Monday, December 5, 2011

A Block Island Reverie: Thirty Years of Journeys, Trips and Vacations to Rhode Island's Jewel

(This essay was written for the March 2012 gallery exhibit on Block Island which I curated at the Woodbury, CT  Public Library)

"....Then is that lonely island fair;
And the pale health-seeker findeth there
The wine of life in its pleasant air...."
                                              John Greenleaf Whittier
                                           "The Palatine" (1867)

    Block Island, that tiny tear drop-shaped island jewel in the Atlantic, always beckons. Although Block Island begins and ends as a physical space, lying thirteen miles south of Point Judith, Rhode Island, and fourteen miles east of Montauk Point, New York, and deservedly  (if unwittingly) wearing the nickname "The Bermuda of the North," it is nevertheless as much  concept as  reality. Block Island is a place one longs for as well as visits, a state of mind in addition to a place for the body. 

    For over a century, Block Island has been a popular summer vacation spot and  destination for tourists and travelers, weekenders and daytrippers, revelers and romantics, a place that is close enough from much of southern New England to get to in a morning's travel, but far enough away that one knows that they have journeyed to somewhere else. The reason why Block Island is such a beautiful island retreat is that it is at once a natural treasure, containing a unique and fragile ecosystem. These seeming contradictions are Block Island's most sublime quality, that it can simultaneously display these disparate pleasures.

Crescent Beach, looking North
to beautiful and secluded
Mansion Beach
There is a deep and enduring beauty about Block Island, a lyrical beauty that has often been written about and photographed, but never completely captured or encapsulated. Block Island is not the ostentatious and easy beauty of Miami Beach, though her Crescent Beach vies with the East Coast’s best. Block Island is not the visceral beauty of the Grand Canyon, though looking down from Mohegan Bluffs to the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean can grip the imagination just as forcefully. Block Island is not the awesome beauty of Niagara Falls, though navigating the cut above North Light can be equally exhilarating and treacherous. Block Island is not the majestic beauty of the Rockies, though climbing to the top of Pilot Hill and seeing the coastal contours of three states at once is just as remarkable. Block Island is its own special place.

    For almost thirty years, our family has sojourned on Block Island. Our children have grown up frolicking on its sandy beaches, caressed by those soft, omnipresent zephyr winds, hiking its Clayhead trails, holding its tidal periwinkles and starfish in their hands and marking each summer season with a trip to "the Block," all the while internalizing and revering the Island's unique and tenuous beauty; and their future children will in turn someday inherit their own pride of place in this wondrous space.

    Geologically, Block Island is but an after-thought, an appendix to Earth’s grand and ancient story, a speck of land at the mouth of Long Island Sound that represents a small fragment of recessional moraine that was left by the receding glaciers of the last Ice Age. That event took place around 20,000 years ago, during what is known as the Laurentide glacier retreat of the Wisconsonian glaciation. The land masses destined to be Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, the Cuttyhunk Islands, Nantucket and the eastern forks of Long Island all formed then, from similar erosive forces of nature, fully separating from the mainland of New England over 8,000 years ago. Of these islands, Block Island alone lay claims to one of nature's great gifts – that certain animals and plants survive, even thrive, within her shores, and almost nowhere else on Earth.

Block Island Meadow Vole
Microtus pennsylvanicus provectus
     Block Island is arguably the most significant biological niche in the Northeast, whose unique ecology supports a remarkable variety of wildlife, including over forty species classified as either rare or endangered. Thousands of migratory shorebirds, waterfowl, raptors, and song-birds sojourn on Block Island as a stopover point on their journey north and south along the Atlantic Flyway. Acres of rare grasses and iconic beach roses (Rosa rugosa) grow and flourish among the protected dunes around the Island
Beach Rose
Rosa rugosa
     It has been said that there are as many natural ponds on Block Island as there are days in the year. Indeed, over three hundred fifty ponds dot the Island, almost all of them so-called "kettle pots" or "kettle ponds," a result of glacial scouring, hollowing and melt, which provide a home and refuge for green frogs and peepers, red-spotted newts and spotted turtles, eastern painted turtles and diamondback terrapins. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, "there is speculation that some of these may be distinct subspecies, since they have been separated from mainland populations for at least 8,000 years." One wonders whether these fauna were indigenous, or brought over from the mainland either by the Naragansetts or subsequent settlers. Notwithstanding the specific source of their origin on the Island, the fact that such a diversity of animal and plant life thrives on such a tiny piece of land as Block Island is testimony to its uniqueness and importance.
Great Salt Pond, an aerial view
The breach into the Atlantic can be
seen in the top left of the photograph

