Elizabeth Ann: A vessel and a daughter

Fri, 11/18/2022 - 1:45pm

John H. Wronowski was the son of Polish immigrants whose father worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. As a young man, he worked as a marine mechanic and electrician, all of which served him well when he became a partner in Interstate Navigation in the 1930s. Interstate Navigation, in a brief historical sketch of Wronowski, describes him as, “A forward-thinker, he saw the foundation of the fleet in vessels repurposed from military use.” A prime example of this was Wronowski’s conversion of the M/V Elizabeth Ann from a World War I submarine chaser into a ferry serving Block Island.
Known on island by the name Lizze Ann, she faithfully served as the lifeline to the mainland during World War II. She was a narrow vessel, making for a rough ride. Edith Blane, in a recent interview, recalled the only safe spot in rough weather were two benches facing the exhaust stack, in which one could not only sit but also brace your legs against the metal stack, granting the rider two more points of contact with the swinging vessel. One resident, Barbara Dodge Hall, interviewed in 2000, recalled on one crossing in rough weather, “thinking she was more submarine than submarine chaser.” Her tenure as a vessel ended in the early 1950s when, docked in New London, she caught fire and was destroyed.
However, the name Elizabeth Ann lived on after the blaze, for a young girl, Elizabeth Ann Evans, had been named after the vessel. Her father Clay T. “Billy” Evans, the captain of the Elizabeth Ann, met his future wife, one Alzadia Mott of Block Island, on board the vessel. They would later marry and name their daughter after the vessel on which they met. Their daughter, born in late 1943, died unexpectedly in 2011 at the age of 67 and in her will left an incredible collection of archival material on the immediate postwar years on Block Island to the Historical Society. Thanks to the Annenberg Foundation, these images, paper documents and other material related to her father’s long service as an employee of Interstate Navigation are being digitized.
Among this collection are newspaper clippings from the 1930s that cover the adventures of Clay T. Evans when he served not as a captain, but as a first mate. This included a cow being transported from Newport to Block Island in the summer of 1935 by a farmer named George Mitchell. While the bovine did not mind walking the gangplank onto the Nelseco in Newport, the same device, once docked on Block Island, did not look so appealing. Evans, in attempting to walk the cow off the vessel, was playfully tossed into the water by the cow, which soon followed him into the harbor, making a massive splash. To the surprise of the entire crowd the cow swam like a champ. As reported, “Walking ashore at the beach without assistance, the cow proceeded to sample Block Island grass and decided she liked the salty flavor.” The bovine’s swimming skills impressed the summer group on the dock as the same article concluded with some anxiety on the part of Farmer Mitchell, for it noted “(he) is a bit worried lest the newly-acquired cow should decide to swim back to Newport.” Evans was unhurt and only needed a change of clothes.
The family images taken of the Evans/Mott clan reveal the Block Island with expansive vistas. While she grew up in Narragansett, Elizabeth Ann’s summers (starting with her first in 1944) included extended stays at the family’s house on Center Road. While these outside photographs were originally taken to capture family moments, from the modern point of view of the 2020s these also captured the hibernation that Block Island was in in the immediate postwar period. The time was the late 1940s and into the 1960s, when the bayberry, and more importantly the annual summer visitation, were nonexistent by today’s standards.
Reading travel literature connected to the island from the 1950s, one finds writers who knew that they had found something special that would soon not last. One of my favorite quotes comes from a fishing magazine, which in describing Block Island of 1955, elegantly wrote, “As long as we live in a world threatened by singing commercials and atomic bombs, a state of saner living is good for anyone.” This was a Block Island where no mopeds existed and when a buildable lot sold for $10,000 this unheard-of financial transaction caused a local stir. This is a fascinating time period in Block Island’s history, and the Elizabeth Ann Evans collection offers a window into this unique time and world. I first wish to thank Elizabeth Ann Evans for leaving us with these priceless island views. And second, thanks again to Mr. Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, the Founder of GRoW@Annenberg, a philanthropic initiative of the Annenberg Foundation, for the continued funding in digitizing our diverse archival collection in the months ahead.