipated.
“We had volunteers lined up for Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon and an optional crew for Sunday morning and we got a built in three and a half hours,” Loomis said.
Following installation, the LCNK next will have to tackle signage.
“We have to do directional signage, especially because the art festival is going to be at Wilson Park and there’s a little trail from Wilson Park to the end of Newtown Avenue and the west end of this trail is maybe 75 feet away from it, so basically if you’re going and you think of the huge soccer tournaments they hold at Wilson Park with hundreds and hundreds of people that are here for a weekend going back-and-forth to Wickford for drinks and lunches and so they’re either walking on busy 1A or now they can take a scenic route,” Loomis said.
It will also help connect the area over to the LCNK’s Bush Hill Reserve.
“There’s trails there that connect the various neighborhoods and connecting that to Wickford village and all the trails at Wilson Park, it’s going to greatly increase the available space and the available trails for people out walking,” Loomis said. “Eventually we’ll get another coastal resources permit to put in ramps so that the ramps will be accessible by bicycles and strollers.”
Overall, Loomis said that she’s proud to be able to help preserve a site with both historic and recreational value to the community.
“It’s preserving not only a part of history, but a great recreational resource four not only all the residents here but for all the visitors,” Loomis said. “If any of the local schools want to come to the salt marsh, with the west trails (that) will open right on Newtown Avenue and the salt marsh is easily accessible for science classes. We’ve been working with two teachers at North Kingstown high school, some of the advanced placement teachers and they’re interested in doing more environmental work so they see it as a great resource.”
She’s also very thankful for the support LCNK has received from the community at large on this project.
“We’ve had tremendous support from local businesses as well as individuals,” We are thrilled with the community support and just a little bit about our land trust, as I said, we are a nonprofit,” Loomis said. “We’ve been around since 1988 and our primary goal is preserving open space and natural resources in North Kingstown. We own probably about 15 small properties and then we co-hold conservation easements with the town and in some cases federal agencies on seven different properties, most of which are working farms, so this causeway project is not our usual, but we felt it was important enough to offer to put in the time and the effort and the money to support the town.”
Construction of the bridge is slated to be completed by the end of June. For more information on the LCNK, visit their website, lcnk.org.