  The largest freshwater pond on Block Island is Fresh Pond, which has been a source of potable water since the time of the Naragansetts, the native Americans who had colonized it over two millennia ago.

  Great Salt Pond, as evidenced by its name, is no longer a true freshwater pond, because it has been breached into the Atlantic. The breach of Great Salt Pond happened episodically over centuries during fierce storms, and then purposefully, when after numerous attempts, a cut was finally properly and permanently dredged in the northwest corner of the Pond in 1895.  This allowed commercial ships and, these days, pleasure craft of all styles and sizes, to be harbored in its commodious and protected waters.

Piping Plover
Charadrius melodus

    Since the 1960s, all of Block Island's biota and almost half of its open space have become permanently protected. This us a result of enlightened stewardship and the tireless political efforts of many concerned and philanthropic Islanders, as well as by several far-reaching and visionary statutes from Providence (the capital of the state of Rhode Island, not a kingdom of heaven, though both may be correct in this case).
Regal Fritillary Butterfly
        Speyeria idalia Drury
      Endangered world-wide
     Block Island's delicate ecosystem has been designated as one of thirteen "Last Great Places" by The Nature Conservancy, which has identified "Block Island as more than just home to rare and endangered plants and animals. It also supports a vibrant, active human community with a strong sense of its cultural and natural heritage. The overwhelming local commitment to conservation inspired The Nature Conservancy to name Block Island one of thirteen “Last Great Places” in the Western Hemisphere. With the hard work of many individuals and an assembly of conservation organizations, almost half of the Island is now protected; protected for plants, animals, and people in perpetuity.
North American burying beetle
Nicrophorus americanus

  Among the rare and endangered animal species found on Block Island are the North American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), the Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia Drury), the Block Island meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus provectus), and the piping plover (Charadrius melodus). These are examples of unique species which live virtually nowhere else on Earth. Recent genetic evidence supports the thesis that some of these animals actually represent separate species, given that Block Island has been separated from the mainland for over 8,000 years, enough time to allow for speciation to occur.

     Archaeological findings document that Block Island has been inhabited for over two milennia. The Narragansett Indians, a branch of the Algonquin, were the native Americans who populated the Island prior to the first English settlers, calling it Manisses, which means "Island of the little Manitou" (Manitou is Algonquin for "life-force" or "spirit"). The Narragansetts made their settlement near the southern shore of Great Salt Pond. The numerous quahog shell middens excavated there underscore that it was a rich and fertile area, a veritable "Garden of Eden of natural resources" according to an archaeologist who has studied the area.

   In 1524, the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, sailing in the employ of the French Court, sighted the Island and named it Claudia, in honor of Claude, Duchess of Brittany, queen consort of France and the spouse of Francis I. However, several contemporaneous maps of the era identify the same island as Luisa, after Louise of Savoy, the Queen Mother of France and the mother of Francis I. Verrazano never landed, but described Claudia (Luisa) as he sailed past as being  " full of hills, covered with trees, well peopled for we saw fires along the coast...."

