“In the past 200 years, the waterfront has run the gamut from slave-trading to industrial fishing; from the Scalloptown scandal to a prime source of livelihood for the town; a bustling port of entry to a yachtsman’s dream of a safe harbor. Without the bay we would never have been; for which we should be everlastingly grateful to those who first settled here”. — Martha McPartland, longtime librarian of the East Greenwich Free Library
Most of us with a connection to history call to mind East Greenwich (EG), RI, as “The Birthplace of the American Navy”. But, long before the American Revolution, EG was a thriving seaport and home to men who fished the sea or dug for shellfish in the bountiful waters of Greenwich and Narragansett Bays. It was an origination point and destination for ships that sailed the world to being trade back to the colonies. And, some of those vessels were also built right here. In fact, a number of small wooden warships were built right through World War II.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, ships arrived from the West Indies with sugar and molasses and were exchanged for cargoes of rum and trade goods as they were from the other major colonial ports. Sadly, some of those distant destinations included centers for the slave trade. Rhode Island was a key player in the infamous “trade triangle”. Although some slaves were disembarked here, East Greenwich was not as active a port of call for slavers as were Newport and Bristol, RI. However, Captains Benjamin and Samuel Fry were among those involved, according to local history, and their ships unloaded their human cargo in East Greenwich. Rhode Island outlawed the importation of slaves as early as 1652, but in spite of further legislation, the activity would continue until 1787. A small number of enslaved people remained on the state’s census rolls as late as 1808.
Local ship owners included Silas Casey, whose ships “Juno” and “Levant” regularly traveled to Europe. Tavern owner Colonel William Arnold, whose son followed him to sea, ran a trio of ships to the West Indies and back. The son died at sea, and the dynasty and shipping business ended.
Although the port of East Greenwich enabled a number of families to amass considerable fortunes for the time, others languished in poverty, including a small emancipated African-American community that settled along the waterfront and the area to become known as Scalloptown, drawing its name from the town’s reputation as a rich source of seafood.
As the years passed, the relationship between East Greenwich and the sea continued to flourish. The so-called Jail Wharf, located near the old Jail at the foot of King Street, was a departure point for ships sailing into the Atlantic and those plying the Bay. Their bowsprits extended out over the street to the old Shore Mill (now condominiums). The waterline back then was probably a good ten feet or so inland from where it is today and the water deep enough to accommodate ocean-going ships of the period. A constant line of mules and wagons came and went with goods and promised a bright future for the town as a trading center.
Discontent with rule by the British Crown continued to mount in the 18th century and the winds of war reached East Greenwich. It was here on June 12, 1772, that the Colonial Assembly, (which rotated meetings around the colony including sessions in East Greenwich) authorized two armed vessels, the sloop Katy (later to become the Providence) and the galley Washington to face off against British warships looking to enforce the onerous taxation placed on the colonies. Both local warcraft were placed under command of Captain Abraham Whipple. Both contested Royal Navy ships on the Bay until they were taken into the newly established Continental Navy. Therein lies the claim of East Greenwich as the birthplace of the American Navy. Until the War of 1812, trade by sea would flourish in East Greenwich. Fishermen sailed closer to shore during and after the war and by the early 1830’s, the fishing industry in East Greenwich was pretty much centered around local and coastal waters.
When the railroad arrived in 1837, passing close by the waterfront, the new mode of transport added to the town’s prosperity. But, it also doomed the local commercial sailing trade (the packets that would travel up and down the Bay from town to town) and men turned more to the fishing industry. The sea remained central to life on the West Bay.
Generations of men have “followed the shore” either on large boats or in small skiffs, taking shellfish from the area’s fertile and relatively shallow waters. On any morning, you can still see small boats heading out. Fishermen (and women) still use tongs in the traditional manner to reap the harvest of quahogs and clams (the scallop industry trade faded away a half century ago due to over harvesting and environmental changes in the waters of Narragansett and Greenwich Bays).
