Jamestown Historical Society

Philadelphians shaped island during Progressive Era

Share this Page

“Jamestown is a quaint old place situated on Conanicut Island, in the southern part of Rhode Island, about halfway en route via Conanicut from Newport to Narragansett Pier,” The Times (Philadelphia) reported in August 1890. “It is a new and rapidly growing summer resort, seemingly with a special attraction for Philadelphia people.”

While Rhode Island’s pull was a combination of the state’s Quaker history and the desire to escape the city’s epidemics of yellow fever, Jamestown attracted the Philadelphians for its greater simplicity.

The 1890 story was followed by many others in the Philadelphia papers about the summer colony. At the turn of the century, The Philadelphia Inquirer had a Jamestown correspondent who filed a weekly segment for its society pages about the activities of summer visitors. During the summer, the paper reported who was here, where they were staying, what they were doing and who was entertaining them. A column in July 1900 reported “Philadelphians outnumber residents of all other cities here by a large majority.”

Jamestown "belles" on USS Kearsage
Jamestown "belles" on board the U.S.S. Kearsarge. Probably taken in August 1906 when the Great White Fleet visited Newport.

Much of the social life in the summer depended on the presence of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic squadron.

When the squadron left for an exercise in Maine in July 1900, the Inquirer’s correspondent lamented the event: “Men were scarce enough before, but now that the brass buttons of the officers have vanished, Eve’s daughters have no bearing by which to reckon while their fathers sadly miss the Cuban fluids from the flowing bowls at the flagship receptions.”

Before departing Narragansett Bay, the most exciting event of the week was watching divers clear the USS Indiana’s anchor chain from its propeller so the fleet could get underway. The boredom was somewhat relieved by the arrival of the British Squadron of North America and the West Indies in August.

Sports always were part of the entertainment. According to a report in July 1901, the clubhouse at Conanicut Yacht Club and the fishing camp at Hull’s Cove were “the most popular gathering points.” The yacht club had been founded nine years earlier by Philadelphians.

Later in the summer, visitors would attend dances, sail in regattas, race pigeons and cast for blackfish. They also would attend concerts at the newly formed Quononoquot Casino at the corner of Friendship Street.

The casino was built partially in response to an event in August 1900. A group of summer residents had prepared to present two theatrical plays to benefit St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Because no local hall was big enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend, many people had to be turned away.

The Inquirer’s correspondent reported the disgust of the summer residents with the lack of municipal support “knows no bounds.” The newcomers’ attitude toward year-round residents is captured in the self-congratulations that accompanied the description of the casino in September 1902: “The resort is rapidly growing more self-contained since the summer colony took the reins out of the hands of the natives, a year or two ago, and built a casino on its own account.”

The ferryboat, Conanicut, also attracted negative comments, with the newspaper calling it a “curious craft, dignified by the name of ferryboat.”

One of the complaints from August 1900 would be familiar today: the danger of a water famine. The proposed mitigation was “to water the streets with salt water.” Before the advent of the automobile, the streets were packed dirt and watering was necessary to keep the dust down and eliminate horse droppings.

Although there were automobiles in Jamestown previous to the report, the first notice of anyone driving to Jamestown from Philadelphia appeared in August 1904. Crawford and Nelson Allison made the 309-mile trip in “just twenty-four hours running time.”

Each season ended with two annual events. The first, Water Sports Day, was a marathon of diving contests, swimming meets, canoe jousting and sailboat races. Hosted by the Conanicut Yacht Club, all year-round residents were invited to participate and, according to records, “townies” triumphed in most events.

Jamestown Day Parade c1900
A parade on Jamestown Day circa 1900. The annual event featured Philadelphians showing off their equestrian skills.

A week or two later, Jamestown Day was celebrated. That event featured a parade in front of the large hotels to show off the equestrian skills of the summer visitors. It also featured vehicles of all kinds decorated with flowers as bands played. Sports and shows followed in a carnival atmosphere as a fitting end to a fun-filled summer.

Related Articles