So you think you know where Watch Hill is? Not so fast. I’m not talking about the village of Watch Hill but the actual hill.
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Most people assume that the hill called Watch Hill is located where the large white house known as the Holiday House sits overlooking the ocean and the Watch Hill Lighthouse. Today it is owned by singer/songwriter Taylor Swift. I thought so too until I looked at a US Geological Survey map and was surprised to see the hill located there is named Bear Hill.
Many accounts I have read said Watch Hill was once used by both Native Americans and colonists as a watching place or lookout for their enemies. A wooden watch tower was built in 1744 during King George’s War for this purpose.
This tower was destroyed by a storm in 1781. The inhabitants then petitioned for a light to replace the lost tower and the first Watch Hill Lighthouse was built in 1808 on Watch Hill Point.
So what gives? Are Watch Hill and Bear Hill one and the same? I decided to look into it. The area of Watch Hill actually has a number of different hills, Sunset Hill, East Hill and Larkin Hill. Could any of these other hills be the lookout or Watch Hill?
The hills on the peninsula of Watch Hill were formed about 8,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age when the glaciers receded. The glacier left behind a moraine of sand, gravel and stone. The line of low hills they formed stretched from Woods Hole Massachusetts to Long Island and was known as the recessional moraine. Locally it ran across Charlestown to Westerly, along Shore Road and down Ocean View Highway to Watch Hill. At that time the shoreline was some 75 to 100 miles away at the edge of the continental shelf because sea levels were 200 feet lower than today.
The view from this bluff in Watch Hill would have been of vast tundra covered plains teaming with animals such as mammoths, bison, wolves, sabre–toothed tigers and bears. The abundance of game attracted Paleo-Native Americans who settled the area as the ice retreated.
In 1878 Reverend Frederic Denison writes in `Westerly and Its Witnesses’, “Early in the century (1700’s) the wild beasts became to retire from the cabins of the settlers. Some carnivore however lingered in the swamps, ledges and thick woods. Bear Hill, the highest Bluff near Watch Hill, then covered with heavy oaks, was the scene of an encounter, in which a bear rushed upon one of the townsmen and was shot at a distance of but 10 feet. The rock crowning the hill was the hunter’s shield.”
Notice that Reverend Denison uses the phrase “Bear Hill, the highest bluff near Watch Hill.” Chaplin Barnes, in his book `Watch Hill Through Time’ addresses Denison’s assertion that Bear Hill was near Watch Hill. He writes “Whether Bear Hill is the Watch Hill or what became known as Sunset Hill is uncertain, but it is likely that it is the latter.”
Sunset Hill is higher at 62 feet than Bear Hill at 56 feet and is on the eastern side of the Watch Hill peninsula facing south and west. To find Sunset Hill travel down Watch Hill Road and just before the first commercial buildings at 1 Bay Street take a right on Sunset Avenue. The hill is to your right overlooking Foster Cove. It is now capped by a large stone house built in 1913 by Mrs. William R. Thompson.
So where is the Watch Hill? I’m not sure. The evidence is inconclusive. Maps show that the summit of Bear Hill is located to the left side of the Holiday House but I can find none that show where the summit of the Watch Hill is located. Some historians’ say what is now known as Sunset Hill could be the original Watch Hill? I think it is also possible that Watch Hill is on the same bluff as Bear Hill but closer to the end toward the lighthouse.
So if the village of Watch Hill had been named after the hill on the maps it would have been called Bear Hill. Think of the possibilities. You would have had the Bear Hill Inn, the Bear Hill Yacht Club and the Bear Hill Lighthouse. I somehow don’t think it has the same ring to it.
Photos courtesy of Dwight C. Brown and Shane M Belanger