In the 1920’s, Joseph Gorman opened a wholesale fish business in town at the foot of Long Street. It would grow to become the popular restaurant Lobstermania. A commercial shellfish processing company is its neighbor and their collection boat often picks up local shell fishermen’s catches to speed processing. On shore, the Bay’s riches are prepared and sent worldwide.
The trendy restaurants, the marina, and yacht club that line the waterfront are a far cry from what the East Greenwich shoreline looked like in the latter part of the 19th into the early 20th century. Today, it is an area of genteel condos and mixed development, and, yes, home to the Town’s sewage treatment plant. Thanks to man and nature, the shape of the shoreline has also significantly altered over the years.
But, the area along Water Street still retains its historical name of Scalloptown. Visitors and some newer residents connect the name with the scenic park along the upper end of Greenwich Cove: a place for exercise or to commune with nature’s beauty and local wildlife. But, let’s go back in time.
By the 19th century, the part of the shoreline that ran from roughly the Town Dock and the old jail down past Finn’s Lobstermania to the foot of London Street was known as Scalloptown: an apt title as it was home to the many watermen who farmed the surrounding waters. Piles of empty shells rising twenty feet or more surrounded a ramshackle collection of huts and buildings. Some were built out over the water (as a few are still today), subject to the whims of nature. More than once, storms and raging tides have attacked the area until it was ultimately devastated by the 1938 Hurricane and the area dramatically changed in use and appearance.
Scalloptown was once a rough neighborhood by any terms. Between 1890 and 1913, it was not a place for the faint of heart to wander. It was not unusual to find a body or two floating under the docks after a rowdy Saturday night. Martha McPartland in her book on the history of East Greenwich (1677-1960) shares an anecdote about local men in the early 1900’s rowing out into the cove on a Saturday night for “viewing at a safe distance, the goings on at Scalloptown”.
The neighborhood was inhabited by poor whites and a number of African-Americans, some descended from emancipated slaves. Living conditions were primitive to put it mildly, consisting of shanties, muddy pathways, and rudimentary (if any) sanitation. In 1900, the conditions shocked even the most hardened investigators .
As the 20th century began, community-minded citizens started to take action to improve to the quality of life for Scalloptown residents, spurred on by hard-hitting editorials in the East Greenwich Pendulum that decried the drunkenness and other evils that pervaded the neighborhood. The paper made a point of noting that “the foul turkey buzzards concerned and mixed up in the filthy affair were white, and the disclosure of their morality shown to be so far below that of the lowest and vilest animal or carrion ronyon that crawls.”
As strong as those words were, it would not be until 1913 that a cleanup of the area began. Civic minded residents took it upon themselves to gather up the children and innocent adults and find them decent accommodations. The community programs of Neighborhood Cottage, located on Long Street, played an important role. Eventually, the town fathers took direct action, condemned many of the shacks and brought to an end the activities that surrounded them. Finally, in 1926, the town put the remaining shacks to the torch. Today, there are a few newer buildings representative of the simple architecture. One more recently built serves as the home of the “Scalloptown Yacht Club”.
In the past couple of centuries, Scalloptown and the East Greenwich waterfront have run the gamut from slave trading to commercial boat building, industrial and recreational fishing, upscale dining and yachting. Today it is a lively part of the economy. But, it’s livelihood and survival are owed to the waters of Greenwich Bay.
Scalloptown Park, located at the end of Rocky Hollow Road to the south of the old Scalloptown neighborhood and atop the former town landfill, is a tranquil place for exercise and simply to commune with nature and wildlife. An occasional Amtrak train passing nearby is the only distraction. A signboard on the walking trail gives a brief history of the area. Walk along the path or sit on one of the benches and surrounded by the beauty of the upper end of Greenwich Cove, think back to those days when East Greenwich was a thriving seaport, a center for the fishing industry, and in the case of old Scalloptown, a rowdy and dangerous neighborhood.
The writer extends a special thanks to the East Greenwich Library and the East Greenwich Historical Preservation Society for assistance in researching this story. Some details were drawn from Martha McPartland’s book “The History of East Greenwich 1677 to 1960”, published by the East Greenwich Free Library Association in 1960.