Many people today know Watch Hill as an upscale resort village but few know that during the 1800’s it was even more popular than it is today. Steamships from Stonington, Providence, and Boston made regular stops. A lot of money had been made during the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War and that enabled the creation of a leisure class.
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People could now afford to get out of the cities during the hot summer months. Remember, there was no air-conditioning in those days. Watch Hill becoming a resort started with Jonathan Nash. He became Watch Hill’s first lighthouse keeper and would become Watch Hill’s first innkeeper.
The first Watch Hill lighthouse was a thirty five foot tall wood framed tower built in 1808. This replaced an earlier watch tower used in colonial times to warn of pirates and naval attack. There was also a five room frame house for the keeper’s accommodation.
As the first lighthouse was being constructed, Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin wrote a letter to the superintendent of lights for the state of Rhode Island asking that Jonathan Nash of Westerly be appointed keeper of the new light.
Nash recorded 45 wrecks during his 27 years of service from 1808 to 1834. Lighthouses must also inspire romance as Nash fathered 10 children while doing his keeping.
By the 1850’s the wooden lighthouse and keeper’s cottage were rotting, the sea had eroded the surrounding land so it was in danger of falling over. In 1856 the second and what is now the present day lighthouse was built from gray Westerly granite. A brick keeper’s cottage was also constructed. To supplement their income some early lighthouse keepers started renting out rooms.
Nash took in boarders to supplement his meager salary of $200 a year but the government frowned on this and he was forced to stop the practice. Boarding lodgers must have paid well however because over time he was able to acquire 61 acres of land in Watch Hill where many of the hotels were later built
Nash lost his job as keeper in 1833 for political reasons. Since rooms at the lighthouse were so popular he decided to build a hotel. The Narragansett House built in 1845 was the first of seven large hotels to be built in Watch Hill and survives today as the Watch Hill Inn. Nash hired his son Captain George Nash to become its proprietor. George was a large jolly man renowned for his 25 cent lobster dinners.
Jonathan Nash was not the only Watch Hill lighthouse keeper to get the hotel bug. Captain Daniel Larkin retired as the keeper in 1868 and the next year built what became the largest hotel in Watch Hill, The Larkin House. The Larkin House could accommodate up to 400 guests and had 900 feet of porch. It advertised a first classroom for three dollars. Weekly rates were seventeen dollars for a single.
Dudley Phelps recalled staying at the Larkin House for three summers starting in 1869.
“I recalled clearly the life there which was very simple only bathing, sailing, bowling and dancing. Captain Larkin would sit on the N.W. corner of the piazza, where he could see all that was going on, smoking a big cigar and wearing a tall silk hat.
Also the dancing in the evenings in the dining room and a room full of guests seated all around the floor. Miss—making a grand entrance in startling gowns, never repeated, worn over a large hooped skirt.”
The Ocean House was built in 1868 by Captain George Nash after running the Narragansett House for his father. He held an annual ball that was considered the premier event of the Watch Hill summer season. By the 1880’s Watch Hill was entering its golden age. In 1890 the Columbia House was the last hotel to be built where the Olympia Tea Room is today.
Starting in 1886 the character of Watch Hill began to change with the first of three large housing subdivisions created by Cincinnati syndicates. Lots were sold and many of today’s large seasonal cottages were built.
In 1906 the Larkin House was torn down to make way for summer cottages. On October 18, 1916 a devastating fire destroyed three of the remaining hotels. The terrible destruction of the hurricane of 1938 really finished the hotel era in Watch Hill that Jonathan Nash had started over 170 years earlier.
Photo credits to Dwight Brown Collection