The Block Island Times
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This week in Block Island History, July 18, 1876: Surf Hotel and memories for sale

By Robert M. Downie | Jul 26, 2012
As seen in the late-1870s, houses stood on the sites where the National and Surf hotels were later built. The Surf Cottage in the center, built by Dr. Thomas Mann in 1873, was soon after expanded to become the giant Surf Hotel. On the left in the distance is a historic blacksmith shop on Corn Neck Road, now the dilapidated Solviken building next to the Beachead Restaurant.

This week in Block Island history, July 18, 1876, islanders read in their Providence newspaper that the Surf Cottage in Old Harbor was for sale — just as it was the past five years until just a few months ago.

The “Surf Cottage” was just the right-hand portion of today’s Surf Hotel, the part at the very corner of Water Street and Dodge Street.

Originally built in 1873, the small building was the home of the island’s doctor, Thomas H. Mann, who also used the first floor as a store. With the construction of the new federal breakwater well underway in the early 1870s — allowing steamers to bring visitors from the mainland and easily land them at a dock — the good doctor could not refrain from joining the path toward tourism that so many other islanders were following.

In June 1873, just in time for what could rightly be called Block Island’s first “summer season” in history, the newspaper noted:

“Dr. Mann, our physician, will open a drug store and news office in his new residence, where drugs, soda, choice confectionery and fruits, genuine Havanas and the city dailies and current periodicals can be obtained.”

When Dr. Thomas Mann left the island in 1876, two legacies remained. One was the name “Surf Cottage.” That name was slightly changed, to “Surf Hotel,” by the next owner, Charles Willis, the island’s postmaster, who changed the small store and home into a small hotel.

In 1884, Willis added a fancy three-story addition with a cupola — the central part of the present-day building.

His grand vision was completed in 1888 by the square, four-story addition on the left, leaving for future generations the magnificent Victorian whimsy that is still revered as the island’s most imaginatively conceived hotel.

The second legacy of Dr. Mann’s years on Block Island in the 1870s were his memories of the place. Because of such recollections passed down through the generations, his family still visits the island, led in recent years by two grandsons, Marine and Navy veterans of World War II, who brought along children, spouses, and grandchildren.

On the mainland, Dr. Mann is likely to be remembered by a wider audience for a vastly different reason. As a teenager growing up in Massachusetts, just over the Rhode Island line, Thomas Mann enlisted in the Union army in 1861 soon after the Civil War started, and fought for three years until captured at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864.

His ensuing life, until the war ended in April 1865, was spent at the notoriously ill-run Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia.

Twenty-five years later, in the July and August 1890 issues of the nationwide magazine Century, Dr. Mann wrote about his experiences as a prisoner, and as an occasional escapee.

By then he had become a newspaper editor and, being unable to put the pen down, wrote a story of his entire Civil War career. The memoir remained unpublished until found by his grandsons 100 years later, who then arranged for Louisiana State University to print their grandfather’s story in 2000, in the book titled “Fighting With the Eighteenth Massachusetts: The Civil War Memoir of Thomas H. Mann.”

Although Dr. Mann probably never met him, he participated in some of the same gigantic battles as Block Island’s most illustrious Civil War veteran, Jeremiah Tourjee, such as Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

So why did Dr. Mann sell the Surf Cottage in 1876 and move off the island? His descendants will tell you the family response that has become whimsically traditional, that Dr. Mann “cured all the sick Block Islanders” and simply had no work here.

That sounds like a good story, and it happens to be just a slight twist on what apparently did occur.

For those facts and more, we have the recollections of another expatriate Block Islander, Arthur Brown, who started the first high school on the island in the 1870s, and much later left to posterity a memoir of Dr. Mann.

Writing in the 1930s, Brown’s warmhearted story shows, too, that the practice of medicine has changed considerably since Dr Mann’s era:

“Among the recruits for the Civil War was a young medical student, Thomas H. Mann, of Franklin, Mass., a nephew of Horace Mann, whom he much resembled in seriousness and zeal. He enlisted in the Union army. He was captured by the Confederates and imprisoned rather more than a year at Andersonville; where, on learning his status, his captors set him to work as a doctor. There his gruesome, unusual experience greatly increased his seriousness and consecration to his chosen profession.

“The war over, he completed his studies, and, in the early seventies, received a ‘call’ to Block Island.

“One of his early cases was a desperate illness from typhoid fever, which rapidly grew worse until it seemed hopeless, though the patient had been unusually rugged.

“Sensing something far out of the ordinary, he quizzed the family and neighbors in vain all one day, and decided not to give up without learning what was wrong if it should take all night.

“After supper he went out to inspect the premises for himself. The full moon, just risen, shone on a fine flock of turkeys apparently asleep on a high roost rack. It also shone upon a large, ambitious, enterprising gobbler that had deserted his comrades and stood, his head tucked under one wing, asleep astride the ridgeboards of the neighboring barn. Inquiry revealed that rain water from that roof ran into a cistern whose water the sick man sometimes drank.

“He saved his patient, thereby gaining the implicit confidence and trust of all the people.

“He next persuaded all the storekeepers to give up a large and profitable patent medicine trade, gave sound sanitary advice, and instructed the housewives as to diet and the proper cooking thereof.

“But, while his predecessors had earned four thousand dollars a year or more, he took in less than a thousand, and even less the next year, and soon had to seek a larger field for the good of his family. On leaving, he told his experiences to his successor, Dr. Charles H. Hadley, who, in like spirit, kept receipts low.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: Alan Nemeth | Jul 30, 2012 12:08

Fascinating story, thank you.


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