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