By JOHN HOWELL It's on navigational charts, taxes are regularly paid on it, and it shows up on deeds going back to the 1700s. And yet most of the time, it's not there. It's under water. It's Greene Island off shore of Cole Farm and Gaspee Point. The
It’s on navigational charts, taxes are regularly paid on it, and it shows up on deeds going back to the 1700s.
And yet most of the time, it’s not there. It’s under water.
It’s Greene Island off shore of Cole Farm and Gaspee Point.
The island belongs to the Spring Green Corp., which owns land on Gaspee Point that is leased to homeowners. The island was part of a tract – including all of what is Gov. Francis Farm today – that was sold to John Greene the surgeon in 1642 for 30 fathoms of wampum by Narragansett Indian sachems Miantoomi and Sacononoco. In 1773, John Brown bought the property for $3,000 in silver coin.
The island once had high embankments and trees and was a favorite camping spot. Storms took their toll, with high waters and waves gnawing at those sandy fortifications until Greene Island was not much more than a couple of feet above high tide tufted with eel grass. It was a gathering place for terns and gulls, a breeding ground for horseshoe crabs and nasty no-seem-ems that left welts wherever they bit.
That’s what was left of it a decade ago, but now even that is gone and the island is nothing more than a shoal that shows itself at low tide. With the receding land, one island tenant has become all the more exposed – the remains of a wooden ship, about 100 feet long, that have been the subject of a Rhode Island Marine Archaeological Project survey for several years. With more and more sand being carried out into the bay, even the remains of the ship are being washed away.
Not surprisingly, Warwick historian Henry Brown knows a lot about the island. He looks out his living room window to Occupessatuxet Cove and south to Conimicut Light and Narragansett Bay. Greene Island was part of the tableau. Now it’s just a sandy smudge.
But the island lives vividly in Brown’s mind’s eye. As a child he remembers jumping off the embankments and rolling down the sandy ramparts. Reaching the island didn’t require a boat.
Brown said he’d walk over to Gaspee Point and wade the waters of low tide to get to Greene, where he and his friends would explore before returning to watch the horses on the quarter-mile tract owned by Mr. Nelson. On one island visit follow a storm, Brown found the remnants of a bottle that was obviously very old, which was identified as a Dutch rum bottle. Brown gave his find to the museum historian who identified it.
Brown’s first cousin, Alice Westervelt, remembers pulling her sailing skiff onto the shores of the island. She was about 9 years old at the time. There were two springs on the island, and she would get a drink from one where a cup was handily available.
Hurricane of 1938
Westervelt remembers seeing tire tread marks clearly defined in the sand from the motorcyclists who took on the challenge of racing up the island bluffs. The island also had a grove of locust trees that had been planted by the two brothers of her great grandmother, Alice Francis Brown. The trees may have delayed island erosion, but were no match for the Great Hurricane of 1938. The storm cut the island in two, Westervelt recalls.
The historian in Brown, who is now 88, is evident as he pulls out two large ring binders labeled “Greene’s Island at Spring Green Farm, Warwick RI.” Encased in clear plastic sleeves are newspaper clippings, photographs, post cards, letters accounts written by friends and copies of records dating to the 1700s. The contents are in chronological order, starting with the Narragansett Indians, smuggling of the 1760s, deeds and maps.
Brown knows the contents intimately, recalling how he had procured a particular photograph or who had given him a note or an account. A couple of pages are devoted to photographs of the various clams found in the waters off the island.
Brown also gives accounts of rescuing the family dogs in a beat-up aluminum canoe from the island when they were left stranded by the rising tide in the fall of 1991 and a picnic the following summer with his wife Ann and Janet and Robb Rushton that turned out to be a disaster – “hot, sticky and flies.” He also mentions the flotilla of pleasure boats that would raft in the lee of the island every Fourth of July. The boaters gathered driftwood, built a giant bonfire and set off fireworks to celebrate.
Other island tales include an account from the 1846-47 diary of John Francis Brown, who called it a favorite riding place with his son JBF Jr., known as “Bubby,” and daughters Sally, Elizabeth and Sophia.
Source of eelgrass
“I believe,” writes Brown, “he had a motive too in his jaunts following a storm, that of inspecting the beach for eel grass that was deposited in great quantities upon the shore. Men from the farm would send over a wagon or wagons drawn by oxen to gather the eel grass that was mixed with farm manures [cattle and pig] and ashes to form a ‘pie’ or heap that was allowed to rot over the summer months.” It was then used to fertilize the fields and apple and pear orchards.