The Blaeu Map of 1635
showing "Adrien Blocs Eylandt"
("Adriaen Block's Island")
     In 1614, Block Island was charted by the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block, who began to trade with the Narragansetts, and then named it for himself. (It remains a mystery if Captain Block ever saw any maps with Claudia or Luisa on them). However, finely detailed Dutch maps of the early seventeenth century do show a "Block Island" (see above), indicated as "Adriaen Blocs Eylandt" ("Adrian Block's Island"). Block also named one of the islands in Narragansett Bay as "Rood ("Red") Island." The name "Rood" or "Rhode" stuck as the name of the future state, Rhode Island. That same Adriaen Block is also remembered today as the first European settler to build a house on another island,  that of Manhattan, near what is now Wall Street.

    It does not appear that Block or his crew actually landed on Block Island. That distinction was earned adversarially, as an expedition of twenty men from Boston and environs arrived on Block Island sometime in the spring of 1636, to retaliate against the Narragansetts for killing a certain John Oldham, and the Island was thus made a part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

An early map of New England

showing Block Island
 (Homann, Nuremburg, 1716)
    Later, in 1661, a group of sixteen settlers from the Providence area sailed over from Rhode Island, and purchased the island. As these settlers' philosophy and mores were more consonant with those of their peers in Rhode Island, Block Island subsequently became part of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1672. Soon thereafter, the Island government adopted the name New Shoreham for both the Island itself and for its only town, the lovely, Victorian-styled port area framed by Old Harbor and its charming streets, evocatively called Water, High, Spring, Dodge, Weldon's and Chapel.

   Block Island's maritime geography can be likened at times to the sirens of Greek mythology, at once beautiful but also treacherous. Over the centuries, there have been numerous shipwrecks off her shores, in particular on a submerged spit of land that carries forth from the northernmost part of the island called Sandy Point (termed the "Hummock" in earlier times), and an equally dangerous area around the southeast coast, just off-shore from the Mohegan Bluffs.

    It was near that northernmost spot that the so-called "spirit-fire ship" Princess Augustus (also known as "The Palatine") got marooned in 1738, spawning John Greenleaf Whittier's elegiac but somewhat deprecating poem about the Island and its inhabitants, "The Wreck of the Palatine" (1867), which engages the reader from among its first lines:

"....Circled by waters that never freeze
Beaten by billow and swept by breeze
Lieth the island of Manisses...

When the hills are sweet with the brier-rose,
And, hid in the warm, soft dells, unclose
Flowers the mainland rarely knows....

No greener valleys the sun invite,
On smoother beaches no sea-birds light,
No blue waves shatter to foam more white..."

Southeast Light, which in 1993 was
moved about 250 feet from the bluffs,
emblematic of BI's conservancy
  Today, two majestic and powerful lighthouses, the granite-hewn North Light (1867) and the red-brick Southeast Light (1873), identify those two insidious areas on the Island's coast, alerting modern-day sea captains of submerged perils. Both lighthouses have been lovingly maintained over the years. In 1993, the Southeast Light, a National Historic Landmark, was lifted and moved two hundred fifty feet back from the cliffs of the Mohegan Bluffs, sparing it from otherwise collapsing down into the Atlantic for at least one hundred years. The bulk of the two million dollar project was raised by private donations from islanders, vacationers and committed citizens, whose collective effort is in the great spirit of Block Island philanthropy and conservancy.

The granite-hewn North Light (1867)

    Just as Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard and the other so-called "Outer Lands"  (Cape Cod, Long Island and the islands)  in the North Atlantic have their own interesting stories and memorable individuals, so too does Block Island have its share of fascinating tales and colorful characters. One of the most remarkable was Edward Searles (1841-1920), interior designer, architect, dreamer, visionary, eccentric multimillionaire and builder of one of Block Island's most singular edifices.
   Edward Francis Searles was born in Methuen, Massachusetts, and apprenticed with the renowned design firm Herter Brothers in NYC in the 1870s. He soon found himself advising on the decoration of the mansions of the rich and the famous, and apparently of the widowed as well.

    It so happened that in 1881 Searles was sent out to San Francisco by Herter Brothers to assist a certain Mrs. Mary Francis (nee Sherwood) Hopkins in the decoration of her new home. Mrs Mary Sherwood Hopkins just happened to be THE Mrs. Mark Hopkins, the widow of Mark Hopkins, the San Francisco railroad magnate. Mrs. Hopkins was finishing her mansion atop Nob Hill  (the site of the current Mark Hopkins Hotel; her mansion was destroyed in the three day fire after the 1906 earthwuake) and found a kindred spirit in design and the arts in Mr. Searles.

