Fishermen's Memorial State Park and Campground History (1953)
One of Rhode Island’s most popular campgrounds began its park service following a dedication by Governor Frank Licht in 1970. Its purchase and parcel assembly was begun two decades earlier by Governor Dennis Roberts in 1953. The site was taken from a former World War II defense installation, known as Fort Greene, named after Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero, Nathanael Greene of Warwick. The name, Fishermen’s Memorial honors all the fishermen – commercial and sports—of the Narragansett area and, at the time, it singled out the Tuna tournament, based locally at the nearby port of Galilee. The tournament began in 1958, was popular through the 1960s and 1970s; it still continues today but in a much reduced form.
The history of the park’s location is both deeper and darker than its sports fishing association and recreational camping. Point Judith Neck is the farthest extension of the Rhode Island mainland into the Atlantic. Subject to rough storms, a dangerous ledge, and criss-crossing tides, a light house to guide sailors into Narragansett Bay was first erected in 1810. In colonial times, the peninsula was used by the local Narragansett Planters as a natural corral for their flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and their famous Narragansett Pacers, a popular breed of riding horses. Simply by fencing off the northern neck, a gigantic, protected meadow was created.
Point Judith’s most important historical role, however, occurred in the war years of the 1940s. It anchored the western passage into Narragansett Bay while projecting the observation for potential enemies out into the Atlantic. Narragansett Bay was considered by naval strategists of the first half of the 20th century as the best safe haven and rallying point for war ships of any place from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras, rivaled only by Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Viewed from the air and revealed by the study of area maps, clearly, the finger-like points of land and islands from Point Judith to Sakonnet Point guard the entrances into the Bay. During the war, these finger-like features took on the aspect of armored eagle talons. From Fort Greene at Point Judith to Fort Church in Little Compton, a series of coastal artillery emplacements guarded the water approaches to significant ship yards, torpedo and Quonset Hut factories, test firing ranges, ammunition storage dumps, materiel staging areas, destroyer and aircraft carrier berths, and the Newport Naval Station and War College. Offshore electric warning systems intercepted potential submarine attack. Mine fields were installed, and nets were strung across the Bay entrances.
Fort Greene, at Point Judith was divided into three distinct “reservations,” East, West, and South. In the East Reservation, known as Battery Hamilton, a two-gun battery featuring 16” guns was installed in the year between September of 1940 and September of 1941. The shells fired from these guns weighed over a ton each; they could reach a distance out to sea of 26 miles. Paired with a matched set in Little Compton the arcs covered by these batteries overlapped, making the surface approach by enemy ships towards Narragansett Bay highly problematical. These guns were housed in concrete bunkers and covered by earth and appeared from the outside and from above as low coastal hills.
Within the bunkers were radio rooms and ammunition storage. A second battery was begun at the West Reservation of Fort Greene, now Fishermen’s Memorial, but was never completed. What was completed was a command post in and observation silo to assist in directing fire. The silo, still standing, and used as a park headquarters, was designed to look like a farm complex. It is just one of the small number of surviving structures marking Rhode Island’s participation in World War II.