We have learned, or had confirmed, these past, endless weeks, that all the talk of going back in time inspired by old photographs is the stuff of fantasy. I am old enough that I remember when all winter we had one boat from Galilee, one boat that landed at noon and left at two or two-thirty. As I often say, I didn’t even realize there was no Sunday boat, the lack of it made no difference in our lives.
What I do not remember is a time without an airport. We went to Westerly for the rare day trip, for medical appointments or shopping, or to catch the train to points north to visit relatives who conveniently lived near stops.
So, in addition to everything else, I have been trying very hard these past weeks not to say, as restrictions got old and restriction constraints became annoying, “you still want to go back to the fifties?”
Still, there is an allure in the past, especially in photographs of an era gone long before I was born, when Block Island threw open its doors, and vacationers travelled by rail and steam from New York and Boston. The benefactors of the summer chapels hailed from as far away as St. Louis.
Grand houses were built along the shore, the Searles Mansion down the Neck probably the most elaborate. Only a very of these “cottages” remain, one on the Southeast, quite visible in old postcards, now hidden I think – at first – only by high hedges, then remember it was moved back from the edge of the cliff and sight lines changed. It was said to have at least a dozen cisterns, some lost as the land eroded.
Perhaps it was the lack of connectedness to the mainland that made people think of the raging ocean close to the water’s edge. There were some misplaced lighthouses, but we had no Napatree, the spit of sandy land running out from Watch Hill, Rhode Island, that held a string of big summer houses until the 1938 Hurricane.
Those taken with Block Island minded the sea they had to cross but seemed not to consider the erosion of the bluffs, only the magnificent views of the wide ocean and the summer breezes, the dream of wealthy city dwellers. In an 1882 update of his history the Rev Livermore included a section on Summer Cottages, noting first the “eyrie” of an Hon. FW Miner, the chalet seasonal home to one of the “most successful of fishers for the gamey striped bass.” He mentions the ideal hygienic cottages of the sisters Vaill, a model sanitarium with breezes flowing over the towering bluffs.
Next came the home of Everett Barlow, featured in Scientific American’s architectural supplement as an ideal summer cottage, the only one of these bluffs houses still standing, now long known as Bit O Heaven, surviving perhaps for being shuttered all but during the height of summer when the owners are present. The Barlow house was lived in year round, the last refuge of the Stowells, a family that lost everything in the Crash and came to their summer house, hoping to weather the storm.
A son graduated from this school and left the island, the family fortunes did not improve and after they either sold or lost the house, and the name drifted from most memories. Many years ago I wrote a fanciful story of someone living there, of the house being open at Christmas and my late uncle burst my balloon with “you know, people did live there, once.” Did he bother to tell me that the son had been in his graduating class? Or anything else of interest? My uncle might have been gone a long time but he remained a close-mouth Block Islander to the end.
This weekend, anyone who makes a stop in Legion Park might look at the names on the World War II marker, especially those at the end, added as information became available. Richard Stowell, Block Island Class of 1933, is there, one of the very few fallen and, I believe, the last added, early in this century. He was a Merchant Mariner who survived one ship lost but not the second.
I started to write of my sojourn to the south end of the island, of never getting beyond the first of two legs, of another trip intended. I didn’t even complete one leg, being waylaid by, among other things, an indecisive woodcock.
It was, I realize now, dancing around the in the road near the Barlow House, trying to remind me, as impossible as it seems, Memorial Day was upcoming, a reminder of Richard Stowell and all his brothers and sisters in arms.