Then and Now

Warwick gets an airport


One of the major events, and one that changed Warwick immensely, was the building of a state airport within her boundaries. The impetus for an airport grew tremendously when an attractive young man of 24, Charles A. Lindbergh, took a $13,000 Ryan monoplane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, N.Y. to the Le Bourget Airport in Paris on May 20-21, 1927. This flight, made alone over 3,600 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, made Lindbergh a national hero overnight.

Lindbergh’s efforts resulted in the voters of Rhode Island approving a state airport by a vote of 76,281 to 9,369 in the general election of 1928. The main question was not “Should we have an airport?” but “Where should it be?” Early speculation and support placed it at Gaspee Point but, eventually, Hillsgrove was selected. This news caused a furor in the state with many demanding that the Airport Commission explain its action. The town council at Warwick quickly passed a resolution urging the selection of Gaspee Point rather than Hillsgrove. The Providence newspapers blatantly opposed the move, as did residents of Hillsgrove. In spite of the opposition, the commission, which had the power of condemnation, insisted that the airport be at Hillsgrove and listed the land parcels that would be taken.

The location proved well-suited to overcoming the disadvantages seen in the 1920s. The great emphasis then had been on seaplanes and the fear that Hillsgrove would be difficult to spot from the air. As seaplanes gave way to land-based aircraft, sophisticated electronic devices made the necessity for visually prominent landmarks obsolete.

Rhode Islanders who had high hopes of seeing a modern airport emerge overnight were sadly disappointed. The state confined their effort in the early period to simply clearing and grading the field. During the early 1930s, the planes landed on grassy strips, as there were no paved runways. Private air companies erected their own hangars, and it wasn’t until 1932 that the state began to build a terminal and administration building. When the state airport was dedicated in 1931, it was the first state-owned airport in the United States. On Sept. 27, 1931, two air shows at the newly dedicated facility drew a crowd of over 150,000. This was the largest crowd that had attended a public function up to that time. In January 1933 the state opened its administration and terminal building at 572 Occupastuxet Road.

By 1935 the state could boast of cement runways 3,00 feet long and 150feet wide. A state report at that time pointed out that “These cement runways are the equivalent of 28 miles of a single-lane highway.” In addition, the report tells us, “There is a twofold drainage system, a double lighting system which illuminated the field at night to the satisfaction of night flyers.”

With the necessity for accommodating larger and faster planes in the decades following its creation, the airport has grown to the extent that it dominates a large section of the city. From the late ’30s to the present time, the forces pro and con have been battling to assess the proper status of the airport.

A major test for the relatively new city of Warwick came on Sept. 21, 1938. This was the date of Rhode Island’s most devastating hurricane. It left in its wake 262 deaths and caused an estimated damage of $100 million. With winds clocked in excess of 100 miles per hour and two tidal waves of almost 30 feet in height, it destroyed many waterfront homes and much of the amusement parks along the coast. Warwick, including Oakland Beach and Rocky Point, suffered the heaviest property damage of the state. Over 700 permanent residences and hundreds of summer homes in Warwick were totally destroyed.

The city had never before experienced such a violent act of nature and was not prepared. As late as 3 p.m. that day, the weather bureau was predicting winds of 40-45 miles per hour. By 3:30 torrents of rain poured down on Warwick and trees that had withstood the fury of a hundred storms began to topple. Mayor Albert Ruerat later recalled, “Up until the time the flagpole in front of City Hall came crashing down, we thought it was just another gale.”

Not long after, Ruerat rushed to Providence to get his wife. He was fortunate enough to get her and return to Warwick. His description of the bizarre nature of the ride back to Warwick recalls the horror of the time. He said, “Freight cars were bobbing around like corks. Providence was underwater. To avoid tree-lined roads I had to drive on the lawns.” When he reached Lakewood, Ruerat recalled, “There were no lights. I pulled into Everett Sprague’s filling station. He had rigged up a gas motor for his pumps and filled my tank with gas.” Ruerat chuckled over Sprague’s wry comment: “We have a doozy of a storm.”

Emergency stations were established in key areas and panic gripped City Hall when it was realized that hours had passed without any word from the Conimicut station.

Ruerat and an aide drove to Conimicut, barely escaping disaster as a section of the road at Buckeye Brook collapsed. Newspaper reports at the time noted that “the bay was a funnel, a wedge, a trap,” as a tidal wave smashed into Warwick.

The Providence Journal book, The Great Hurricane, reported, “Rocky Point, that mecca of politicians and shore dinner consumers, fell like a house of cards before the southeast fury. The roller coaster was shattered, the great dining hall…was a soggy mass of lumber, a thousand bathing suits hung from the backwoods trees…The oldest and most famous shore resort of the state was no more.”


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