One of the many things we do here in South County, better than the rest of RI if you ask me, is quirky! We are a quirky bunch, and our history is replete with quirky stories. Last week we examined the story behind Smith’s Castle, one of our iconic landmark locations, period of ownership by an underwear manufacturer. This week, lets check out the quirky tale of the candymen who saved Narragansett’s most popular viewscape.
We tend to think of historic preservation as a concept born in recent years. This interesting postcard image pictured above at left, however, tells a different story. At first glance it seems like a typical view of a summer’s day on the beach at Narragansett, no different 107 years ago when this colorized image was created than it is today in the 21st century. But if you look closely, you see a marked difference; the Towers, perhaps the signature structure in South County, the icon as it were for all that this region stands for, is nothing like it is today. At that juncture in time, only the stonework of the Towers remained; the rest of the building, along with the entire Narraganset Casino of which it was a part, the grand Rockingham Hotel and the adjacent Hazard block were destroyed in an enormous conflagration that began in the Rockingham on the afternoon of September 12, 1900. The Narragansett Casino, a larger version of its cousin in Newport that now houses the Tennis Hall of Fame, had been the heart and soul of the local social scene and the Narragansett Pier economy up until the moment it was consumed in the blaze.
No one knew then what the future held for the area. There was even talk of demolishing what was left of the grand towers. But then in 1905, things began to look up at Narragansett Pier. A group of investors, local businessmen and influential summer residents led by New Yorker Louis Sherry, an established provider of high-end confectionary items and a caterer of renown on both sides of the Atlantic, and John Hanan, descendant of the original Irish-born chocolate-maker who introduced that luxury item to this nation, decided to take action. They rebuilt a new, albeit smaller, version of the Narragansett Casino and included the preservation of the Towers in that plan. The Narragansett Pier and the Towers themselves were saved by the bold action of these candy men and their business partners.
The new casino at the Narragansett Pier operated in one form or another until some half a century later when it, too, was destroyed by a wind-whipped blaze. Those grand towers though, elegant artifacts of an earlier era saved by chocolate, fancy candies and trifles, survived to remind us of their remarkable past.