This Week in Block Island History — April 28, 1887, a tiny park is born —
This week in Block Island's history 125 years ago, on Water Street at Old Harbor, the groundwork was laid for a tiny park to be born on land that did not then exist.
That spring, on April 28, 1887, newspaper readers learned that islander Hamilton A. Mott "one of our leading merchants, has purchased of Hon. N. Ball a lot on the street running from the Post Office to the landing, on the corner of Chapel street, 50 x 100 feet, for $2,500. He has begun work on a store and house 30 x 40 feet."
The building is now called the New Shoreham House, but a different name was used in the beginning, as the reporter noted two months later in June 1887:
"The new hotel now in process of erection by H.A. Mott has been christened Ocean Cottage, and will be open about July 10. Mr. Mott will vacate the store he now occupies in Odd Fellows Hall this week."
In that era, Water Street ran along the top of a 10-foot high embankment, with the Atlantic Ocean nearly lapping at the base. But when the breakwater was begun in the early 1870s, an ever-widening sandy beach began forming along the bank.
As the decades progressed, the Ocean Cottage began growing too, as did most of the Victorian stores and hotels on the island. In 1895 the front facade was extended northwards, from four windows across to six across, and to the south small additions were stuck on the building to bring that end flush with the Chapel Street sidewalk. The front porch and deck, facing Water Street, were extended upward, making the porch a double-decker covered at each of the two levels. The island newspaper Mid-Ocean said of all this:
"This house located on Water Street has been nearly doubled in size since last season and many important features have been added for the comfort and convenience of guests.
"Its proprietor, Mr. H.A. Mott, has a store, is Town Sergeant and Deputy Sheriff and besides runs his house all the year around. Despite having so many irons in the fire he does not allow any of them to burn, and for his success he is indebted not less to the industry, energy and prudence of Mrs. Mott than to his own."
Mrs. Mott's fortitude would be needed, for in 1906 her husband died at the age of 49, and she carried on alone.
In the 1920s the lower porch was enclosed, and that space was extended even further outwards, right to the edge of the sidewalk on Water Street.
That first floor area became Esta's Gift shop in the 1950s, an island institution run by Jack and Esta Gray for three decades, famous to thousands of tourists. For islanders, the place was great to visit a few times each season to peruse all the strange stuff sold as souvenirs.
Meanwhile, across the road on the east side of Water Street the beach sand had accumulated considerably since the 1870s, beach grass had taken hold near the road, and the new land was appropriated by some owners of the stores on the west side of Water Street. On that land Jack and Esta created a little park in 19XX, named Esta's Park, with happy slogans painted on the surrounding fence welcoming tourists to sit and use the benches.
When Esta died in 19XX, Jack Gray gave the park to the town, and so it remains today as Esta's Park. After falling into disrepair, the park recently underwent a complete renovation, and will now remain a place of repose for island residents and visitors for decades to come.