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Joanie Herrick, of North Kingstown takes her daily walk in Ryan Park with her dog, Geti, on Sept. 14.

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Ryan Park represents not only a slice of Rhode Island history but also a place of natural beauty, thriving wildlife and outdoor recreation. With the recent acquisition of an $88,000 grant the town of North Kingstown has hopes for updating the park and shining a light on some of its unique history.

The 400-acre park, wedged between RI Route 4 and Tower Hill Road, has an interconnected web of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding, that weave around Belleville Pond. It also has playing fields for team sports, especially softball. The fields are used primarily for men’s softball and for the North Kingstown Riptide, the town’s 16-and-under girls softball team.     

“Our travel teams actually, in 2021, they actually took home several championships” said Recreation Director Chelsey Dumas-Gibbs. “They’ve done really well and they’re all based right out of Ryan Park.”

The Riptides aren’t the only youth sports teams to be using Ryan Park as their home base. The North Kingstown cross country running teams also use the park despite the lack of dedicated running loops for the teams. An issue Dumas-Gibbs hopes the grant will help to solve.

“Right now their cross country meets are actually run through the softball fields because they don’t have good loops in the trails they can actually utilize safely. So what we want to do is go in and make a middle school cross country loop, an elementary school cross country loop and a high school cross country loop,” Dumas-Gibbs said.

In addition to updating the park’s sports facilities, the proposal for use of the grant includes a plan to highlight the park’s history and wildlife.

“We’re working with the town historian Tim Cranston and trying to put a little bit of historical value and put some signs up,” said Dumas-Gibbs. “When you come into the park you can see the osprey with their big nests on top of the tall light poles.”

Signage is currently one of the biggest things missing from Ryan Park. Funds from the grant will hopefully help with that by paying for trail markers, signage with information of local wildlife and historical information and a kiosk to provide visitors with details regarding the difficulty of trails and which are best suited for biking or hiking.

Dumas-Gibbs also hopes to put in a wheelchair accessible trail so that even more people can enjoy the park.

While many have heard rumors of the park’s past as a dump, there is more history than most would suspect. Few would realize that the very paths they walk as they pass through Ryan Park were used more than a hundred years ago as commuting paths for Rhode Islanders to get to work.

“Well it wasn’t really ever a dump,” Town Historian Tim Cranston clarified. “It was a sand and gravel pit. After it was shut down and left fallow eventually the town came in and planted that area with pines, and the area was called the North Kingstown Forest for a while.”

As one passes further into the park they may stumble across the remains of an old railway line. Built in 1870, the line was constructed to allow the wealthy of the time a more direct route to Newport.

“Before that the wealthy would have to get off in Providence and go through the city to get down to Newport” Cranston said. “They wanted a nice easy way to get to Newport so Cornelius Vanderbilt himself was actually the primary financier to build this railway so the Vanderbilts, the Astors and all their people could stay on their private rail cars… then they could just walk off and right onto a ferry boat and head to Newport.”

The paths that visitors to Ryan Park walk while enjoying scenic views were first made by locals working those rail lines or looking for an accessible walking path from Wickford.  Eventually the park was expanded and took over a space that was, as early as 60 years ago, an active landfill according to Cranston. Eventually the landfill was capped and became the baseball fields.

Dumas-Gibbs said she is exploring opportunities to hold more community events at the park.

“I’ve been brainstorming ideas if we could do food truck events or anything like that down there. I’m trying to brainstorm how we can bring a little bit more attention from the community down there and this grant and this master plan is part of that too.”

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