Like an illusion in a fun house or a magician’s slight of hand, there’s a century old structure filled with mystery at Rocky Point Park that has many guessing what it could possibly be.
In the fall of 2014, after sitting abandoned for nearly 20 years while its future was decided, the once famous amusement park reopened to the public as the state’s newest park. A $3 million Department of Environmental Management (DEM) cleanup of the Rocky Point grounds that year removed nearly all traces of the defunct park’s beloved icons such as the Shore Dinner Hall, the Palladium, and most of the former rides.
Some recognizable structures, however, were saved from the wrecking ball - such as the Sky Liner ski lift poles, the Circle Swing tower, and the Rocky Point Arch - to provide visitors with a window into the park’s historic past.
But it’s a weird circular stone foundation, with hand carved rocks forming walls more than three feet thick sitting near the top of the hill overlooking Narragansett Bay, that has people talking.
Since the park’s reopening, many have wondered exactly what the structure was. While no one knows for certain who classified it, for the past several years it was widely believed to be the foundation of the old Rocky Point Observation Tower, and was identified as such in DEM press releases and by other organizations.
“Byron Sprague, son of the Governor William Sprague, bought Rocky Point for $60,000 in 1862, and he built the tower around 1866,” said Rocky Point fan David Bettencourt, who directed and produced the film You Must Be This Tall and authored the new book, Rocky Point Park. “It was 250 feet above sea level, had a window on every floor on all eight of its sides and it was always filled with spectators. It was removed as a safety measure, and dangerous because of age and decay.”
While it’s unclear what year the Observation Tower was demolished, it was most likely taken down before the 1938 hurricane based on photographic evidence.
Upon closer examination, however, it appears the circle structure’s Observation Tower designation was wrong, and that started a hunt to find answers as to the building’s origins.
“I don't think anything remains of the tower, to be honest,” said Bettencourt. “That area of the park went through many, many transitions. By 1900, the entire skyline there was different and it would have had to survive the two hurricanes that decimated the park in '38 and again in '54.”
Johnston resident and history buff Michael Laferriere has been hiking the greater Rhode Island area for the last 25 years. His excursions have brought him to numerous strange ruins and cemeteries, and eventually led him to create the Rhode Island Ruins and Rhode Island Historic Cemeteries Facebook pages to document his travels. These pages have evolved into forums for followers to post, discuss and identify long lost historical oddities throughout the state.
Base of Observation Tower?
“I noticed a post about the Rocky Point Park “Observation Tower.” A reader had posted an image of a ruin which stands on a ledge in the park, she wanted to learn more about it,” said Laferriere. “The prevailing wisdom says the ruin is the base of an old Observation Tower. However, a small but vocal minority insists it is an old water tank. There was one very adamant poster that disagreed with the prevailing wisdom, she was absolutely sure it was not the base of the observation tower, she insisted it was an old water tank.”
Laferriere visited the Rocky Point ruin and the surrounding area with a GPS locator. Internet posters mentioned there might be metal support rods at the location of the Observation Tower a few hundred feet further up the hill from the circular structure. Laferriere found 6 metal posts - 4 still intact and 2 broken - and while not positive that the rods were related to the Observation Tower, he used them as a GPS reference.
“After returning home, I was doing a mad Internet search for clues. Not sure how, but I stumbled upon a 1920 publication that lists latitude and longitude for prominent Rhode Island locations and luckily, the Rocky Point Observation Tower was included,” said Laferriere. “So, I enter the coordinates into Google Maps hoping for a match of my onsite GPS coordinates. No! The publication coordinates placed the tower about 100-150 feet from my coordinates.”
Confident with his GPS coordinate translations, Laferriere then looked for photographic evidence of the unidentified structure and eventually found what he was searching for.
“The key piece of information came courtesy of the 2007 Rocky Point Park documentary "You Must Be This Tall: The Story of Rocky Point Park,” he said. “ At minute 18:12, the film displayed a photo of the ruin next to the Rock Cottage, also known as the Big House. Finally, we have a reference point for the ruin.”
