Dune town

Fri, 11/04/2022 - 5:00pm

The salty and sandy piece of terrain that lies between the Point Judith Lighthouse and as far west as the Thames River in New London, was and is constantly in motion. Sand moves below and above the water and like rust this natural process never sleeps. Hundreds of years ago there were Native American cultures living and thriving in this region of the northeast, and they still have a presence here. Fishing, farming and industry supported these cultures and ones that arrived later. Along this rich and fertile coastline the barrier beaches, marshlands and ponds from Point Judith and points west provided sustenance for those who peopled this region as they evolved and learned what needed to be
done to survive within seasonal shifts of this sometimes harsh and hostile environment. People adapt or die; that’s the contract, and thus were born terms like Native intelligence and Yankee ingenuity. Over time the breaching of certain sections of the barrier beach that were a result of prevailing southerly winds, gales and hurricanes, affected the life that flourished in the ponds protected by the barrier beach, and this profoundly affected those who lived on and near this fertile coastal plain. In past centuries, weather systems along the coast were unpredictable and in 1815 there was a landmark gale that affected the south coast of Rhode Island in a substantial way and spawned some economies that flourished along the shore.
During this particular recorded gale referred to as “The Great Gale,” the wind was so powerful and the seas were so big, that it leveled a 30-foot sand dune where George’s restaurant now stands at the entrance to Galilee Harbor and Salt Pond. Sand and salt spray pressed north and the ocean breached a strip of beach that inundated Succotash Marsh, Potter Pond, and Salt Pond with ocean water. There were other ruptures along the coast west of Point Judith, and over time, the salinity levels began changing as a result of all of these breaches and the brackish water encouraged a wider variety of saltwater species. One example of this is that of the fish species called alewives or buckeyes,
which is a unique fish that spawns in fresh water and then heads back out into the ocean to flood the food chain—everything feeds on this species. They are an anadromous species and are very adaptable. They are also known
as river herring. The breaching of those sand dunes in 1815 gave this particular species a big boost and their populations flourished as they made their way inland to spawn. They’re a clever species. Many other kinds of fish, crustaceans and various water fowl — over the years—have benefited from these coastal breaches. This is a solid example of nature doing what it does best; here is natural selection and propagation in real time. There is a balance of elements and wildlife going on here.
If we look around at the topography of Point Judith, we can see a direct result of storms like the gale of 1815, and other noteworthy storms such as the 1938 Hurricane and Hurricane Carol. We can see how officials, planners and engineers came up with some plans to develop this part of the state. The most obvious thing we can notice is the aforementioned breachway of the Port of Galilee, where the gale of 1815 blew away that 30-foot dune. Interestingly enough, there were plans for making a man-made breachway just a little east of where the Sand Hill Cove Beach pavilion, aka Roger Wheeler State Beach now stands. I recently saw a drawing of said proposed breachway where
we can see a direct and perfectly linear design cutting right across where this low-lying beach now sits and through the marshland north of the beach parking lot. This plan was dropped. Smart move, too. The location of the Galilee Breachway makes more sense in that it allows a more rigorous and expansive tidal flow heading up the north toward Succotash, Potter, and Salt Pond. There was very thin water at the other low-lying location—mud flats—in the other location. Nature decided the better location to breach the dunes and flood the best body of water is where the Block Island Ferry and other marine craft now come and go. Furthermore, nature created a habitat for a larger variety of
species and overall more life for this inland and natural coastal habitat. It was a natural win-win deal. Subsequently, Galilee became an industrious fishing port. Additionally, the port became an embarkation point for the ferry service to Block Island.
Since the gale of 1815, southern Rhode Island began decades of development, and this is the world we see in this part of the state presently.
When folks are on their last stretch while hustling to get on a fishing dragger, lobster boat, charter fishing boat, ferryboat, or looking to score a parking space at the beach, or simply looking to buy some clam cakes or retail fish, they will be cruising just a few feet over a tidal habitat. They are racing down what is known as the Escape Road. Although coastal storms are nothing new to this area in the long swath of geologic time, there have been in the past couple of hundred years, a few nasty hurricanes that did some serious coastal damage along with some major coastal flooding inland. (These types of weather events are also works-in-progress.) The 1938 Hurricane impacted the burgeoning population of Point Judith and Great Island and got everybody’s attention. Then, in 1954 Hurricane Carol made landfall as a Cat 3 storm and decimated coastal Rhode Island. In 1950, plans had been in play for the building of a road to help people evacuate from Galilee and Great Island; however, they got scrapped. Finally, because of a growing population in Galilee and on Great Island, the Escape Road was built in 1956. This was a very smart move and this road has served the public well over the past decades. Finally, Galilee is still a work in progress, and in my next column I will explore one particular plan that I found to be on the cusp of a fool’s errand.