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I know there hasn’t been a lot of posting happening here – in fact I think (blush) my last post was in April of 2008 – but there’s NEW Rocky Point news.

There’s a renewed interest in Rocky Point. We’ve heard buzz like this before but it looks like the initiative to make all of Rocky Point a public park is back on the docket. And I’m a believer that anything that puts Rocky Point Park back in the public eye is worth discussing. Especially when we’re hearing talk of securing all of the park’s land for public use.

That means hikes along the rocky shore, picnics by the bay, and day trips not unlike the steamboat day trips Rhode Islanders took to the Point over 200 years ago!

The Rocky Point Foundation, the group that has taken the reins on this campaign, needs your help. They need your signatures and stories and any monetary donations if you can give them (they understand that this is a tight time for Rhode Islanders and any amount – be it $5) will help continue their good mission.

You can read the specific details about the public park push for the Point in yesterday’s ProJo or here.

Follow my twitter feed here for up-to-the-day information on the park’s progress and historical quick facts on our beloved Rocky Point.

SEE rockypointpark.wordpress.com for more information!!!

Charles I.D. Looff, one of the finest carousel builders of his age, helped to insure the popularity of the carousel through his carving creativity and his emphasis on providing the latest in carousel entertainment on each of his merry-go-rounds. More than that, Looff convinced various parks including Rocky Point to include attractions he believed would be popular. His foresight allowed smaller local parks to provide customers with amusements, well before they became national favorites. Additionally, his wooden creations served as inspiration for national engineers who would improve on his designs for even larger audiences. One of his first Fandango Wheels was in operation on the shore of Rocky Point Park by 1892. Built of wood, the sixty-foot wheel could carry 32 passengers in 16 chariots on a revolution to observe the bay. Two steel cables that “fit in the grooves on the wheel’s rims” pushed the wheel forward in its rotation, while a steam engine at the rear of the wheel worked to power the sixty-foot pleasure wheel.

Though Looff’s wheel had been in operation at Rocky Point Park since 1892, other small wooden wheels had been delighting Rocky Point customers for almost forty years. Some excursion guidebooks from the late 1850s suggest that “Spanish Fandangoes” (a term used as a synonym for Ferris Wheels that apparently existed only in Rhode Island) were installed at the park to attract excursionists and day-trippers to the shore resort for a day of pleasure by the bay. These Fandango Wheels were small and could only carry a few people at a time. Because of their wooden composition, these wheels could only be so large before support beams would begin to snap. Despite their small size, the Fandango Wheels remained popular among park patrons; on this attraction riders received an incomparable view of the Narragansett Bay as they slowly revolved around the wheel. Evidence suggests that the first builders of pleasure or Fandango wheels drew inspiration from the carousel and the factory water wheel. Attraction designers and builders worked to craft amusements that were sure to satisfy park visitors and to subsequently draw in revenue, which outweighed the cost of the attraction. The carousel was enormously popular among patrons, so popular that shore resorts and budding amusement parks could afford to install several different carousels. Because carousels were so in demand among resort owners and their customers, builders believed that an inverted carousel with carriages attached would likely garner a similar degree of success.

Looff’s wooden wheel was an improvement on this form and predated George Ferris’ mammoth creation that debuted at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 by more than a year. Although Ferris’ idea may not have been an original, the engineer should be credited with improving on the observation wheel’s design and bringing the attraction to the masses. Robert Graves, a reporter for the Alleghenian, recognized that the World’s Fair Ferris wheel had stylistic predecessors and was not only the product of Ferris’ imagination, noting that “There are vertical wheels at the sea shore… These small vertical wheels must have been the suggestion to Ferris, the bridge builder and engineer. He said he would build a wheel that would astonish the world, and by the side of the little wheels of the sea shore be as the ocean itself to a mill pond.” As Graves explained, the Ferris wheel would stand alone as more than an improvement on the original small shore wheel.

Graves spoke aptly about the Columbian Exposition Ferris Wheel. Ferris’ creation could not be compared to any of the wheels built before the fair. It would easily be the largest vertical wheel ever built and one of the greatest attractions ever constructed. The vertical wheel stood 250 feet tall with an 825-foot circumference and thirty-six wooden carriages that could hold up to sixty people each. At the time, few engineers believed that Ferris’ plan was actually feasible. The wheel, they believed, would inevitably fall, and if it somehow managed to remain standing, a revolution of the carriages would be impossible. Additionally, critics claimed that “if [Ferris did] build the thing, people [would] be afraid to ride.”

