Libraries Round the World: A Victorian Summer on Block Island

Block Island’s public library dates all the way back to 1875. Impressive, considering that the island covers less than 10-square miles with a population hovering around a thousand today. But this number swells with tourists in the summer, and most arrive on ferries. They disembark right into the Old Harbor Historic District filled with 42 historic buildings mainly dating from the Victorian days of the late 1800s. 

Anonymous farmer, looking for something to read, heads into the “old homestead”

But in 1923 on Halloween night, as if part of cruel hoax come true, the town center including the town hall, high school, and library burned. Today, the library has a new building courtesy of a generous donation from a local. The Dodge family gave the island’s only library cash and their homestead property, conveniently situated in the main town of Old Harbor. The name is now officially the Uriah B. Dodge Memorial Library Free Library, and the address is appropriately 9 Dodge Street.

Old Dodge homestead with the Mrs. & The National Hotel in the background

The library Is well worth a visit. A unique exhibit, Story Walk, was in their front yard. As you walk around the yard, signs tell you the story of Indi Surfs

Different way to read, with sunglasses not a computer

Upstairs the library has a fascinating maritime collection, and even what looks like a mini-canon – a lifesaving gun for rescues from the shore.

Unique emergency gear for a library – they are prepared!

Although I stayed on a ship and can’t vouch for staying at The National Hotel, this is the place I’d select for an overnighter. The hotel, from circa 1888, doesn’t have an elevator, but they do have private bathrooms which are not the norm for all hotels on the island. The hotel also doesn’t have AC, but the breezes off the water and fans keep it cool. 

More of the story in the yard with The National Hotel still in the background today

The island was initially called Manisses by the Native Americans which means Manitou’s Little Island. The island has eight native American cemeteries and burial grounds, and we learned they were buried in a standing up position. Estimates date Native Americans on the island to 500 BC, but the last full-blooded Manisses resident died in 1886. So sad!

On the main drag filled with shops, restaurants, and bars

The island is closest to New York State with views of Montauk, located at the tip of Long Island, from the lighthouse. Our local tour guide explained how New York State wasn’t interested in Block, but Rhode Island was. Their 1873 southeast lighthouse is said to be one of the most unique in the world. Recently, it was saved by moving it 250 feet from the danger due to the erosion of the bluff.

Views of Montauk, NY from the eroded shore where the Southeast lighthouse once stood

Block Island was named for Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer, who arrived here in 1614. A map back then showed it as Adrianbloxeyland. He didn’t stay around long, but his name sure did. Still today, most visitors arrive here by boat or ferry. The Pt. Judith, RI ferry runs year-round while the Falls River, MA; Newport, RI; New London, CT; and Montauk, NY ferries are seasonal.

The ferries with a strip of beach nearby

The island is in the shape of a pork chop and a mere 7 miles long by 3 miles wide. The Great Salt Pond almost cuts the island in half. Our local guide said the island has an airport, but they keep the runway short to avoid a corporate jet client invasion. They are instead encouraged to land at nearby islands, Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, or at the Hampton’s on Long Island.

High flyer’s view of the pork chop

Block has more of a Bohemian-Victorian vibe than Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, their New England neighboring islands, and two ports of call I visited a few days before. Perhaps it’s from the 1960s hippies or surfers who flocked here and all the Victorian buildings. We drove by the actor Christopher Walken’s house. He seems to fit the Block profile perfectly, and I will never forget his role in one of my all-time favorite movies, Pulp Fiction

Red Irish moss seaweed on the rocky shoreline (nice beaches near Old Harbor)

Abundant red Irish moss seaweed is still plentiful along the seashore and was a major export for many years. After it dries and dies, it bleaches into a white color. Today, the seaweed is still used in many products and is even edible, but I can’t see it working in a sushi roll. In the 1800s, this seaweed was turned into pudding. 

Block Island library, Block Island, Rhode Island
Newly washed up on the beach

Karen Stensgaard is a novelist and the author of two novels: AQUAVIT and BLUENESS. When not writing, she enjoys traveling and makes a point to include libraries on her to-see list. She’s only disappointed when they happen to be closed. 

Goodbye from Yours Truly. Hope you liked Block Island’s Library!

2 thoughts on “Libraries Round the World: A Victorian Summer on Block Island

  1. Hey Don – the SAT library is near & dear to my heart. I grew up there & my family is still all there. My first library blog but excited to read your update on it. My mom volunteers every Thursday in the used book place – the Book Cellar. Beautiful spot near the riverwalk too.


  2. I always enjoy your visits to the various libraries. Here’s my critique of the Main Library in San Antonio. Feel free to post a link to it should you want to take a break. Don Mathis [] The Big, Red Central Library Turns 20 – Rivard Report The Central Library is celebrating 20 years of service in May and San Antonio is having a party – or two. Big Red, as it is affectionately known by locals, will host a free party for the public …



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