That reference point clearly showed that the Observation Tower and the circular structure were more than 100 feet apart. The revelation opened a Pandora’s Box of social media speculation by Rocky Point fans as to what the structure could be.
Was it a water tower? A lighthouse? Used for gun powder storage? A smokehouse? Or something else entirely?
Warwick resident Felicia Celeberto, a local Rocky Point guru, amateur historian and fan of historical preservation posted one very intriguing theory.
Was it a Camera Obscura?
“I solved the puzzle! I just figured it out, and it’s much cooler than we could have imagined,” wrote Celeberto. “It was the Camera Obscura!”
The Camera Obscura was an optical device consisting of a round room with a hole in the ceiling in which outside light from an external scene passed through and struck a surface inside, usually a round table, where the image was reproduced. The device was a precursor to the modern day camera, and was a popular attraction at amusement parks in the 1800s. Historic pictures of similar camera buildings hold a striking resemblance to the circular foundation left at Rocky Point.
Celeberto accompanied the Beacon to the Warwick Historical Society (WHS) last Wednesday to speak with six of its members and test out the Camera Obscura hypothesis.
During an hour long discussion of the park, which included poring through their pictures, postcards, and Rocky Point documents, WHS board member Pegee Malcolm left and returned with a framed, August 24, 1878 Harper’s Weekly newspaper cutout that included an inside picture of the Camera Obscura building. On the back of the frame was a description of the park that listed the Camera’s whereabouts, which seemed to place it in the same location as the circle stone foundation.
With this information, combined with photographs of other Camera Obscura buildings, a consensus was reached between all members that this was indeed the original purpose of the building. We took pictures of the Harper’s article and framed images of Rocky Point, celebrated the discovery, and left with promises from the WHS that they’d contact us if additional information were located.
Later that evening, upon magnifying those photos and rereading the descriptions of the park, it became clear the Camera Obscura was close to the park’s dock, and not where the stone circle structure was located. The theory was busted, and the structure remained a mystery still.
Could it be W.T. Domestic Supply?
But the meeting with WHS wasn’t for naught, as the society’s president Felicia Gardella followed up with an email. Her great uncles, Alfred and Paul Castiglioni, ran Rocky Point from 1919 until 1938. She, too, had found the Obscura near the shoreline after the meeting, but had come across an even more important document, a 1922 Sanborn map of Rocky Point from the John Hay Library at Brown University.
The map provides a complete view of all the structures at Rocky Point during that time. It was on this document that the structure was finally identified, labeled as “W.T. Domestic Supply.”
Water Tank Domestic Supply: The structure is a water tank.
While its actual purpose may not sound as exciting as an Observation Tower, the structure’s use as a water tank provides an intriguing story of how important water usage at the park was over time.
“In my opinion, this structure adds balance to the park's existing elements and should remain,” said Rocky Point historian George LaCross. “We now have two ride structures, the entrance/exit arch and something that was seemingly once an integral part of the park's operations. I would have advised retaining it even if its true identity was discovered several years ago.”
In a current park map provided by Warwick’s principal planner Dan Geagan, a “Fountain Lot” at the nearby Rocky Point Blueberry Farm and pipeline right of way that runs through the farm to Rocky Point is listed, and considered part of the park’s property. The Fountain Lot is an open cistern that stored (and still stores) water in an in-ground masonry structure that looks of similar construction as the water tank.
“I know they used that water at the old drinking fountain at Rocky Point,” said Mark Garrison, Rocky Point Foundation board member and former owner of the blueberry farm. “But I can’t say for certain if they ran the water to the water tank on the hill from there, that I don’t know.”
While one mystery has been solved, another still remains; the location of the Observation Tower. It seems that this mystery will remain, as it appears to have been destroyed when the hill it was located on was blasted away to create a parking lot for the Shore Dinner Hall.