NEW SHOREHAM, R.I. — While the well-known islands off the coast of Massachusetts are seen as elite havens for wealthy visitors, Block Island has always drawn a more diverse crowd eager to explore the island’s beaches, bird-watching options, and rural beauty — or to drink and party, sometimes loudly, in town.
“It’s a little grittier than Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard,” said Janet Dionis, who works at the Block Island Historical Society. “It has a real, natural beauty. And then there is a day-trip partying crowd, but I don’t think it dominates.”
The summer retreat’s reputation for partying, not its natural beauty, came to the fore in August after fights broke out at a free music festival at Ballard’s Beach Resort and, later that same night, on the Block Island Ferry. Members of the Coast Guard boarded the vessel in open water to break up the fights, confiscating weapons and making several arrests.
The town’s Board of License Commissioners on Aug. 22 voted unanimously to strip Ballard’s of its liquor and entertainment licenses for two weeks, potentially crippling the business during the busy Labor Day weekend. Ballard’s owner, Steven Filippi, fought the decision; the state granted his appeal and restored the licenses with restrictions on Aug. 24, allowing the company to continue to operate with additional security and other measures.
Police and firefighters had been called to Ballard multiple times over the summer, for incidents involving intoxication, underage drinking, disorderly conduct, and noise. But the fights on Aug. 8 were the last straw for many locals.
“You can go by on your average Friday or Saturday and watch people stagger out there ... It’s not a pretty sight,” John Cotter, who spends his summers on Block Island and lives about half a mile from the venue, said a few days after the brawl. “Block Island isn’t a place to get drunk and throw up.”
Rent a bike and get out of the center of town, though, and there’s tranquility: rolling fields, quiet coves, the Great Salt Pond, birds and monarch butterflies making their migratory stops, and small farms set into gentle hills. Block Island is about 3.5 miles at its widest and 7 miles long; real estate listings start in the millions of dollars, yet many families have owned or rented the same homes for decades and, in some cases, generations.
“Conservation is a big part of Block Island,” Cotter said. “Unbridled growth isn’t Block Island’s culture.”
Block Island lies 9 miles off the southern coast of Rhode Island, and is home to about 1,000 year-round residents. Its population swells to more than 12,000 during the summer months as partygoers and tourists fill the ferries for the 55-minute trip from the mainland.
Long before Block Island was a summer and party destination for visitors from New England and New York, it was home to members of the Manissean Tribe and, later, the Niantic Tribe, which eventually merged with the Narragansett Tribe. Researchers have identified settlements on the island dating to 500 B.C. and earlier. The Niantic called the island “Manisses,” which means “Little Island of Manitou,” in honor of the spiritual power revered by Algonquian peoples of North America.
European settlers started coming after the island was sighted in 1524 by explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who named it “Claudia” after the wife of King Francis I. But it wasn’t until Dutch Explorer Adrian Block sailed there in 1614 that it became known as “Block Island.” It was incorporated in 1674 as the municipality of New Shoreham and, during the Revolutionary War, was a key lookout point for Colonial soldiers. By the 1770s the population of Native Americans had dwindled from about 1,600 to just 51.
By the 1800s, Block Island had become a tourist destination. The first hotel was built in 1842, and the Spring House Hotel, which still operates today, opened a few years later. The National Hotel, the island’s “flagship Victorian hotel” was originally built in 1888, but air conditioning was only installed in the guest rooms in 2020.
“Nantucket had enormous wealth from the whaling industry. Block Island had wealth from the tourism industry,” Dionis said. “In the mid-1800s, they marketed the island as a health resort to kind of escape consumption. The breezes kept away malaria, and the sea air and saltwater and spring water on the island were good for recovery of ‘nervous diseases’ and ‘brain exhaustion.’”
Block Island became a rum-running destination during Prohibition, and tourism waned until the first regular ferry service started in the 1940s. A construction boom in the 1970s and 1980s doubled the number of year-round residents to about 1,000, but the numbers are still small: In June, just 10 seniors graduated from the Block Island School, which serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful place to live. I like that it’s busy in the summer and after you get through the summer months there’s a calmness and peace in the offseason,” said Caroline Barr, executive director of Block Island Conservancy, who spent her summers on Block Island as a kid and moved there full time in May.
Everything slows down after Labor Day, and many popular spots close by October. Few restaurants or bars are open year-round, and there are no chain stores other than Ben & Jerry’s on Water Street.
Living on The Block year-round comes with its own set of bragging rights. The Islanders endure harsh New England weather largely isolated from the comforts and conveniences of the mainland. Since the 1960s, they’ve held their own population count on Groundhog Day, and some consider it more accurate than government counts held in better weather. This year, islanders counted 1,027 true residents — 383 fewer than the latest US Census.
“It really is a very neat place with a wonderful population of people that support each other,” said Dorrie Napoleone, who volunteers as the president of the Board of Block Island Conservancy. “There isn’t a lot of extra things to entertain you here. In winter, there’s no theater. It’s people getting together and socializing.”
Businesses here depend on the summer tourism season, and for hospitality workers, many of whom come from other countries on temporary work visas, island life is not as idyllic and living conditions can be dismal.
“Dirt floors, locks that don’t work, and leaking ceilings with a liquid that you don’t know what it is. Any of us who live or spend considerable time on the island have heard it all,” said Eli Holmes, a wedding photographer on the island. The workers would never speak out, Holmes said, and employers who allow them to stay in such conditions face “no accountability.”
Change comes slowly to the island. The Block Island Power Co. powered the island using diesel generators until May 2017, when National Grid ran a 23-mile-long underwater cable from the Block Island Windfarm to the shore, tying the island into the mainland power grid along the way. Now, turbines for the wind farm can be seen from the shore, and island leaders are working to improve Internet service and boost the area’s one cell phone tower, Napoleone said.
But what people really want, Napoleone said, is to enjoy the island’s natural beauty. The Conservancy is dedicated to preserving open spaces on the Island, like Rodman’s Hollow, which was threatened by development a few decades ago.
“It’s a very beautiful, pristine part of the island,” said Napoleone. “Our goal is to preserve and protect the rural character and nature here on the island, share it with the wildlife. That’s it. That’s what we want to do.”
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