After over a hundred years of uncertainty regarding Rocky Point’s fate, legislators have finally secured a piece of land for the public indefinitely. Although owned by private interests since the park’s inception, the camp meetings, shore resort vacations, and days at the amusement park opened this bayside resort to anyone willing to pay the admission fee. Prior to Harrington’s ownership of the park, enthusiasts of the Point watched in horror as John D. Rockefeller purchased the property in 1900 and planned to use the amusement park for private development. A news brief ran in the New York Times on July 8, 1900 that detailed the purchase:
“NEWPORT, July 7 – Word was received here to-night that J.D. Rockefeller of New York had purchased Rocky Point, the most popular seaside resort in this state, …for a Summer home. For many years the tract of land has been the Coney Island of Rhode Island. It has about 300 acres of land, with a fine bay view and splendid bathing and fishing.”
Luckily for Point patrons, Rockefeller lost interest in closing the park and erecting his summer home. Ignoring the Warwick location for several years and leaving the management of the Point to Harrington as the Continental Steamboat Company had in the past, Rockefeller involved himself instead in real estate developments on Long Island and sold the property to Harrington in 1910. Later the illustrated 1911 guidebook portrayed the purchase as a heroic rescue, spearheaded by the brave Colonel, who saved the Point from the evils of privatized development. The souvenir guidebook read:
“At different times, several of our wealthiest Americans have attempted to purchase [Rocky Point] for a family estate and the people of Rhode Island and Massachusetts have long feared that their beloved recreation park would become private grounds. But this danger passed forever with the purchase of Rocky Point by Col. R. A. Harrington in 1910.”
Throughout the Harrington family’s ownership, Rocky Point fans could be assured that their favorite leisure destination would remain open for business.
But the danger had not “passed forever” as the guidebook had boasted in 1911. Just years after Harrington’s death, several developers and business interests approached Mrs. Harrington with plans to purchase the Point. Real estate brokers and oil tycoons haggled with Mrs. Harrington over price and property. Reluctant to see the property closed to the people who had made the Point great and hesitant to destroy the natural beauty of the Warwick shore resort, Mrs. Harrington continued to hold the deed even as private interests offered her more money. A Rhode Island Historical Society article published in April 1948 explained that, “Real estate promoters, attracted by the beauty of the place, showed interest in its possibilities as a site for country homes, until they found the rock formation was so widespread that blasting would be necessary for many cellars. Oil interests tried to get it as a site for oil tanks, but Mrs. Harrington declined thus to mar the beauty of that section of Warwick.”
Rocky Point managed to avoid privatized development. Over sixty years would pass before Rocky Point would once again interest real estate and condominium developers. In 1996, Rocky Point had outrun the price of real estate for what was likely to be the last time. The managers of the park had run out of innovative ideas and the appropriate funding necessary to compete with national theme parks like Six Flags and Disney World. Managers had already raised prices to the point where average Rhode Island families could no longer afford admission fees. Further, these same guests had come to expect a certain level of entertainment. After visiting a national theme park, many Rocky Point visitors expected bigger thrills, world-class entertainment, and more diverse food options. The local park simply could not compete. For thirty years Rocky Point managers tried installing the latest attractions to bring in customers. A top-notch steel coaster, a water flume, and a free-for-all were high price amusements installed in the late 1970s and early 80s that were meant to please and attract a new generation of thrill seeking park patrons and their parents.
Despite hard fought attempts to keep the park profitable, manager Conrad Ferla was forced to throw in the towel on Rocky Point. The park had languished for years and had failed to make even modest profit from already high admissions prices. Inevitably, the Rocky Point Park owners filed for bankruptcy in 1995. In an attempt to spark an interest in saving the Point, the park gates were opened for a day of fun for park enthusiasts in 1996. The cost of that day alone was so high that park managers and owners could not conceive of opening the Point for the 1996 season. An auction was scheduled and the attractions were sold off one by one to competing amusement parks and collectors. The land too was sold to the highest bidder – a condominium developer. What remained of old Rocky Point was boarded up or simply abandoned, left for the private housing firm to break down and build over. Naturally, park enthusiasts decried the decision to sell the Rocky Point property to private interests. Point patrons implored the city of Warwick to step in and protect the land for public use. The city of Warwick refused to get involved and plans to build the condos went on as scheduled.
But the concession stands, dinner hall, and forgotten attractions never came down and the condos never went up. This recent development in the preservation of park land is a major victory for Rhode Islanders and fans of Rocky Point.
Read the article:
“Rocky Point Lives!” from the Providence Journal, February 20th, 2008.
With the clock running down on a federal grant for Warwick to buy Rocky Point – with authorization documents in predictable delivery limbo – officials waiting in a room at City Hall bit their nails at the ticktocking prospect of once again letting the beloved old amusement park site slip through their fingers.
But the papers arrived, the deal was signed, and now all Rhode Islanders can look forward to having the best part of Rocky Point back. “The greatest attraction of Rocky Point has always been the view of Narragansett Bay,” says U.S. Senator Jack Reed, who helped secure the federal grant that paid about half the $4.4 million for the 41 acres.
Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, U.S. Rep Jim Langevin, Mayor Scott Avedisian and other state and federal officials also deserve credit for hanging in there when it appeared, over and over again, for a period of years, that the deal would prove elusive.
A couple of weeks before, the 82 landlocked acres of Rocky Point were bought at auction – another nail-biter of several years – by developer Nicholas Cambio and a partner. They plan (predictably) to build fancy house on the land. But it’s the mile of coastline, to be landscaped for public relaxation that interests Rhode Islanders, who have been denied a favorite playground since the amusement park went bankrupt in 1995.
Congratulations all around for preventing public access to this hallowed shore from being snatched away forever.