Jamestown Historical Society

‘America’s most natural’ golf course

This article was written by Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden for The Jamestown Press on September 28, 2023. 
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Winswepe
Winswepe, sometimes spelled Wyndesweepe, built circa 1885, was H. Audley Clarke’s summer cottage on Prospect Hill Farm. (JHS, P1975.015)

Audley Clarke, born in 1862 in Staten Island, N.Y., had Newport and Jamestown roots.

His ancestor Jeremiah Clarke (1605– 52) was one of the founders of Newport and an early governor of Rhode Island.

In the 18th century, the family engaged in the Triangle Trade, transporting 3,987 enslaved Blacks from Africa to the Caribbean islands and southern Colonies, according to available manifests. They also brought products north from the Southern plantations. The Clarkes acquired a 400-acre farm that ran south from Prospect Hill to Austin Hollow and spanned the Beavertail peninsula from the West Passage to Mackerel Cove.

Clarke owned a building and masonry business in Brooklyn, and the family visited their Jamestown farm in the summer. One of the company’s major customers was the City of New York. In 1922, Clarke pleaded guilty to violating the antitrust law following a price-fixing investigation. He then retired to Jamestown. He was determined to build a first-class golf course on the family farm.

Clarke’s first step was to hire Albert Warren Tillinghast, a well-known golf course architect who had remodeled the course at the Newport Country Club in 1924. Tillinghast was enthusiastic. “Nature laid out this course,” he reportedly said the first time he visited the Clarke farm. “Man can do nothing to improve upon its work.”

Indeed, his initial plans had no man-made bunkers on the entire 18-hole course although the final design added sand hazards.

The first nine holes of the course, a par-36 layout totaling 3,233 yards, were built on the west side of Beavertail Road. A small stream flowed between the tee and green on four of the holes.

The back nine, a par-35 layout totaling 3,190 yards, were on the Mackerel Cove side north and east of the Clarke’s summer house, Winswepe, at about 305 Beavertail Road.

Nature laid out this course... Man can do nothing to improve upon its work.

- Renowned Golf Course Architect Albert Warren Tillinghast

This large wooden sign was attached to the chimney at Winswepe, Clarke’s summer home on Beavertail Road. The sign is on display in the rear stairwell of Jamestown Town Hall.
This large wooden sign was attached to the chimney at Winswepe, Clarke’s summer home on Beavertail Road. The sign is on display in the rear stairwell of Jamestown Town Hall. (JHS, 2010.019.001)

According to Daniel Wexler in “The Missing Links: America’s Greatest Lost Golf Courses & Holes,” “Beaver Tail was one of America’s most natural courses.”

The course opened in 1925 and an eight-room clubhouse was built in 1927. A caretaker cottage completed the complex in 1928.

While some thought the course would be Clarke’s private playground, the Providence Journal reported in July 1925 that the Beaver Tail Golf Club would “be open to all summer cottagers and summer hotel guests coming to the island upon payment of ordinary golf club fees.” Clarke announced his intention to eventually turn the golf course over to the town.

For a short time, Clarke seemed satisfied with his accomplishment. Then in 1929 — after the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression, but perhaps before its implications were fully understood — he came forward with a larger plan. He would build a 100-room hotel on the land south of Winswepe. The hotel would offer luxury accommodations with all modern amenities. Jamestown would become a mecca for golfers.

The town council agreed to Clarke’s request for tax relief as the complex was developed. The board of trade, which is equivalent to the modern chamber of commerce, endorsed the project. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately due to the financial slowdown of the 1930s, the building of the hotel became inexorably mixed with a proposal to move the West Ferry terminal a mile north to Orchard Street, the extension of Weeden Lane to the West Passage.

Why Clarke favored the northern terminus of the ferry is a puzzle since it would not seem to benefit him, but he did. He announced he would not build the hotel if the ferry terminal were not moved.

At a special town meeting in February 1930, the electorate voted by a 3-to-2 margin to keep the West Ferry terminal at the end of Narragansett Avenue. Clarke withdrew his plans for the hotel. Not long after, he transferred the Beaver Tail Golf and Country Club to the Beavertail Corporation, to be operated for the benefit of the residents. He turned to other Jamestown interests, becoming president of the Jamestown Historical Society in 1932.

For 10 years the club flourished, but it could not survive the restrictions of World War II. In July 1943, the club president filed for bankruptcy.

Clarke died in 1947 at the age of 84.

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