While Ferris may have projected that he was creating something truly original, he was, essentially, proposing a design that was little more than an inverted carousel, a staple amusement of shore resorts since 1867. Furthermore, vertical wheels had themselves also been popular attractions at these vacation and excursion destinations for nearly forty years before the idea came upon Ferris at a chophouse. What is important about Ferris’ great wheel is how he improved on the form with technological advancements like pressed metals, steam and electrically powered engines, and engineering modifications that allowed the wheel to span 250 feet.

The great wheel was apparently conceived in a most unlikely way. Inspired by a challenge offered at an engineer’s banquet, George Washington Gale Ferris, the owner of a firm that tested iron, steel, and other metals, began scribbling the design for a giant revolving wheel on his napkin. At the banquet, Daniel Burnham, the fair’s chief designer, complained that nothing had been designed that would “meet the expectations of the people.” Ferris wanted to craft a fair symbol that would rival the architectural greatness of the Eiffel Tower that had debuted at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889. In an interview that appeared in papers years after his wheel stood in Midway Plaisance, Ferris explained how the great wheel was conceived:

We use to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World’s Fair. It was at one of these dinners, down in a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began to sketch it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and then making a complete turn – in short, before the dinner was over I had sketched out almost the entire detail, and my plan has never varied an item from the day.

Of course there are many versions of the inception of the Ferris Wheel. Ferris Wheel historian Norman D. Anderson explains that Ferris may have crafted the story of engineer’s banquet and his subsequent eager scribbling on nearby scraps of paper or a napkin as a means for “press baiting.” He clearly understood that “creating one of the great engineering marvels of the nineteenth century on a few scraps of paper in a chop house makes for a good story.” It is also unlikely that Ferris planned for the entire execution of the wheel in one meal sitting as he attests in his interview.

Further, Ferris was not the first engineer to put forward a revolving wheel as the main symbol for the Columbian Exposition. H.W. Fowler, a Chicago patent holder, had suggested that the fair construct a giant wheel. His design, which was penned prior to September 1, 1891, included a 250-foot vertical wheel, in a Dutch windmill style adorned with sixteen carriages. The fair’s committee quickly rejected his proposal. Fowler recalled the rejection in an interview on November 11, 1893:

My first sketch, in about August 1891, was of a wheel almost identical with the present Ferris wheel. But feeling that any structure worthy of a place among the palaces of beauty which would adorn the great exhibit should embody an educational and artistic ideas, as well as assist in swelling the receipts of the exposition.

Fowler quickly clarifies his statement, adding: “Don’t understand me as trying to claim any of Mr. Ferris’ honors. While I did plan such a wheel I didn’t build it, and there is a vast difference between a Ferris wheel on paper and a Ferris wheel in actual operation.”

The Columbian Exposition committee eventually granted Ferris the right to construct his wheel. It took about six months to complete the large attraction. The construction of the enormous wheel proved to be a technological feat in itself. Crafted from steel (with one of the beams believed to be the single “largest piece of steel forged at the time”), transported by steam engine, powered by 1,000 horse power steam engines, and lit by hundreds of electric light bulbs, Ferris’ wheel required all of the latest innovations in transportation to complete. Ferris’ on-site construction overseer and the wheel’s partial designer, William F. Gronau, witnessed the wheel’s first rotation on June 9th, 1893. He recalled the memorable occasion: “The action of the machinery and the steady movements of the wheel, and how wonderfully this ponderous mass of metal is under the control of the engineer, far exceeded my most sanguine expectations. Finally, when the wheel had made the first complete turn, I could have yelled aloud for joy.” Gradually, carriages were added to each spoke, until at last the wheel was completed.

When the Ferris wheel debuted at the Midway Plaisance at the Columbian Exposition in late June of 1893, the wheel was heralded as a technological marvel and a feat of engineering. Skeptics of the wheel’s safety remained and continued to question the integrity of the structure until Ferris’ invention withstood a wind velocity of one hundred miles per hour. Ferris and his wife were said to have endured the windstorm in one of the carriages. The wheel’s survival of gale force winds thoroughly impressed critics. But critics weren’t the only people amazed by Ferris’ invention. Fascinated with the spectacle, fair patrons flocked to the Midway to investigate the giant wheel. As visitors took steamboats to the fair, many wondered aloud as to what the structure off in the distance could be. For fifty cents, a curious fair patron could enjoy two rotations of the wheel with six stops along the way for optimal viewing. Graves described his first trip on the wheel with glee:

The wheel is set in motion at a more rapid pace, though still not very fast, and is not stopped until a complete revolution is made. It is an indescribable sensation, that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage, that of swinging in a circle far out over the Plaisance in one direction, then turning in the other direction, and still higher, and finally beginning the descent from such a great height.