     Evidently Mrs. Hopkins was pleased with Mr. Searles' work in San Francisco because she helped Searles secure a second commission in 1885, this time for the interior design of another of her  baronial mansions, a jewel of an edifice in her birthplace of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The stone mansion, which came to be known as Kellogg Terrace (and is now reincarnated as the Dewey Academy for Boys), was, then as it is now, a masterpiece of gothic and neo-renaissance architecture. 

The close and constant companionship between Mr. Searles and Mrs. Hopkins in the Kellogg Terrace project led to a more intimate friendship, and then, perhaps inevitable given their kindred spirits, a May-September romance, as the sixty-eight year old Mrs Hopkins was twenty-two years Searles' elder (and one of the earlier cougars on record). On November 7, 1887, the perpetual bachelor Mr. Searles married the wealthy widow of the railroad magnate, Mrs. Hopkins. 

   Searles then really went to work, adding a host of truly baroque additions to Kellogg Terrace, including a giant nave on its west side which was planned as the music hall, outfitting it with one of the largest pipe organs ever built in a private residence in the United States. 

    While Searles was finishing the interiors of the Great Barrington mansion, he bought several large parcels of land on Block Island's Corn Neck, originally amounting to almost sixty-five acres, extending from the Great Salt Pond to the Atlantic. It was there, at the north end of Crescent Beach, that  he built his "Dream House" as he called it, the opulent mansion then known as "White Hall."  

   Mr and Mrs Searles must have developed very different and individual tastes because, as the photo below shows, Mr. Searles had his architect, the brilliant Englishman Henry Vaughn (who brought over English Gothic style and popularized the Gothic Revival style of architecture), design the mansion with two gigantic, identical, and bilaterally symmetrical "His and Hers" wings, separated from each other by a massive two-story central hall complete with a grand staircase! 

The wood and stone structure was so big and of such a bright white color from its rusticated wood that it could be seen by ships from miles away, actually appearing as a point of interest on nautical maps of the time ("white ho' flat-top" - the "flat top" monicker because Searles had the cupola (see below)  removed along the way). White Hall soon became known locally by Block Islanders as the "Mansion House," and that part of Crescent Beach was thus re-christened "Mansion Beach."

White Hall in 1888
The so-called "Mansion House" or Searles Mansion
right after its completion. Note the cupola on top.

    After Mrs. Hopkins-Searles' death in 1891, Mr. Searles largely abandoned the Mansion House. However, his inheritance of 21 million dollars (the equivalent of approximately 400 million in today's dollars!) and vast real estate holdings, allowed him an even freer reign to design and build several other similarly extraordinary properties, to wit, the two fantastic castles he conjured and then actualized with Henry Vaughn: Pine Lodge, in Methuen, Massachusetts, in 1910, and Stanton Harcourt Castle, a few miles up the road,  in Windham, New Hampshire, in 1915, where he found the property and estate taxes to be less onerous.

    Searles himself passed away in 1920, and his Block Island Mansion House lay largely abandoned, becoming the episodic location of unofficial drinking parties and dances during and after prohibition. The town of New Shoreham bought the property in 1929 and subsequently sold it several years later to a certain Oliver P. Rose. 

    It changed hands a few times after that, and in the mid-1950s, , Ernest Pollien of Westport, Connecticut, who had been buying and selling Block Island properties for several years, purchased the Mansion House and made a credible attempt at rescuing it, refinishing it and rehabilitating it  as a holiday retreat. The Mansion House continued on for a while longer, and then, one night in April 1963, it mysteriously burned to the ground. Arson was suspected, but no one has ever been implicated.

White Hall, aka The Mansion House
The cupola was removed after being hit by lightning.
The building mysteriously burned to the ground in 1963.

