Known as ‘Snake Island’ to locals, Gould Island has an intriguing history — if you can separate fact from fiction
PORTSMOUTH — With a terrific report that was heard for a radius of from 15 to 20 miles about the country, a huge meteor fell into the Seaconnet river near the home of Capt. Nathaniel B. Church in Tiverton last night causing a vibration in the immediate locality that smashed windows, jarred crockery from shelves and even started the Island Park merry-go-round into motion.
— Newspaper account of the great explosion that rocked “Little” Gould Island in the Sakonnet River in August 1912
There’s perhaps more mystery and intrigue surrounding the history of Gould Island, smack dab in the middle of the Sakonnet River, than any other islet in our area.
Was a Russian consul really killed by a rattlesnake there? Did the former Island Park amusement park actually ferry people over to a dance hall on the island? And what about that mysterious blast that took place there 100 years ago this month?
Even the town in which the island sits has been in dispute. Portsmouth historian Jim Garman said he believes the island is part of Tiverton. Scott Ruhren, senior director of conservation for the Audubon Society of R.I., which owns the island, thinks otherwise.
“We have it listed as Portsmouth, but it looks like it it’s part of Tiverton,” he said.
In 1964 the Audubon acquired the six-acre island through donation from the Hathaways, a family of farmers from Tiverton, and dubbed it “Little Gould Island” to avoid confusion with the larger Gould Island in Narragansett Bay’s West Passage.
“It was preserved because it was a breeding ground of black-crowned night herons, which sadly are gone from the island. The habitat’s changed,” said Mr. Ruhren, adding that the island is now home to mostly egrets, kettle and cormorants.
The shift in habitat has impacted the island’s appearance over the years. Once full and lush, Gould now appears to be going bald. “Some of that is because the trees are dying because of the bird poop. It’s natural,” said Mr. Ruhren.
Boaters aren’t allowed to step foot on the island. “It’s protected and should be posted as such,” said Mr. Ruhren, adding that he’s not sure if the signage is easily visible.
The island gets its name from Thomas Gould, who purchased it from the Native Americans in 1657. During the Revolutionary War, Gould was the site of a fort called “The Owl’s Nest” due to its lofty spot in the trees overlooking the Sakonnet River. American troops stationed in Tiverton ran a lookout station there to spot British warships moving up the river.
Although Mr. Ruhren is aware of the fort, he casts doubt on the idea that a dance hall was once located on Gould. According to a few written accounts including one in the book “A Cruising Guide to Narragansett Bay and the South Coast of Massachusetts,” patrons of the former Island Park Amusement Park — destroyed in the 1938 Hurricane — were ferried over to the island for dancing before being deposited back on the mainland in the early morning hours.
“I’m not sure. It sounds hard to believe because it’s so rocky,” said Mr. Ruhren, who acknowledged he’s never been to the island although it’s occasionally visited by researchers from the University of Rhode Island. “As far as a I know it’s covered with nothing but vegetation and bird poop.”
However, Pam Claytor of Portsmouth believes there were dancers on Gould back in the day.
“My mother used to talk about it,” said the 69-year-old Ms. Claytor, who recently retired from the Portsmouth tax assessor’s office after 25 years of service. “What kind of structure was out there is beyond me. Some folks used to go there and camp out with their kids, too.”
One of the more colorful tales about Gould, perhaps apocryphal, concerns the Russian consul-general to New York, Alexis Evestaphieve, who was said to have built a log cabin there in the early part of the 19th century to get away from the hustle and bustle of mainland life. He was eventually killed by a rattlesnake on Gould — so goes the tale — which led to many locals nicknaming it “Snake Island.”
The great meteor hoax
No bit of lore, however, can compare to what transpired on Gould Island 100 years ago this month. As detailed in the late John T. Pierce Sr.’s book, “Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth Rhode Island,” a group of overzealous juvenile pranksters caused quite a ruckus on Aug. 27, 1912.
According to Mr. Pierce, 16 members of The Owls Club would gather on Saturday nights in a large home on the south side of Sprague Street in Portsmouth. The $8 monthly dues would grant them the privilege of joining in various teenage hijinks, whether it be throwing pianos out of windows, pilfering furniture from Island Park cottages or other general mayhem.
On that fateful day nearly a century ago, according to Mr. Pierce’s account, the boys stole more than 100 pounds of dynamite from the Portsmouth coal mines which were near the end of their existence anyway. They stored the dynamite at a home near the town’s eastern shoreline and later brought it over by skiff to Gould Island.
The explosives were placed on the rocky ledge facing Island Park, a long waterproof fuse attached. (Mr. Pierce identified the boy who lit the fuse as Benjamin Hall, who told him parts of the story.) A burn time of a little under 15 minutes gave the boys just enough time to row away to safety.
Since Island Park was then a popular summer destination, there were plenty of witnesses on the Portsmouth side to the great explosion and flash of light. Adding to the confusion, according to Mr. Pierce’s account, was the heavy thunder and lightning that was simultaneously going on at the time.
Sober newspaper accounts
Some witnesses surmised that a meteor must have struck the island or the river — an explanation that members of The Owls Club may have volunteered. Several different newspapers, in fact, published sober accounts of the “meteor strike.”
With all the massive publicity, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to cash in. Ironically, it wasn’t The Owls at first. Two Tiverton fishermen claimed to have dug up half of the meteor from the river, then charged 10 cents a peek at a Riverside Drive business, according to Mr. Pierce’s book. Then another man “found” the other half and did the same.
The Owls, finding themselves behind the eight ball, got creative with math and claimed to have found another half of the meteor.
Finally, a Brown University professor, summoned by a local skeptic, concluded that one of the rocks was actually a chunk of slag from the abandoned copper works in the north end of town, according to Mr. Pierce.
‘Almost like they were pirates’
Ms. Claytor said the story in Mr. Pierce’s book rings true to her since she heard firsthand accounts of the meteor hoax from one of the very boys involved in the scheme: her late grandfather, Andrew Malone.
“I remember hearing so many stories; it was almost like they were pirates. He was a character — a prankster himself,” said Ms. Claytor, who had an uncle who was a rum-runner.
Mr. Malone settled down a bit later in life, his granddaughter said. He was an iceman — “delivering ice to the homes in Portsmouth in horse and cart” — and went on to own a small fleet of commercial fishing vessels out of New Bedford along with his wife and brother-in-law, she said.
The story of the meteor hoax, meanwhile, refuses to die. In fact, said Ms. Claytor, it gets more sensational every time she hears it.
“The longer time goes on, the bigger the story gets. It’s like the fish that was 12 inches long and ended up being 36 inches long,” she said.
So will she be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Gould Island meteor hoax on Aug. 27? Maybe, said Ms. Claytor.
“I live on the Sakonnet River, on Water Street. I should row out to the island in my kayak and take my grandsons.”
Mr. Pierce’s book, “Historical Tracts of the Town of Portsmouth Rhode Island,” has a full account of the meteor hoax. The 1991 book can be found in several local libraries.