The Ferris wheel easily became the most popular attraction on the Midway, bringing in $726,805.50 in revenue over five months of operation. When the wheel finally stopped revolving in November, it had succeeded, at least in the public’s opinion, in outdoing the French exposition of 1889. Graves commented: “The Eiffel tower involved no new engineering principle, and when finished was a thing dead and lifeless. The wheel, on the other hand, has movement, grace, the indescribable charm possessed by a vast body in action.” When the fair closed in November of 1893, the fair’s designers and architects believed the United States had established itself as a center of technological advancement. Many critics and commentators declared that the World’s Columbian Exposition marked a “new era of American cultural achievement.”

It took Rocky Point Park and Rhode Island several years to respond to the demand for new and more innovative attractions. Though the park’s early amusements had served to provide inspiration to Charles Looff and perhaps George Ferris, it took many years for Rocky Point to install the improved versions of their wooden attractions. Taking cues from the Columbian Exposition and the subsequent Coney Island Ferris wheels, Rocky Point built a larger wheel in 1911 to satisfy customers looking for more thrilling heights. The wheels that were installed in the park had been composed of wood. Because of the weight of the structure, it would have been impossible to construct a wooden wheel wheel that would be able to make a rotation using the available steam power. Colonel Randall A. Harrington, the Rhode Island “amusement park czar” and owner of Rocky Point, understood the importance of operating and maintaining a Ferris wheel that could compete in height with the most profitable and popular wheels of the day and would also be efficient to operate. A 1911 Souvenir Booklet promoted the new attraction: “This season, in addition to the manifold attractions already at the Point, Col. Harrington purposes the erection of a new Ferris Wheel of large size…” Later, the guidebook detailed the myriad improvements that Harrington had installed at the amusement park, making sure to note that a “new large Ferris Wheel,” [emphasis added] could be found there.

After maintaining and improving the Rocky Point property for over fifteen years, William Winslow, the park’s founder, decided to sell the park to Byron Sprague, a local entrepreneur intent upon turning the Point into an upper class shore resort. Shore resorts had become increasingly popular among middle class citizens looking to emulate the vacation styles of theFountain at Rocky Point upper class. During the mid to late nineteenth century, resort communities like Saratoga Springs, Niagara Falls, and Newport gained popularity among the upper class. The wealthy clamored to experience Saratoga’s mineral springs, which were imbued with cleansing and healing properties. The “infirm” and “ill” were brought to the springs to drink and be refreshed by the naturally carbonated water. Though not infirm, wealthy businessman and the leisure class also came to drink from Saratoga Springs. Convinced of the water’s ability to cure all maladies and ailments, the upper class drank from the spring to wash away the dirt, grime, and pestilence that inhabited the cities. Further, a stay at Saratoga Springs allowed the wealthy to refresh and revive themselves before their return to work. Saratoga Springs enjoyed financial and critical success after the Civil War, while Newport had been a popular destination since the late eighteenth century. Though not blessed with a healing mineral spring, the sea breezes and salty air of Rocky Point were said to help revive and invigorate even the most haggard of businessman or infirm member of the upper class. Niagara Falls too offered those wealthy individuals a break from the city, providing refreshing breezes, pure water, and the inspiring beauty of nature.

In an effort to emulate the wealthy, the nineteenth century’s budding middle class strived to find shore resorts that would allow them to enjoy health benefits from nature and respite from the urban environment and work. While wealthy resort destinations like Newport, Rhode Island and Saratoga Springs, kept the middle class out, new, less fashionable shore resorts in New England, New York, and the Midwest accommodated the vacation needs of this aspiring leisure class and survived as a result of middle class patronage. Lake George, Cape Cod, and the White Mountains developed as middle class resorts from the 1860s to the 1880s. “Watering holes,” akin to the springs at Saratoga, claiming to have healing, restorative properties, became extremely popular among the middle class. The heavy demand for these resorts brought about the development of bay and seaside areas. An article in Century Magazine attested to the prevalence of shore resorts and hotels, exclaiming, “Summer hotels are everywhere. They form an almost continuous line along the coast of New England and the Middle States.”

