The Block Island Times

This Week in Block Island's history, April 3, 1947: A small incident becomes big news

By Robert M. Downie | Apr 02, 2012
The grounded 390-foot destroyer Ernest G. Small bottled up Old Harbor for 13 hours — making the front page of the Providence Evening Bulletin on April 3, 1947.

This week in history 65 years ago — at 5 a.m. on April 3, 1947 — the USS Destroyer Ernest G. Small managed to get stuck between Old Harbor's two breakwaters. Being 390 feet in length, and just a few dozen feet away from the granite boulders of the long breakwater, the Small loomed large as sleepy islanders awoke to this spectacularly incongruous sight. The ship reached this dismaying position when her anchor dragged at night during a northeasterly wind.

If you didn't happen to venture to the harbor in person that day — and it seems impossible such a person would exist — you could have just stayed at home and discovered the Small in that afternoon's Providence Evening Bulletin, which featured an embarrassingly well-composed photo of the destroyer’s plight at the top of the front page.

The paper reported also that "Block Islanders took hundreds of pictures of the stranded vessel," and well they might, since there was little else to do that day, with even the island’s fishermen not venturing to sea due to the weather. Those passengers arriving on the island's ferry, the Sprigg Carroll, had to be diverted to New Harbor, but that was the little boat's normal routine in a northeaster anyway.

After being marooned for 13 hours, a tug sent from Newport pulled the Small off at high tide, and she was able to return to Boston under her own power for repairs.

The biggest worry that day was no doubt felt by the destroyer's captain and watch crew. Their fate is unknown — but whatever discomfort they felt was not limited to just the Naval bases in Narragansett Bay.

The photo was distributed across the country by the Associated Press, and I have an original of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot newspaper from three days later displaying the same picture. That image probably achieved widespread dispersal because Norfolk is the largest naval base in the entire world, headquarters for United States fleets covering the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean.

The Ernest G. Small was the last major vessel to be stranded on Block Island, but she wasn't the biggest, being surpassed in size during the preceding 30 years by two freighters, two tankers, and a passenger ship, as well as by the largest manmade object to ever get stuck on the island: the 573-foot battleship Texas, which spent an unscheduled week aground at Clay Head during World War I.

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