This Week in Block Island's history, April 27, 1921A Threat to Sell All of Block Island
This week in history 92 years ago: The most startling headline of all time for any Block Islander might have been the one in a Providence newspaper that read:
“Threat to Sell Whole of Block Island”
The Industrial Trust Company, a Providence bank, was owed $145,000 by the Town of New Shoreham — and the bank wanted its money. Another story, covering two pages in the Boston Herald, began with these words, guaranteed to make the reader continue further:
“A whole town bankrupt!
“A whole island threatened with seizure for debt!
“Its homes and its churches, its fields and farms, the boats and gear of its fishermen, even the dead sleeping in the cemetery, liable to go under the auctioneer’s hammer!”
On May 3, 1921, faced with a court judgment, the islanders were forced to tax themselves to the highest limit allowed by state law. The rate per $100 of property evaluation rose from $1.50 to $2.50.
An islander was quoted saying, belatedly: “We need a new deal all around.”
A large portion of the town’s borrowed money had been used in 1903 to build the steamer New Shoreham. Although she was a fine specimen of nautical architecture, the 151-foot boat — 25- to 55-feet shorter than today’s ferries — could not compete successfully against the other private companies that had been carrying passengers to the island for a quarter century.
One of the town’s leading men summed up the befuddling dilemma:
“The New Shoreham draws 14 feet and the depth of water at East Harbor (Old Harbor) is only 10 feet. Consequently, the new boat had to use the New Harbor ...
“The East Harbor people and the East Harbor hotel keepers found themselves out in the cold, and when they realized that their own money had been used to accomplish this result you could have heard the howl that went up clear to Montauk.”
The Boston reporter continued:
“The East Harborites not only boycotted the New Shoreham but put on competing boats and fought for traffic which was not sufficient to make a single steamer profitable, quite regardless of the fact that the New Shoreham had been built with their own money and that the interest on the bonds had to be met from the tax levy which came from their own pockets.”
In 1908, the various liabilities of the town were consolidated and taken over by the Industrial Trust Company of Providence. That bank paid off obligations, including a claim by the builders of the town’s steamboat for certain disputed “extras,” and took the town’s note for $144,000, with interest at 4 percent. Failure to meet the interest payments on this note would lead to the threat in 1921 to sell the “whole island.”
The new tax rate was the highest the town had ever paid and, although it made news interesting enough for distant readers to smile at, islanders were not amused.
In the 1910s, the island had already begun a spiral downward — later accelerated by outside events such as the 1930s Depression and World War II — that was not reversed until the 1960s.
Tourism would decline, and farming and fishing would fade away, resulting in many hotels, stores and homes left unpainted and eventually boarded up. The population decreased by more than two-thirds, from 1,314 in 1910 to 486 in 1960.
From 1914 to 1927, instead of the palatial 151-foot New Shoreham to take them to the mainland in the off-season, islanders sometimes found themselves and their mail riding on fishing boats such as the Mary E., Champion, and the Hilda and Anna — each less than 50 feet long.
The last season the New Shoreham was used on the route she was built for was 1927. Laid up at a Providence dock during 1928 and 1929 by a special vote of the residents in December 1929, the town finally sold the New Shoreham for only $6,000. Renamed the Priscilla Alden, the steamer operated from Boston on excursions, then later across the western end of Long Island Sound. In 1954, she was abandoned and partly dismantled at Port Jefferson Harbor on Long Island, where her remains can still be seen.
In 1945 a Town Councilman, when asked of the $6,000 sale of the town’s $80,000 steamer, said: “Never should have done that. The people knew it the day after they sold it.”
The New Shoreham, financed by its hometown, named for its hometown, and built for its hometown, served a house divided and in the end simply had no home.
It was the sad story of a good vessel and a good plan, destined for failure from its inception.
At least only a boat had to be sold, not the entire island. But for those residents who stayed here, the high taxes must have hurt because there were less than 10 summer houses back then to help foot the bill — not the more than 1,000 summer residences that have been built on the island in the last 50 years.