September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Block Island is a small, sandy interruption of Long Island Sound. Despite its apparent accessibility—it lies within two hundred miles of more than twenty million people—Block Island is as stubborn an interruption of the twentieth century as it is of the sea.
Islanders often reassure first-time visitors that their initial impressions won’t fade: with its rolling hills and stone walls spotted with lichen, Block Island is reminiscent of southern England or Ireland. It is European, too, in its sense of the past. On Block Island, history accumulates like a kind of local natural resource.
The Indians called Block Island Manisses, “island of the little god.” Only three miles wide and seven long, it was aptly named. In 1614, however, Adrian Block of Amsterdam changed the name to his own when he circumnavigated the island and drew a map on which he labeled it “Adrian’s Eyland.”
After being annexed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early seventeenth century, Block Island was sold in 1660 to sixteen individuals, many of whom took up residence one year later. These settlers encountered a vastly different island from that which is known to their descendants. It was heavily forested and inhabited by a local tribe of about three hundred Manissean Indians. That these few families left any descendants at all is something of a surprise; in that era it was commonplace for such settlements to end in failure. That the original settlers’ family names were accounted for in a 1790 census is a testimony to perseverance. That the surnames of the 1790 census remain well represented in the current telephone directory is proof of formidable tenacity.
Over the next two hundred years, Block Island gradually assumed its characteristic treeless appearance as virtually the entire island was cleared to supply food for the necessarily self-sufficient community. By this time experience had taught the islanders three rules: Never expect a day without wind; never expect visitors; but always be prepared for a shipwreck.
It was no coincidence that sailors nicknamed the island the Stumbling Block. For it is surrounded by some of the most treacherous waters in New England. The sea ensured Block Island’s almost total isolation well into the nineteenth century. Although it is only ten miles south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, and fourteen miles northwest of Montauk Point, New York, the lack of a natural harbor guaranteed that the island’s few guests would be castaways. There was no convenient port for island fishermen either, but they learned to cope in two ingenious ways. They invented the Block Island double-ender, a fishing boat designed so that it could be hauled onto the beach after each outing. And off the eastern coast of the island, the fishermen drove long oak poles into the sand when the tide was low to secure the fleet at high water. Eventually hundreds of boats were moored in what became known as Pole Harbor.
In the 1870s several islanders persuaded the government to build a breakwater near the site of Pole Harbor. Completed in 1873, the project created what is known today as Old Harbor and effectively issued an invitation for mainlanders to visit the island.
Just about this time the country was preparing to celebrate its centennial. Concern over immigration, crowded cities, and a flurry of new technologies combined with pride in the nation’s centenary to spark a romance with the past. This desire to return to simpler times prompted a flowering of American architecture, with a revival of early American and colonial styles.
Thanks to its isolation, Block Island had never abandoned the way of life that mainlanders now so admired. By the turn of the century the island had become a resort, with more than thirty hotels to house summer crowds that sometimes numbered two thousand visitors a day. Guests “took the water” at the Spring House or visited Mohegan Bluffs—reportedly the highest cliffs in New England. During the boom new houses went up with porches, awnings, and gingerbread trim.
Depite its popularity, Block Island remained fashionable for only three decades. World War I and the Depression kept the tourists away, and then the 1938 hurricane damaged the island, wiping out its fishing fleet and changing its very geography. The old farming community lost barns and livestock and gave what was left of the fields back to nature. Before long the once cultivated hills were overgrown with bayberry, as they remain today.
After the hurricane Block Island was again forgotten. But recently a wave of affection for old towns and Victorian architecture has restored the island’s popularity. Surveyed together, the houses and hotels of Block Island form a rare, uninterrupted archive of early American and Victorian design. In fact, the entire Old Harbor district is listed on the National Register for Historic Buildings. Oddly enough, though, it is only Block Island’s man-made vistas that remain unaltered. The changes in the natural aspect of the island tell a clearer story of the upheavals of the past century.