A Summer At Sea

Thu, 05/09/2019 - 7:15pm
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The first year I know there was an egret at the edge of the pond behind my house was 1990. It was May and I was out front playing with my new golden retriever puppy, my precious Shad. The fields were clear, and folks from up the road were out walking. They saw us and came up to see the puppy, or, as I later learned, he came up to share in the joy of a ball of pale fluff; she was not a dog lover, and was barely a dog tolerator.

After a bit he remarked on the egret and I, at first, dismissed his thought. It was just a stick, some white stick that had somehow made its way into the tall grasses.  Stranger things had happened. No, he insisted and I looked harder and realized he was right, there was a most unexpected egret.

We had always had great blue herons and the smaller cattle egrets had been appearing, but the tall white birds were not as frequent visitors as they have come to be. It was so special I hardly dared believe it was there. I knew there was an egret in the collection at school and I'd seen some on the mainland, once, but I thought simply that they came to Block Island only on special occasions. But it was, and one or more have been every year since. They arrive, usually, in April, before I expect them, carrying spring on their wide white wings.

I had not noticed even one this year, be it the cold and wet, or the ever-present, ever-honking geese in the back lot, or my attention focused elsewhere, I do not know. So it was a surprise Sunday morning when I headed out to church in a cycle of the endless wet that defined last week, to see a white egret beside the road by Mitchell Farm. I was more surprised when I slowed to a stop that it did not fly away, and yet more as I inched backwards, moving closer. The bird raised its head, from that cautious crouch, not to its full, glorious stature but tall, showing more of its neck.

I guessed it had come from the Georgian Swamp on the far side of the wall, but later got a call that it had been hunting, not at the edge of the water but in the field, snaring itself a vole instead of the usual frog fare. There wasn't much time, it was only later that I realized I had never been anywhere as near to an egret as I was that misty morning.

The sun did shine a day later, two days earlier than forecast a week ago, and finally, in May, it felt like real spring.

Summer is coming and the trade it brings and has brought for a very long time.

A few Block Islanders were '49er's, those hearty souls who made the trek to California to search for gold in the mid 19th century.  One of them came home and bought land around the rudimentary landing on the east side.

He had seen the wide world and knew there was a growing demand for what Block Island could offer, open air and sea breezes.  It was lacking only one thing to allow the rest to fall into place, a real harbor where passenger-carrying steamboats could dock.

He proceeded to lobby, lobby, lobby the federal government to build that real harbor.

Funding began with the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1867. Within a few years, that tireless lobbyist built the biggest hotel the island had — and has — ever seen on a hill overlooking the growing harbor. More of his own buildings and those of others followed and a booming summer economy quickly took root.

But we all know, whatever wider commerce was cited, the objective was opening up this place to the outside world longing for a “Summer at Sea,” the oft-used advertising tag of the late 19th century. People travelled by sea — that gold seeker travelled to California the longer but easier way, on a ship, down around the tip of South America.

The lobbyist's, and eventual State Senator's, hotel above the harbor, and all that spread out around it, was built for one reason and one reason only, to accommodate summer guests. I have often wondered how his fellow islanders reacted to my great-great grandfather's force of progress upon his insular town. Once I agonized that he changed this place forever, for good or bad, but long ago realized if not him it would have been someone else. He just caught that first wave and rode it all the way to the shore. He had minor business interests elsewhere, but he was from Block Island and never really lived anywhere but here, and his obituary was run in The New York Times.

Tourism has had its ups and downs, reflections of changes in the world, in war, in transportation, in the general construct of lives. When The National burned to the ground on July 17, 1902, there was no consideration but to rebuild.

The new breach into the Great Salt Pond, through earth instead of sand, and protected by a stone wall, a channel that would not need regular dredging for decades, had been cut by then and steamers came from as far away as New York City. Development of that jewel of a harbor began in earnest but by 1916, when the grande dame of the New Harbor, the original Hygeia, burned there was a global war brewing. There was no rebuilding; the smaller, simpler, Hygeia Annex became the main hotel. 

We were a fishing and farming community, so insular our town center was literally in the center of the island, for our first 200 years. Then the Old Harbor was built, commerce shifted to the landing, the New Harbor was opened, and there would never be any sustained turning back.

People still want a Summer at Sea.