A few weeks ago, The Block Island Times asked its readers for help identifying a thick, rusty metal cable that, over the decades, occasionally re-emerges from the sand near the entrance to the beach at Dorry’s Cove. (See accompanying photo.)
We ended up hearing from a number of readers with interesting insights.
One wondered if it was a lifeboat launching cable left over from a former Lifesaving Station, while another suggested it might be one of the early telephone cables to the mainland.
However, the most intriguing — and likely the most accurate — observation was that the cable was one of many installed on the island during World War II in the effort to combat German submarines.
Longtime island visitor and current New Hampshire resident Mike Murphy, whose mother and grandmother were both born on the island, heard anecdotally through the years that the cable was installed during the war.
Murphy pointed us to a section of the 2010 Ocean SAMP (Special Area Management Plan), prepared by University of Rhode Island history professors Rod Mather and John Jensen as the state was considering the Block Island Wind Farm proposal.
According to the study, “[d]uring WWII, as German submarines threatened the Atlantic coast of the United States, the U.S. military renewed its interest in signal stations and communication cables. As a result, the army and navy initiated an extensive cable laying operation, requiring governmental easements over private property on land and the designation of new cable corridors in Rhode Island Sound, Block Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.”
It goes on to say that this effort “included cables from Block Island to Fort Greene (near Point Judith) and Block Island to Montauk Point, Long Island.” The study includes an easement map showing the communication cables that crisscrossed the island, and another map showing where cables to the mainland and Long Island connected with the island. (https://tinyurl.com/2p8kd8vf).
The first map shows cables running down Dorry’s Cove Road, while the second shows them heading from the cove out to sea to the southwest and north.
Longtime island building official
Marc Tillson told The Block Island Times that he first learned of the cable while doing a foundation inspection on the West Side in the early 1990s. “The cable had been unearthed while excavating for the foundation. As I recall, the property was somewhere off Dories Cove Road.
“I learned that it was a communication cable, installed by the Army or Navy during WWII. The cable originated at the barracks on Beach Avenue (Twin Maples) and ran to all the military submarine watch towers, Southeast Light and other military installations that were monitoring for submarines or other enemy ships. So yes, it was a telephone cable of sorts!”
The easement map shows that the cables traveled to what was then the home of William Doggett at the peak of Beacon Hill, Block Island’s highest point.
As island historian Robert Downie wrote (https://tinyurl.com/4f6vw3du), the iconic location with its stone tower was commandeered by military authorities from 1941 until the end of the war to serve as a submarine spotting location.
In total there were eight submarine spotting towers installed on the island, all connected by communication cables.
With help from spotters on Block Island, theoretically, gun emplacements in Fort Greene —the concrete bunkers of which are still just visible amid heavy foliage along the north side of the Point Judith access road to the ferry— could be directed to target submarines as far as 25 miles out to sea, according to Downie. Both the island’s wartime submarine cables were de-accessioned in the 1950s.
Of note, the SAMP report tells us that the island’s first telecommunications cable was installed by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1880 for a cost $15,000. It stretched between Sandy Point at the island’s northern tip to Narragansett Pier on the mainland (https://tinyurl. com/2k222eaw).
Compare that cost to the installation of the island’s most recent cable to the mainland as part of the wind farm project, which has exceeded 100 million dollars.
Thanks to Mike and Marc and everyone else who got in touch.