Rhode Island businessmen recognized the growth in middle class “vacationing” and catered to their desires by building accessible shore resorts along Rhode Island’s coast. Smith’s Palace on the Cranston-Providence city line was likely the first resort on Narragansett Bay and was advertised as early as 1843 as a resort location. Later, Rhode Island resorts like Watch Hill and Narragansett Pier boasted spacious hotels and appropriate, middle class entertainment. A mineral spring and the Vue de l’Eau hotel in East Providence attracted middle class patrons and their parties in search of refreshment and relaxation. These Rhode Island shore resorts offered respectable rates and accommodations for middle class Americans in search of vacation resorts. News of these vacation areas quickly reached perspective visitors as distant as New York and the Midwest bringing increased numbers of bay vacationers to Rhode Island.

When Byron Sprague became the owner of Rocky Point in 1865, he immediately made expensive changes to the property in order to accommodate potential long-term, middle class vacationers. Over his four years as owner of the Point, Sprague spent over $300,000 dollars on improvements and modifications. Principally, Sprague built a large, three story, four hundred person, elegantly decorated hotel on a hill that overlooked the bay. The hotel, or “summer residence” as it was Hoteladvertised, featured “a broad piazza surround[ing] the lower story, and a large, square cupola surmount[ing] the centre of the roof, affording a wide view in every direction.” The hotel instantly attracted short-term vacationers and summer residents from nearby Providence as well as from locations as distant as Chicago, Denver, and New York. For example, in a single night, 20 June 1878, guests from Cincinnati, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Ward, Massachusetts slept at the hotel. It remained full throughout the summer. While he only managed the resort for a brief time, Sprague’s modifications to the Point’s attractions would be regionally recognized in The New York Times and the Boston Globe for the next two decades.

Rocky Point’s reputation as a well-kept shore resort only grew. In fact, popular publications like The New York Times and Harper’s Monthly tookHarper’s Monthly Illustration notice of the Point’s recent improvements and developments beginning in 1872. These publications encouraged middle class vacationers to leave the city and journey to Rhode Island to enjoy the scenery, fresh air, and relaxation that the Point provided. Guidebooks and the national press helped spread the word about new resorts and vacation destinations to potential customers. Articles published in the New York Times featured the Point at least twice seasonally until 1900. One Times’ writer, describing the Rhode Island shore resort on August 3, 1873, explained that while the Point was not a summer residence, it was a suitable vacation destination.

The Point is not a watering-place in the common acceptation of the term. It will never interfere with Newport or Long Branch, for it has no beach, and can boast no surf. It would never enter the mind of a man to go to Rocky Point with his family for the season. A single day with the clams is a rare treat, but to make the Summer one continual clam-bake is more than mortal stomach can endure. The people who come here are those who have but a day at their disposal, and it is safe to say that no other locality is, upon the whole, possessed of so many attractions, and capable of furnishing such a variety of entertainment.

From Rocky Point: The Head-Quarters of Clam-Bakes New York Times, August 3, 1873.

Local newspapers also promoted the new resort to prospective Rhode Island visitors. An article that appeared in the Republican Herald on 22 June 1872 described the pleasant differences between the state’s Rocky Point and other popular shore resorts and vacation venues, taking pride in the unique aspects of their resort.

No true Rhode Islander who is alive to the distinctive beauties of his own State needs to be told that Rocky Point for the last few years has presented agreeable features hardly equaled by those of any summer resort in the Union. Its beach is not equal to Newport’s; it is not near a mighty metropolis like Long Branch; it wants the springs of Saratoga, yet a day passed at our local place presents a combination of charms which no one of them excels.

Welcome!

“We are about to visit together another world, or at least a new country, full of mysteries and unknown delights, if you have never been there; if you have, it may give pleasure of ‘twice-told tale’ to hear again of a country which has a king, and a hundred thousand willing subjects who are clamorous in his praise.”

– Continental Steamboat Company Guidebook, published in 1881

Hi Everyone,

I suppose I should have started this blog off with an introduction of some kind, but I got so excited about posting actual content that I skipped all that and went to the heart of the matter. I think it is important, however, to frame what I want to do with this site.

I’m most interested in uncovering the history of Rocky Point Park, from the beginning to the end, picking apart stories, photographs, rides, games, owners, and patrons in the hopes that the amusement park may live on even though the park closed its doors in 1995. That said, I want to know what made Rocky Point special for you. I want your photos, videos, memories – anything you want to share about Rocky Point so that together we can create a public virtual repository or collection of Point moments and memorabilia (hopefully coming soon and powered by Omeka).

I plan to analyze and write about events and aspects of the park’s history as I come across them. I hope to make this a weekly or bi-weekly blog, so stay tuned. And, as I said, let me know in a comment or email what Rocky Point meant to you.

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 aerial.jpgthe 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. Thelb0907_rockypoint_2_09-07-07_op71bhs.jpg 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.

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