A little beach background

Fri, 07/15/2022 - 11:45am

Perhaps, for the bathing beach, the true Golden Age – so far – began in the early 1950s. At the start of that decade the wheels were turning for the new pavilion, a modern structure to complement the airport construction that marked a mid-century looking to the future. Air traffic was increasing every year and there seemed still to be hope that the
post-war prosperity that had been so elusive might yet touch Block Island.
In 1953 the General Assembly empowered the Town Council “to acquire by eminent domain... for the purpose of developing recreational facilities thereon for public use the title in fee simple in and to that certain land known as Crescent Beach...” described running from the Sanchez property (today’s Avonlea) on the south 5710 feet “more or less” along Corn Neck Road to public roadway to Scotch Beach on the north, containing all the land between that public highway and the shore.
Contained in that act was a provision that the town would then gift to the state the central portion of that land, measured along Corn Neck Road “2492 and 48/100 feet” for “the express purpose of establishing, developing and maintaining thereon a public bathing beach, park, or recreation area.” It further allowed the town to let or lease any portion of the remaining land or property for uses consistent with the intent of the act.
Following a morning Financial Town Meeting in May 1953, the Council held a special session to discuss the proposed bathing beach. State Senator William Lewis reported at length on a meeting he and State Representative Samuel Mott had attended in Providence with various officials.
(We had our own senator and representative in the General Assembly back then.)
They explained that the state was requesting an area almost 500 feet longer than that of its largest facility, Scarborough in Narragansett, as they wanted “protection of their beach in order to eliminate undesirable situations which might arise close by.” There would be no fencing off of any area “as was customary on the mainland” nor would there be any restriction on crossing the beach; the only charge would be for use of the facilities.
An oft-repeated refrain was voiced by George Smith at that Council meeting: people were interested in what was best for the town. While brochures aimed at visitors would continue to list swimming on a par with golf and bicycling – and in one even hunting – there seemed to be a greater understanding that Crescent Beach, long and sandy and open and free, was an asset to be promoted.
The situation, though, was complicated by two extant leases that needed to be extinguished prior to the state accepting ownership, ones the state wanted the town to settle. The later was for the soon-to-be-former bathing beach, at the time held by Mr. Blakely, and the older was the Black Sand Extraction lease, dating from 1868. As happens when buy-out is in the wind, the 85-year-old agreement, which had run at an annual rate of $15, had recently been transferred by its holder to a Mr. Sharpe for the princely sum of $25 a year with an oddly undocumented caveat of a price per ton of mineral mined. That it had been increased at all was questioned at the Council meeting, with note that the true iron content had been found low during testing and it seemed to Robinson Lewis “peculiar that during the war the sand was not valuable and appeared more valuable now.” Both issues were ultimately resolved.
The record of the town, made by those who were supportive of the new facility, in 1953 indicated the old structures were in poor condition, by one account, uninsurable, by another run more as a hot dog stand with changing rooms that had not been open for “three years.” Some who visited do not much remember the facility.
As the new bathing beach progressed, provisions of the 1927 lease regarding the removal of buildings on the old site were put into play. A crew, headed by Adrian Sprague, completely dismantled them; he used windows and the wooden shingles for the house he and his wife were building; windows remain in place and the siding, carefully removed and turned, was replaced only after 50 years of re-use.
Lumber and various pieces were incorporated in other homes around the island.
Ground was broken for the new beach house, up the road from the old, in January of 1954; it opened to great fanfare in June of that same year. The building was simple, low and long, with a lobby between men’s and women’s changing rooms extending out on either side. Constructed of redwood, it gleamed that first summer, captured in photographs looking like the “Pride of All Rhode Island” it was called in an epic poem written by Fran Reed in 1956.
The parking lot was vast and paved – such as things were paved on Block Island in 1954, oil and sand, a rough macadam surface. The shield of the State of Rhode Island hung on either side of the front of the building, emblems all blue and gold that came out every season and were taken in every fall, bookending the summer. Picnic tables climbed the sandy dunes that were building steadily after the hurricanes of the two previous decades. From Corn Neck Road one could see through the center of the building, the big counter that took up much of that space and the glass booth in which the lady who “took the money” sat. Things were much more formalized, people rented spaces and left valuables in little baskets at the counter. It was easy to tell who were the affluent ones with the rented chambers to change their clothes, they had keys – or numbers – they
wore around their wrists, a marvel to one who rarely went to that beach and never saw the inside of one of those rooms.
The hotels in the 1890s advertised conveyances to the bathing beach. Decades later announcements came over the loudspeakers on the building, the time gently reminding day-trippers they had to pack up and get back to the boat; “the Spring House [or other hotel] bus is in the parking lot” is well remembered even by those who rarely went to the State Beach with its nearly empty parking lot, as shown in the postcard circa 1960.
Times change.