     Today, all that remains of the once imposing Mansion House are parts of the two brick pediments where the entrance had been, and a bit of the foundation, on which everyone who can get there early enough in the morning parks their cars or SUVs, and walks down to, where else?, Mansion Beach! 
(you can read more about the Mansion House, White Hall, at 

    Another Block Island tale concerns the privateer William Kidd, yes, Captain Kidd himself ! The story goes that Kidd and his buccaneers visited Block Island several times in the late 1690s. Kidd was said to have buried some treasure on Block Island, and given the island's isolated position at the mouth of Long island Sound, this is certainly a possibility. Over the centuries, numerous attempts to find said buried treasure have been mounted. According to Block Island historian Ethel Colt Ritchie, what used to be called the Old Road, past the Harbor School House, has been one site of these digs for "buried treasure," all of which so far have come up empty.
William Kidd
"Captain Kidd"
Did he bury gold on Block Island in 1699?
    But Kidd and his men did anchor their sloop, the San Antonio, on Block Island, sometime in 1699, in what is now the Old Harbor area, and according to several reliable accounts, they were given provisions there by a certain Mrs. Mercy Raymond (nee Sands). For her kindnesses, Kidd asked Mrs Raymond to hold out her apron, and he filled it with gold coins and jewels. After her husband passed away, Mrs Raymond moved her family to the area of Montville Connecticut, where she bought an enormous parcel of land and the family was said to have been "enriched by the apron."
A view of a Victorian Building
from Rebecca's Statue on Water Street
   Block Island is informed by all of these many fascinating and intriguing aspects, an island haven with rare and unusal fauna and beautiful flora, a quirky past history, a big red-brick lighthouse that was actually lifted up and moved, and possibly even some buried treasure waiting to be discovered. However, Block Island is unique and wondrous in so many other ways, perhaps quotidian, yet even more indelible: there are no traffic lights on the Island; bicycling and walking are the most common modes of transportation; moss-covered low stone walls still demarcate many property lines as they did over three centuries ago; there is a view of water, either of ponds or of the ocean, from virtually any spot on the Island; there are no garish chain stores or marquees to spoil its rural character (however there are three ice cream parlors to delight the palate); virtually all of the town architecture is Victorian.
The Spring House porch, as captured
by Mary Harty and Peter de Rosa in
American Vision, 1981
     The Narragansetts had it right. The "God of small things" lives and plays on Block Island, frolicking in its waters and rejoicing within its vales. Block Island remains this remarkable, pristine and special place, a psychic space really, a sanctuary somewhere over the rainbow, a rare and magical natural kingdom that actually exists, and will continue quietly co-existing, with our precious Earth.
copyright 2012 Vincent de Luise, M.D.  A Musical Vision 


  1. What an elegant tribute to an enchanted place - I haven't yet been to Block Island, and now I feel I must - thank you for your writing and the photographs. Melissa Mather Kunstadter

    1. Thanks you so much, Melissa, for your kind comment.
      Yes, you should visit Block Island, and often. It is
      a magical and mystical place - quiet, self-effacing,
      natural, serene, and always beautiful.

  2. Hi Vincent,
    Loved your essay, and I've published a link to it on the Block Island Times website, at
    Thanks for stopping by the office here on Block Island and letting us know about it!

  3. Thanks so much, Pippa ! I am so pleased that you enjoyed the essay and that you published the link to the essay on the BI Times. The best link for your readers to find this essay is the one we are on:

    Thanks so much again !

  4. Thank you for this... I've tried a thousand times without success to put it into words, the "state of mind in addition to a place for the body." - you summed it up wonderfully even though for those who truly "get" Block Island it still somehow defies description. So many interesting historical tidbits as well!

    1. Thank you so much for this, Jesse. Block island is indeed a spiritual and mystical place, as well as a physical locus for the body to, flex, unfurl and relax. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Block Island, like all sacred spaces, will always defy description; words alone cannot describe nature's silence, beauty and serenity. One must experience it, or, long for it.