“Are we in Point Judith?” “Is this Narragansett or Galilee?” “Does the ferry leave from here?” “Where’s the bridge?”
These are a few of the questions that were asked by visitors to the Point Judith ferry docks — mostly before cell phones. Back in the day some people — on the cusp of road rage — would show up at the ferry dock juggling irate kids, barking dogs, and a Triple AAA map marked up with thick orange lines and arrows. If there was a snarky spouse tossed into this scenario, you’d have a real Hallmark moment. Now, this has all changed because the Goddess of the iPhone — Siri — tells you how to get places on the quick. Siri knows all — kind of.
When people come to visit Block Island for the first time with a car reservation, they are invariably early. When this happens they may need to burn up the clock a touch. Over the years, I’ve suggested that they take a spin over to the Point Judith Lighthouse. This answers the first aforementioned question in this column. Then, I tell them when they get to said lighthouse to look south and they’ll be able to see where they are going. I give them very simple directions, and send them on their merry way — I know, I’m a Prince. If the folks take my advice they’ll get a quick geography lesson. Furthermore, they may even ask Siri a couple of questions regarding the local milieu. Win, win.
Back in the day my uncle gave my dad the aerial photograph of the Point Judith Lighthouse seen above. It was taken back in the late 50s. A few years later, my dad bought a small place in Breakwater Village. In the 60s, this little village was a collection of summer shacks — it’s a little snazzier these days. It lies to the left of the lighthouse and the breakwater, a.k.a. as the East Wall. The breakwater is part of the Harbor of Refuge. This was a construct to aid in maritime commerce and recreational boating. It began circa 1905, and was completed in 1950. Boats transiting Point Judith could find a protected anchorage there with good holding ground. Moreover, the construction of this series of jetties allowed for the development of Galilee as a very productive fishing port, and an embarkation point for a ferry service to Block Island. This was an ambitious construction project. Ahem, Siri won’t tell you this. Just sayin’.
I tell the newcomers to the area that if they look north, they will see the entrance to Narragansett Bay. I also tell them to look west and they can see the south coast of Rhode Island all the way down to the Watch Hill Lighthouse, and the entrance to Fisher’s Island Sound. It’s a short hand geography lesson. Some people I send over to said lighthouse have never seen the ocean, and when they come back to the ferry dock they give me a nod of thanks for the heads-up — some buy me lunch. Later, when their ferry is heading over to Block Island they can see from whence they came and where they are going. It becomes a more visceral experience for the traveler. It’s a nice little ancillary element for a first trip to Block Island. Again, Siri can’t come near the amount of active files this scribbler has stacked in his expansive memory bank regarding Point Judith.
This photograph now sits in my office at home. I often take a glance at it and it reminds me where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing for well over 50 years. I learned to surf in ’64 at the surf break in front of the village. At the age of nine, while visiting my aunt’s house in the village — before my dad bought a place — I decided to go fishing on the East Wall. I told no one where I was going. I walked barefoot out to the first bend in the wall and climbed down the rocks to cast my line. I slipped and fell into the ocean. There was one guy fishing about 30 feet from me. He scrambled over and extended his fishing pole to me and then hauled me up onto the breakwater. I lost my gear, and with bloodied feet I went back to my aunt’s house. I told no one about what happened, and blamed the bloody feet on beach scrub. (This was traumatic stuff for a kid.) At the top of the picture is where Aunt Carrie’s sits. I worked there making clam cakes in the mid-60s.
The photograph also reveals the sparsely settled Point Judith peninsula; however, development was in the offing as it was all along the east coast, including Block Island. Needless to say, things have changed. This photograph is a benchmark for coastal development, which started to really heat up in the early 70s. From this aerial shot, my uncle could see the writing on the wall. He had scouted places on Block Island and encouraged my dad to buy something in South County. My uncle bought places in Greenwich Bay, Green Hill and Little Compton over the years, and over time those places went through the roof in value. Of course the same thing happened on Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. It was inevitable.
Although things have changed some things remain the same. I wrote these couplets about 30 years ago: “We grew up in a seaside town, and oh how we roved, where we spent our days in drowsy summer haze, and the ocean waves did roll, where the waves still crash, and the reef lights flash and Point Jude horn does blow, those days are gone we’re a little older now, it’s sad to see them go, oh it’s sad to see them go.”
Finally, if you’re early for the Block Island Ferry, take a spin over to Point Judith.
Forget Siri, and listen to The Scribbler.