This Day in Block Island History: ‘… largely due to the hurricane of September 21, 1938’

Mon, 09/17/2007 - 5:00am

On this day in Block Island history, September 21, 1938, exactly 69 years ago, the “Great Hurricane of 1938” struck New England, determining the ultimate end of the last house on the island.

The word “last” needs definition.

It refers to a dwelling of a century ago. From the 1890s to the 1930s, island men would gather in the fall at Sandy Point and willingly take up residence for weeks at a time in ramshackle shacks. The reason? The mackerel were passing by in great schools — and giant seine nets could gather the fish up by the thousands.

The camps were built in the dunes on both the north and south sides of the lighthouse, on federal land that had been acquired from the town in the early 1800s when the United States constructed the North Light. The town’s deed to the U.S. government, though, specifically allowed islanders to continue fishing at Sandy Point.

Seven of the fishermen’s huts, labeled “squatters shanties,” are shown on a 1905 federal survey. The government, obviously alarmed at losing control of Sandy Point, soon required local fishermen to obtain permission, called “Revocable Licenses,” for the small bungalows that served as fall living quarters.

The fate of those buildings at the north end was spelled out 69 years ago in a U.S. government letter, dated October 26, 1938:

“… relative to Revocable License granting Eugene L. Rose permission to use, for fishing purposes, a portion of the Block Island North Light Station, Rhode Island; the Bureau is advised that erosion has occurred at Block Island North Light Station Reservation, largely due to the hurricane of September 21, 1938, to the extent that all that remains of the portion covered by the above Revocable License is a sandy beach.

“The posts marking the limits of the section of the reservation covered by the license were washed away. The building that was located on this property and which was used by Mr. Rose, was also washed away. In view of the fact that the site covered by this Revocable License is no longer in existence, it is recommended the Revocable License be revoked.”

The architecturally ornate Life Saving Station suffered damage in the ‘38 hurricane and was later dismantled by a salvager.

One shanty remained, though. It was called the Captain’s Cottage, having 40 years earlier been the home of the keeper of the Life Saving Station, built near the end of Sandy Point in 1898. Despite the pedigree, the Captain’s Cottage also had a revocable license, meaning the land underneath was still owned by the United States.

The comfy home continued as a family getaway for the captain’s descendants until abandoned in the 1960s. There was nothing ambitiously decorative about this final house, but the intersecting boxes, rectangles, slopes and eaves of the multiple ells held a beauty not surpassed by many other buildings.

Finally, in the mid-1990s, the unattended remnants — a destination of artists and photographers for more than half a century — collapsed. So, too, in the 1990s there seemed to fall prostrate any of the architectural ideals imbued by the small simplicity of Block Islanders’ original homes.

Such small and elegant houses are not for those who build here now, who may never understand what it was once like to have a quiet New England summer at the seashore.