Portsmouth's Island Park was a tourist magnet before '38 storm

Historian shares photos, stories of neighborhood’s glory years

EastBayRI.com ·

PORTSMOUTH — Ah, to be in Island Park before the 1938 Hurricane.

All the ladies and gents got dressed up in their Sunday best to promenade in and around the amusement park. 

They’d stroll through the midway and watch a horse “diving” into a small pool of water.

You could tango on the beach, or “Charleston” your way to a first-place prize in a marathon heel-and-toe derby inside the waterfront dance hall.

If you were fearless, you could ride one of the country’s most frightening rollercoasters: “The Bullet.” Not your speed? The carousel was right nearby.

Town Historian Jim Garman shared photos and stories about Island Park’s glory years during a standing room-only lecture — “Island Park: A Unique Community” — at the Portsmouth Free Public Library last Thursday night. The event was the last lecture of the year to be hosted by the Portsmouth Historical Society, of which Mr. Garman is president.

Island Park was the star of the show, but Mr. Garman also touched on the entire north end of town, which he said was particularly important to the town’s history. 

It was near the Town Pond, after all, where the early settlers — including William Coddington and Anne Hutchinson — first landed in 1638, he said. Further south, Fort Butts played a huge role during the Battle of Rhode Island in 1778, he added.

It was also here where several successive bridges connecting the island to the mainland were built, starting with Howland’s Ferry/Stone Bridge in 1795 until 1956, Mr. Garman said.

One of the more dramatic images from his collection that Mr. Garman displayed was an undated postcard taken atop Hummock Rock, looking south and showing parts of Island Park and the Stone Bridge, which at one point was a draw bridge that would be raised up and down to let vessels pass.

The Hummocks was founded as a summer colony in the 1890s, followed by Island Park just before the turn of the last century and Common Fence Point in 1925, he said.

“Island Park really developed a lot in 1898” when, Mr. Garman said, a “trolley park” — i.e. amusement park — was built to increase ridership aboard the Newport and Fall River Street Railway Co. 

That line ran from One Mile Corner out to West Main Road, then East Main Road to Park Avenue to Stone Bridge and into Tiverton. The Newport-Providence line, which arrived in 1904, made its way to where the Mt. Hope Bridge is now — the town’s transportation hub at the time.

Fun and games

The amusement park’s location — where Graziano's 501 Cafe is today — was selected because it could draw visitors from both Newport, Fall River and beyond, Mr. Garman said.

“It was just a really good location for a trolley park,” he said.

The photos in Mr. Garman’s collection show a much wider beach off Park Avenue than what appears today. “We’re talked about the shrinking of the beach,” said Mr. Garman before displaying several photos that bore that out.

“The dance hall was right over the water. It had some high-powered nationally known bands playing there,” said Mr. Garman. “‘The Bullet’ was the biggest (rollercoaster) in New England.”

Another picture showed the carousel. “The Barker family built a carousel on the north side of Park Avenue in 1898, with a shooting gallery next door,” said Mr. Garman. A new merry-go-round, constructed in 1905 or 1906 on the south side of Park Avenue, was the work of Charles I. D. Looff, the famous builder of hand-carved carousels.

As for Park Avenue itself, it previously went by many names: Charity Beach Road, Ferry Neck Road, Greene Farm and Buffum’s Lane among them.

The amusement park survived many hardships through the years. “The Bullet,” built in 1926, was damaged by a storm only two years later before it was rebuilt. “They also had quite a few fires at the amusement park, especially in 1927,” said Mr. Garman, noting that the dinner hall filed for bankruptcy that same year and the dance hall and beer hall were destroyed by fire in 1933.

1938 Hurricane doomed park

The park couldn’t survive the events of September 1938, however, when a 12-foot wall of water surged up the river and hit Island Park with a devastating blow, he said.

“It triggered a tidal wave that came up both Narraganset Bay and the Sakonnet RIver. It took out a lot of Island Park. The surge was so great that the water came all the way across and flooded Montaup Country Club,” wiping out a peach orchard forever, Mr. Garman said. 

Some houses were blown from Park Avenue clear up to where the Roger Williams University’s Baypoint Inn and Conference Center is now located, he said.

The storm killed 600 people and damaged 6,000 homes. Eighteen people were killed in Island Park alone, with many others injured, said Mr. Garman, noting that the small span linking Island Park to the southernmost part of town wasn’t built until after Hurricane Carol in 1954.

 “There was nowhere else to go — no Escape Bridge,” he said.

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