LEAVING A MARK: The original inhabitants of West Greenwich were content to leave this great granite cave the way they found it. Not so with more recent visitors. This large granite ledge, called Witch’s Rock and Indian Rocks, is in the Big River Management Area.
When Kathleen Swann was growing up in West Greenwich, she saw the town change dramatically. What had been generations of families living and working in one place was being turned upside down for what everyone believed to be the “the public good.”
“Back in the early 1960s, there had been several years of drought and people began to think that Rhode Island didn’t have enough water,” Swann said. “The Scituate Reservoir was almost dry and people were genuinely worried about the future of the state without enough of it.”
That’s when people began to remember the vast aquifer that was under the hardscrabble surface of West Greenwich. There were few places in the town that could be cleared for large-scale farming but the fast-growing and densely packed white pine indicated that there was plenty for plants to drink underground. All you had to do is build a dam, run some pipes and the Biggest Little would have plenty of potable water, well into the 21st century.
“Everyone was convinced there was a water crisis,” said Swann, whose pictorial history of West Greenwich goes on sale in two weeks. “There was a referendum and a bond issue. The public voted for it because they believed it was necessary.”
In 1966, the state of Rhode Island began to buy 8,600 acres of land in West Greenwich for what was to be called the Big River Reservoir. The sellers didn’t have much choice. The land was taken by eminent domain.
“Some people didn’t like the idea but at least they had the feeling that it was for the public good,” said Swann. “They accepted it, moved out or were allowed to stay on the land until they had to leave when construction started.”
The trouble was, construction never started. As a closer study was done by several agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the practicality and need for a surface water reservoir began to be questioned.
“It turned out that the rocks and the sandy nature of the land could not be effectively dammed,” said Swann. “They concluded it couldn’t hold water.”
Swann said that further research into the nature of the aquifer determined that the best way to get water from West Greenwich would be through a system of wells, which would do far less to alter the surface features of the area and still produce enough water to supply all of the state’s needs.
“What I have always wondered is why they didn’t find these things out before they took the land?” says Swann.
The land they took, such as it was, may well have been insignificant in the eyes of real estate tycoons and timber barons, but it had provided for families who lived there even before the town was incorporated in 1741.
In her introduction to the book, Swann briefly outlines the history of the town, which started in 1709, when the Narragansett Indians gave the state of Rhode Island the land in exchange for military protection. A group of 13 men bought the land and divided it into parcels, but there was little hope of large-scale farming; the granite, boulders, gravel and sand were difficult to work.
“Miles of stone walls crisscross the woods and fields, constructed by farmers to define their boundaries, to contain animals, and to merely get the rocks out of the way,” wrote Swann. She also describes what has been found there dating from before the Europeans arrived.
“Archeological research has recovered almost 500 relics from many groups of people, as early as the Archaic Period of hunter-gatherers,” Swann explained.
The real wealth of the area, according to Swann, was in its forests, especially its white pine.
“The area became known as the White Pine Belt and local lumbermen called white pine ‘West Greenwich mahogany’,” she said.
The deciduous trees also contributed to the economy of the area, providing oak, birch and other hardwoods to be turned into charcoal or acids to be used in the making of dyes that supplied the mills in more accessible towns along the Pawtuxet River.
In spite of the abundance of forests, granite and sand, getting these resources to market remained a problem well into the 20th century, when the old New London Turnpike still formed the spine of West Greenwich’s system of roads. By the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the population had gone as low as 450 people.
Swann said the construction of Route 95 brought the first eminent domain condemnations on the east side of the town, which also promised economic development that stalled for a variety of reasons, and then came the Big River conundrum. When everyone decided that the reservoir was untenable, the land was officially designated open space, which meant that any further development would be shaped by a series of bureaucratic maneuvers through several agencies but, for reasons not entirely logical, the management of the land remained under the Water Resources Board. The result has been very little management.
“Now, in the woods, where I found arrowheads growing up, I find graffiti on the caves,” said Swann. “With a staff of six, how could the Water Resources Board manage 8,600 acres?”
Swann and her neighbors have come together to help determine the future of the town, and sometimes the best way to find the future is to look at the past. She is currently working on another book that focuses on the Big River and the practice of eminent domain in other parts of the country. She hopes that the combined efforts of her neighbors and some solid legal research will point the way to the future of Big River and the town.
“We want to have a voice at the table,” said Swann. “We want to insure that the land that was taken for the public good remains for the public good. We have to find a way to take care of it.”
West Greenwich, by Kathleen A. Swann, will be available on Sept. 5. Visit www.arcadiapublishing.com for details. Swann and the Concerned Citizens for Big River will be meeting at West Greenwich Fire Station #1 on Nooseneck Road on Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m.