Walking out on the new wood in the wash of the afternoon sun, treading wide planks securely in place it is impossible not to look out to the ragged end of the post-Sandy east wall and the empty sky where the green light tower used to stand. Then, amidst the newness and ruin, something different catches my eye, a short stretch of solid granite blocks just south of the sandstone stub, squarely cut, and evenly set. They are not new, there is still in place on one end the remains of aged metal sheathing, tattered and torn.
The wall, a sort of bulkhead, below the sand filled rubble breakwater and above the water line, is one that surely would have captivated a little girl’s imagination. It would have been of a castle, right there, surrounded by plain, weathered wood buildings battered by the hurricanes of the early 1950s and the inattention come of a dwindling fishing industry. It would have opened doors in my mind. I would have remembered it.
There are whole years I have not walked in this space; the shoaling and loss of the harbor, the seemingly unstoppable march of the sea inland are all too much a reminder that Nature is greater than we for all our engineering and determination. Perhaps there have been times this new to me wall has been visible; I do not want to ask and be told I need to come out of the Neck more often.
My years in government did not leave me with knowledge of where bodies are buried but I know the the existence of particular, extraordinary, volumes. One is the grand sounding General Investigation & Reconnaissance Report of the Block Island Harbor of Refuge produced by the Army Corps in 1993. It includes a narrative dating to the River and Harbor Act of 1867 which called for a survey to determine “the best manner of forming an artificial harbor... ”
There was no stated purpose of opening the island to tourism and the outside world, rather a broader need to facilitate commerce between the island and the mainland, and, secondarily, provide a refuge for coastal traffic. Almost as a footnote is the recognition of the need for a harbor to enable the construction and supply of the lighthouses proposed.
The true treasure, on this day, is pages of maps and drawings, dating from 1868 when there was no more to the harbor than stone “piers,” masses of rock out in the water. There are proposals and alterations, the long east wall with a gap in it, and a few years later a map with the inscription “gap to be closed” as it was. There are plans for extensions such as a breakwater north of the red jetty below the Surf Hotel and condition reports that detail why they did not come to fruition.
An 1882 improvement study includes a “cross section of east cribwork and proposed wall” which resembles what I have found; a 1970 map delineates the whole east basin wall with the notation “not visible” but I am sure it has not survived all these rebuilding efforts if it ever existed in this square and even fashion.
One piece remains for certain, a gift on a day of warming sun after a winter of deer and Deepwater and discord. I may have to rethink my position on that new bait dock.