On the Corner... of the past and present

Sat, 07/08/2017 - 7:00am

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Block Island Historical Society. Throughout the year we will be highlighting some of the interesting items in its collection.

The United States Coast Guard’s first presence on Block Island was in the Lifesaving Service, one of the components of the early USCG. The station just outside the Old Harbor, on Corn Neck Road, was used under both banners.

This stormy weather photograph is of the shore below the National Hotel, when all of the area between it and the red sandstone breakwater of the inner Old Harbor was low and sandy, populated only by long, single-story buildings in which fishermen stored gear. There was no parking lot, nor any ferry wharfs extending into the basin. Much of the sizeable, working, fishing fleet, sail-powered vessels still, moored within the protective embrace of the granite break walls. 

The Lifesavers and early Coast Guardsmen were generally local, and when an event of some magnitude took place they were readily joined by other able-bodied men ready and willing to assist.

This photograph is part of the story of Block Island. Men in various degrees of attire, from classic foul weather gear topped with sou’easter black rain hats, perhaps distinguishing the Lifesavers and fishermen, to a guy in a suit (the photographer immortalizing himself after telling an assistant to steady the big camera?), joined in the effort to pull ashore a “New Shoreham” lifeboat, a big, heavy, wooden dory, used to facilitate rescues. Taken by H. L. Woodward, the image represents events such as that reported in the Newport Mercury on Feb. 11, 1922.

“A recent gale tore the Clara E., owned by Capt. Ralph E. Dodge, from her moorings in the Old Harbor and washed her upon the beach, where she quickly filled with sand and was pounded, her sides suffering considerable damage. The next morning Capt. Eli Sprague and crew from the Harbor Coast Guard Station and nearly a hundred fishermen hauled her way up on the beach into a place of safety.” 

A much larger reproduction of this photo, and more information about the history of maritime rescues from our shores, may be viewed in a section of “Surrounded by Sea,” this summer’s exhibit on the Corner of Past and Present.