191024ind History

Capt. Billy Reynolds may have died in 1902 at the age of 91 but his influence on North Kingstown remains today.

The “Old Salt” Capt. Billy Reynolds was already part of the character of the community here in North Kingstown when the article in the Dec. 10, 1893 Providence Journal celebrating his 70 years working the Narragansett Bay and the Block Island Sound hit the newsstands. Just about everyone around was quite familiar with the crusty old fishing boat captain who had spent seven decades harvesting the bounty of the sea while beating the odds and avoiding a one-way ticket to Davey Jones locker in the process. Why, he was his own man, and he and his 18-foot fishing sloop “Sea Flower” were considered part of Wickford’s “local color” in the village’s heyday during the last quarter of the 19th century. Captain Billy wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Billy Reynolds was born in Wickford in 1811 and by the time he was 12 years old had already made up his mind about how he would spend his life; the sea called to him and he never looked back. He spent the majority of his time as a cod fisherman working in the Block Island Sound sailing his sloop out of Wickford, or Point Judith, or Block Island itself. By the middle of the century, Billy was calling Block Island home, and had married an island gal, Angelina Mitchell and began a family with her. North Kingstown though, called out to Billy and he was determined to move back to his former home. When Billy Reynolds made up his mind, nothing was going to change it, and this case was no exception even though the time he chose to relocate his family of five was during the yearly season of the dreaded Block Island Sound nor’easters. Undetermined by the weather or the naysayers who advised he wait out the fall and winter; Billy set out alone from Wickford in a 37-foot centerboard sloop “The Tanner” that he borrowed from his friend Sheriff Thomas Wightman to pick up his wife, three small children, and household belongings from the island. Shortly after reaching the island a nor’easter set in, and Billy and Angelina rushed to load their furniture, belongings, and young ’uns on the Tanner. Everyone on the island told Billy it was madness to sail back to Wickford but he wouldn’t hear it. He and Angelina secured their infant son and two daughters in the forecastle of the sloop and set off for the mainland. With his sails reefed for the storm and a sea anchor set, Billy, doing the work of a handful of sailors, and with his wife Angelina at the tiller, set out into the gale-force winds heading for Wickford. A week after he had left, they pulled into Wickford Harbor, a little bit worse for wear, but intact and ready to move into their new home. I guess 19th century Block Island women were an all together different sort.

Decades later, in the 1890s, Capt. Billy and his sloop the Seaflower were still at it; although by then Billy, in his 80s, was harvesting seaweed from the Narragansett Bay islands for sale as fertilizer and fodder, rather than codfish out of the sound. He was a renowned local storyteller of sorts and was pleased to regal just about anyone was interested in listening with stories from his life; tales of buried treasure and ghost ships off Block Island, harrowing adventures battling giant codfish and raging nor’easters, and about the time he was featured in the Providence Journal. Old fishing boat Captain Billy Reynolds died in January of 1902 at the age of 91 and a little piece of North Kingstown died with him.

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

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