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Preserve America is a national initiative in cooperation with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; the U.S. Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities; and the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

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Preserve America Community:
New Shoreham, Rhode Island

The Town of New Shoreham on Block Island (population 800 year-round residents, and 15,000 seasonal visitors per day) is a place where men and women have wrested a living from soil and sea for centuries.

The Narragansett Indians were the first inhabitants of Block Island as evidenced by remains that date back thousands of years. In 1614, Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer, happened upon the island and gave it his name. It was settled by a party of English from the mainland in 1661.

For the next two hundred years the islanders fished the shores and farmed the land for their sustenance. Block Island enjoyed the reputation of a grand Victorian resort from the 1860s to the 1920s. Large hotels were built on its shores as city dwellers escaped the heat and enjoyed summers on the island. The islanders prospered, fishing and farming to support the burgeoning summer population and for export across to the mainland.

In the 1930s, Block Island was hit hard economically by the Great Depression and the Hurricane of 1938, which devastated its prized fishing fleet. Farming had come to a near standstill, as a result of the depression and the invention of refrigeration, which allowed produce to be shipped from far away places at competitive prices.

The final blow arrived in the form of World War II as many young men left the island to fight overseas, some never to return. Left with a depressed economy, and a ravaged fishing fleet, the island basically remained unchanged for the next 30 years.

Block Island began to be "rediscovered" in the 1960s and 1970s by mainlanders as a place of natural beauty, creating a great development boom. Today the community's heritage is reflected in 2,042 miles of stone walls, in old cottages, farmsteads and mansard-roofed hotels, and in breakwaters, piers, and lighthouses.

Several of Block Island's most important properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, including the Old Harbor Historic District, two lighthouses, and a weather station. In 1829, the Federal Government built the island's first lighthouse on Sandy Point.

Four lighthouses have since been built at this location. The present lighthouse, the North Light, was built in 1867 and is currently open as a Maritime Center. The 1874 Southeast Light, built on the cliffs 150 feet above sea level, was moved back 200 feet in 1993 to escape severe bluff erosion.

Through a partnership among the Federal, State, and local governments, the Southeast Light Foundation, and many private donors, the lighthouse has been relocated and the exterior restored. Restoration of the interior is now in progress, with plans to operate the lighthouse as an interpretive center and a small bed and breakfast, providing income for continued maintenance.

Today about 25 percent of Block Island land is protected open space through the efforts of the Block Island Conservancy and the Block Island Land Trust. Through funds gained from a three percent land-transfer fee on all real estate transactions, the Land Trust buys and maintains land on Block Island, helping preserve historic landscapes.

For more information

Block Island: www.blockisland.com

Block Island Tourism Council: www.blockislandinfo.com/life

Block Island Conservancy: www.biconservancy.org

Posted June 4, 2009

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