Salter Grove: Honoring its History, Preserving its Future
Every place in Rhode Island has a story of its own. Old stone walls remind us that forests once were fields, moraines and kettle ponds reveal where glaciers once stood, archeologists discover ancient piles of oyster shells that show us where the first Americans once lived their lives.
Our story of the Warwick coastline between Pawtuxet Village and Passeonkquis Cove begins with the Native Americans. Nobody knows how long ago they arrived, but it was likely soon after the glaciers retreated, maybe 10,000 years ago. They called the area Choppequonsett. For generations, they farmed and fished and hunted, enjoying an abundance of natural resources. But by the 1700s, the native Americans were gone, and immigrants from Europe settled in the area. In the 1800s, a country club overlooked the shore, according to the Warwick Historical Society. Nicholas and Caroline Brown built an estate home on the hillside.
In the early 1900s, the state took over the area as part of the Narragansett Parkway project. The area that is now the park became the Warwick Downs summer colony, where urban residents built shacks to enjoy weekends boating, swimming, berry-picking, and shellfishing along the shore. The cottages stood until the ’70s, when the park was dedicated in honor of George B. Salter, the Ward One councilman. The Downs had been the site of many clambakes, bonfires, and dances, and is still fondly remembered by many local residents.
After Hurricane Carol in 1954, a group of local yachtsmen lobbied the state to build a breakwater to protect the harbor and the boat basin. The breakwater was completed in 1965. The causeway leading to the breakwater was never meant to be a permanent feature — it was built just as a means to carry the stones out to the breakwater. The then Department of Natural Resources requested that the causeway remain in place to provide recreational fishing opportunities, as indeed it has done, although today it is deteriorating, heavily eroded, and regularly flooded during high tide. The State remains responsible for the causeway, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the breakwater, while the City of Warwick leases the mainland and Rock and Marsh Islands.
Meanwhile, industries and urban areas surrounding the upper bay used the rivers and coastal waters as a dumping ground for industrial wastes and sewage. In the 1970s, local environmental groups, led by Save The Bay, began working to clean up sewage-treatment plants, shut down industrial polluters, and prevent stormwater overflows. Today, those efforts are showing results — the upper Bay is cleaner and fresher than it’s been in living memory. Fish and shellfish are coming back; sea birds and even seals are spotted in the clear waters, and there’s talk of opening the upper Bay beaches to swimming again.
Salter Grove for many years has been neglected by the city and the neighborhood. The same rusting swing set has stood in place for decades. The shoreline has eroded and invasive species have degraded the habitat. The deteriorating causeway poses a danger and is discouraging to visitors and anglers who wish to access the breakwater. Graffiti and litter mar the park’s natural setting.
Friends of Salter Grove launched in February 2016 to help bring the park’s neighbors together to work with the City of Warwick, the state Department of Environmental Management, Save The Bay, and all other interested parties to realize the potential of this coastal urban park. Our goal is to keep the park clean and safe, protect it from pollution and erosion, improve the natural habitats for fish and wildlife, provide safe access to the breakwater, and upgrade the trails and other features that people in the neighborhood enjoy.
The Warwick Historical Society has published a fascinating history of Warwick Downs, “A Sense of Place, 1638-1972,” by Henry A.L. Brown and Hazel Wade Kennedy. It’s available at several of the Warwick libraries and at the William Hall Library in Edgewood.
Also, you can find images and audio from a fascinating 2006 installation at the Warwick Museum of Art entitled Languages of the Land: a Dialogue with Salter Grove on the VoicesandVisions.org site here, and read a more personal account of growing up at the Grove—when it was Warwick Downs—by Margie Degnan here.
In the slideshow below, a series of aerial photos at approximately decadal intervals from 1939 to 2008 illustrate the changes as the Gaspee Plateau was developed in the late 40s. The popular Third Beach at the northwest corner of the park (mainland portion outlined in blue) had disappeared by the early 60s along with the summer colony of Warwick Downs. The breakwater was built in the late 60s when the park area was renamed George B. Salter Memorial Grove.
The photos were commissioned by the Rhode Island Department of Administration and provided to FoSG by the URI Environmental Data Center through the kind assistance of Erica Tefft. Matt Dickinson aligned the images and adjusted their scale to create a uniform temporal series.
(You can also obtain a PDF of the above slides here. Right-click the link to save the file to your local drive.)