Paralleling the growth in the US economy in the late 1800′s, Block Island enjoyed the reputation of a grand Victorian resort from the 1860′s to the 1920′s. Large hotels were built establishing Old Harbor and New Harbor after 1895, as city dwellers from New York, Boston, and Providence escaped the heat and enjoyed summers on the island. The islanders prospered from fishing and farming to support the burgeoning summer population and for export across to the mainland. The museum has many vintage photographs from this time period as well as clothing, postcards and collectible dish ware and souvenirs.
In 1829, the first North Light was built at Sandy Point on the north end of the island. It was replaced in 1837 after it was washed out to sea. In 1857 a third lighthouse was also claimed by the ocean. In 1867, the granite block lighthouse that can be seen today was constructed. It is located a half mile walk across a sand beach from the parking area at Settlers’ Rock. The Town of New Shoreham runs a small Interpretive Center on the first floor with lifesaving displays on loan from the Historical Society. Please call them for hours as they are only open depending on weather and staffing. The Historical Society offers special tours to the site and includes information about both lighthouses.
During The War of 1812 Block Island was briefly occupied by the British Navy under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy. British vessels included HMS Dispatch, HMS Terror, HMS Nimrod, HMS Pactolus and HMS Ramillies. Hardy took the fleet to Block Island in search of food and to establish a strategic position at the mouth of Long Island Sound. The British were enraged to discover that virtually all Block Island livestock and food stores had been transferred to Stonington, Connecticut in advance of their arrival. On August 9, 1814, Hardy and his fleet departed Block Island for Stonington Harbor in part to lay claim to the Block Island food stores and livestock. Hardy’s pre-dawn raid on 10 August was repulsed with damage to his fleet in a battle that has since become known as The Battle of Stonington.
On the north end of the island is “Wash Pond” named for the location the British did their laundry. Beacon Hill was also used as a look out at that time. Visit the Museum to see our slide show on the history of the Beacon Hill tower and home. The mapping exhibit room has a DeBeers map from 1774 showing the depths around the island produced for the British navy.
Block Island was incorporated by the Rhode Island general assembly in 1672, and the island government adopted the name “New Shoreham.” A Dutch map of 1685 clearly shows Block Island, indicated as Adrian Block Island (“Adriaen Blocks Eylant”).
In 1661, the Endicott group sold the island to a party of sixteen settlers, led by John Alcock, who are today memorialized at Settler’s Rock, near Cow’s Cove.