The View from Block Island

With its Victorian charm, dramatic vistas and miles of walking trails, the New England island provides timeless appeal.

February 10, 2002|By Sarah Clayton | By Sarah Clayton,Special to the Sun

To step onto the Block Island ferry is to step onto a time machine. In the 45 minutes it takes the ferry to go from Point Judith on the Rhode Island mainland to what the native Narragansett Indians called Manisses (Island of the Little God), time drifts like mist back over a hundred years to the late 19th century, when tourists suddenly began to pour into this 7-by-3-mile strip of land. Until then, it had been a sleepy backwater of farmers and fishermen -- much as it still is today in the winter.

The first steamboat dock opened on the island in 1873, and huge Victorian hotels went up almost overnight. Most of them are still there, lining the harbor like grande dames at a tea party.

Straight ahead is the National Hotel, rebuilt in 1903 after a fire. On its left is the 1879 Harborside Inn and the 1880 Inn at Old Harbor. On the right is my favorite, the multigabled 1876 Surf Hotel. Tucked in among them are smaller inns and farms turned bed and breakfasts, all with deep porches and rocking chairs, perfect for whiling away a hot summer's day.

Not that it gets very hot on Block Island. Summer highs rarely get out of the 80s, with low humidity.

In 1894, one of those many Victorian tourists observed: "The air is always cool and bracing, at the same time having a mildness unknown elsewhere. The island is free from all annoyances of mosquitoes. In many respects it is the most perfect summer resort in America."

I agree. Over the 20 years I've been going to Block Island, I have walked and biked most of it. Thirty-two miles of footpaths, called greenways, link and penetrate the numerous preserves there. Of the island's 6,000 acres, 2,000 are in conservation and open to the public. Rental bikes are big business as are -- to the dismay of the locals -- mopeds.

The first glimpse of Block Island I get from the ferry is of the 1867 North Light, a granite building with an iron turret that welcomes me like a hand raised in greeting.

From that flat northern tip, the land rises steadily to the 80-foot high Clay Head bluffs that recall my most favorite walk on Block Island -- from Settlers' Rock five miles back to town via the bluffs and beach.

Before setting off for the bluffs, though, walk the half-mile out to the North Light and enjoy its maritime museum, along with the hundreds of gulls nesting in the dunes there from mid-May to mid-July, squawking raucously like folks at a country auction. Over these dunes to the west is a long, sandy beach, which, as few people take the trouble to walk out to it, is generally deserted.

Back at Settlers' Rock, on which are listed the names of the 16 nonnative families who settled here in 1661, walk toward town. Take the first dirt road to the left, and you'll end up at the edge of the bluffs. Head south. After several miles of ponds, forests, blackberry bushes and splendid views, the trail will deposit you onto the north end of Crescent Beach. From there it's a pleasant 2-mile stroll back to town with plenty of opportunity for a swim in the clear, bracing waters.

Rough beginnings

Although it was the Dutch explorer Adrian Block who gave the island its name in 1614, Giovanni da Verrazano in April 1524 was the first European to make note of it: "We discovered an island triangular in form ... full of hills, covered with trees, much populated judging by the continuous fires along all the surrounding shore."

In 1636, some 1,200 Native Americans were living on the island (the population of 800 full-time residents today swells to some 20,000 in the summer) when a universally disliked white trader, John Oldham, was murdered there. Colonists from the mainland came over, landed on Crescent Beach -- now the most popular of the island's 17 miles of beach -- and savaged the island for three days.

In the late 17th century, a surveyor divvied up the island for the 16 white families wishing to settle it, leaving nothing for the 300 or so Native Americans still living there, who were subsequently absorbed into the society as servants and slaves.

The last Native American on Block Island, "Uncle Isaac" Church, died in 1886, and the land on which his home once stood is now, ironically, part of conservation lands.

Conservation efforts on the island began in earnest in 1972, when locals formed the Block Island Conservancy to stop developers from slathering houses over 37 acres of the pristine Rodman's Hollow on the south end of the island.

Named for Dr. John Rodman, the island's physician in the late 17th century, Rodman's Hollow is a glacial kettle, an oval depression formed when a block of ice breaks off a retreating glacier and eventually melts. Most of the 365 freshwater ponds on the island are kettles and are good for fishing in the summer and skating in the winter.

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