Right in the heart of Westerly there is a primal land that time forgot, the Aguntaug Swamp. When the first European settlers came to Westerly they encountered a wilderness of dense forest and swamp inhabited by wolves, wildcats and bears. Native Americans used the area for fishing and hunting but had no large settlements.
In the 350 years since the founding of Westerly only the swamp remains unchanged. The Aguntaug Swamp consists of over three hundred acres of white cedar and rhododendron forest just north of the busy Post Road. Historically the land was impractical to use for farming, grazing livestock or just about anything else that man uses land for which is why it’s still untouched today.
John Crandall, one of the founders of Westerly, came in 1661 from Newport with a few other men and purchased what is now Westerly from the Niantic Indians. Crandall’s portion of the purchase was about 2000 acres and included the swamp. Crandall lived in Westerly from 1662 until the start of King Phillips War in 1675. All of the European settlers left Westerly and returned to Newport at the start of the war because this area was remote and subject to Indian attack.
John Crandall died in Newport in 1676 and it was his sons who returned to Westerly to settle. The Crandall family has occupied the land ever since. The Westerly Land Trust purchased the land from the Crandall family and the five parcels making up the Crandall preserve total about 450 acres. The Westerly Land Trust occasionally runs guided hikes through the preserve so I decided to see what this unusual place had to offer.
The Aguntaug Swamp is the second largest wetland in Rhode Island after the Great Swamp by Worden Pond but is small compared to some others. The Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia is the world’s largest totaling 20,000 square miles.
The largest swamp in the US is the 1,400,000 acre Atchafalaya Swamp in Louisiana. Although the Aguntaug Swamp is not large as swamps go it is considered a unique and important resource. Scientists have only recently discovered how important wetlands are and in many places in the world, efforts are being made to restore and preserve them.
Wetlands are vitally important for flood control, fish production, water purification, wildlife habitat and carbon storage. Although wetlands comprise only 8 percent of the earth’s surface they store up to 30 percent of the carbon. Today the Aguntaug Swamp is a wildlife habitat for beaver, muskrat, bobcat, turtles, snakes, fish, frogs and coyotes among many others.
The name Aguntaug means big tree and Aguntaug is a rare white cedar swamp. A sawmill was built here by the Crandall family and according to one source cedar trees milled here were used for shipbuilding in the Civil War. Steve Crandall tells the story of the US Navy buying 13,000 cedar posts at the start of World War 2 from his grandfather to build a fence around Ninigret Airfield and Westerly Airport.
The ruins of the old sawmill can still be seen off the trail and although rusted it’s amazingly well preserved. On the other side of the main trail is the rusted chasse of a horse-drawn potato planter. It was used in the field on the right of the trail by the Crandall family to plant potatoes.
The Wolf Island Trail leads deep into a unique rhododendron mixed hardwood forest with extensive mountain laurel and large holly trees. Wolf Island is a piece of higher ground in the heart of the swamp and legend has it that the last wolf to be found in Westerly was hunted and killed here in 1708.
I had never seen a rhododendron forest before and the vegetation was really unusual. It must be incredibly beautiful when in bloom. We were too early in the season to enjoy the show. How this unique forest evolved here is an interesting question.
Today the Aguntaug Swamp is a backwater hidden behind thick vegetation from the businesses that line the Post Road. At the end of Pound Road the trail to the left leads to a handicap accessible overlook. The right-hand trail leads to a locked gate which our guide had a key for. Upon our return from the hike, someone had locked the gate behind us. Perhaps it was the cold overcast day, the locked gate or the ghostly spirit of the last wolf that brought on a slight feeling of uneasiness like you were being watched.
Let’s face it; swamps are not everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. There should be places that are unfriendly to man, places where businesses can’t develop. Haven’t we paved over enough of this country already? Anyone who watches any survival shows know that these are not places you would take the family for a vacation, but these wetlands are vitally important if mankind is not going to destroy our planet.
It hardly seems possible that this kind of wild place can exist right in the middle of town, so it’s reassuring to know that unspoiled places like the Aguntaug Swamp are being preserved. The last of our wild places should be. For more information on the Crandall Preserve contact The Westerly Land Trust.