Brown also relates how his grandfather, Frank Hail Brown, told him that in 1816, when there was frost into July and August, his father gathered a top hat full of snow and brought it to the Fourth of July celebration in Apponaug. The year became known as “The Mackerel year,” as crops failed and there was only mackerel to eat.
But not all was lost.
“The only field of corn to survive in the upper bay area was one grown on Greene’s Island, a variety of hardy flint Indian corn known as ‘Johnny Tee.’”
Fish and clams in island waters were described as being abundant. Brown describes how he would head south of the island, cut his outboard and allow the summer breeze to carry him across the island shoals. Such drift fishing produced a reward of a “nice mess of fish.” He recounts a story told him by the late Howard Winsted and how he would set fish traps by driving poles in the island shallows from which he would string nets. Schools of menhaden “pogies” would follow the nets into a net enclosure where Winsted would scoop them out by the barrel full.
In recent years, the island and the remnants of the wooden ship have become a magnet for a Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project.
As the wreck became exposed, there was speculation it was the British schooner Gaspee, which ran aground pursuing the Hannah and was burned by colonialists on the night of June 9, 1772, in what is locally trumpeted as the nation’s “first blow for freedom.”
Dr. Kathy Abbass, executive director of the Rhode Island Marine Archeology Project, said she knew of the Greene Island wreck from the inventory of state shipwrecks she had done 27 years ago.
“At intervals we get calls from folks who see the structure at Greene Island. They think they have discovered the Gaspee, and are disappointed when they find out it isn’t that ship,” she said.
About five years ago, state Rep. Joseph McNamara contacted Abbass and inquired whether the RIMAP would be interested in locating the remains of the Gaspee. Indeed, Abbass is interested in locating the Gaspee, but she knew that could be an extensive and expensive enterprise. Thinking of the island wreck and a second just off the point overlooking Occupessatuxet Cove, she realized they offered an opportunity to train volunteers while seeking to establish the history of the vessels.
“Over the past five years, the RIMAP team in Warwick established that the ship near the shore is stable, and documented the process by which the ship on Greene Island is disappearing. Although we still don’t know what those two vessels might be, this research has helped to explain natural shipwreck site creation and destruction. The Not the Gaspee Team now knows about the complexities of doing archaeological work in a marine environment, how to interpret the data, and that there must be a proper artifact management facility to provide the special treatment needed by waterlogged artifacts. RIMAP has established the first laboratory in the state designed and equipped for such artifact management activities, so if the funding can be found, in 2021 the Not the Gaspee Team will become the Gaspee Team to seek that historic vessel,” she wrote in response to questions for this story.
Treasure to be found
There are more stories about the island. This one comes from Lonnie Barham, who lives on Shawomet Avenue in Conimicut.
Shortly after moving to Conimicut about 20 years ago, Lonnie’s granddaughter and grandson, who were about 6 and 8 at the time, planned to visit. Soon after their arrival, Lonnie weaved a tale of Greene Island and how there might be treasure out there.
With visions of finding gold, Lonnie armed the kids with small shovels and the three of them canoed out to the island. There wasn’t much of the island left at the time, but there was still somewhat of a dune even at high tide. The trio walked the island, with Lonnie giving them hints they might find something at its very center. The kids listened, discovering to their delight coins just below the sand. Thrilled with their booty, the trio paddled back to Conimicut for a trip to Jennie’s Ice Cream.
Lonnie has set up more elaborate “family treasure hunts,” one even with a chest filled with costume jewelry and old coins that he buried near the foundation of a house that once stood on Conimicut Point. The chest even contained a picture of a pirate and a letter he penned in ink on parchment. Clues to where the treasure was buried, Lonnie told his granddaughter and her friend, came from a story he had picked up in a bar. The girls pieced the story together and, using metal detectors, located the chest.
The only treasure of Greene Island these days is that of the city of Warwick.
City land records show the island as 8.6 acres, and that’s what the Spring Green Corp. is being taxed on to this day – a total of $91.78 this year.
Several years ago, Westervelt took her case to the tax assessor. She brought along photographs showing a spit of land during low tide and virtually nothing but a thin strip of sand at high tide. (Even that is gone today.)
The photographs weren’t enough to convince the assessor. He wanted a survey. Westervelt weighed her options and decided it was cheaper to pay the taxes than to get what was left of the island surveyed.
Today, surveyors would have a difficult time finding Greene Island – and that makes its history all the more compelling.