The West Island Club

Remains of West Island Club building

When I was standing on Lloyd’s Beach last week photographing the humpback whale, I took an inadvertent photo of stone pillars off to my left on a spit of land out to sea. I asked Mr. EOS and he reminded me they are what is left of the West Island Club that burned to the ground in 1929 and further destroyed after The Great Hurricane of 1938. The article linked above is from the New York Times archives, published June 12, 1892. [Note: I hope the link works for you. I am a NYT “Member” and get availability to archived links. Let me know if it doesn’t work for you.]

The best historical account of the West Island Club comes from Fred Bridge at The Little Compton Historical Society. The credit goes to him entirely for the words printed below. Many thanks. It’s a very long article, but if you are a fisherman, or a lover of history, this is worth the read.

As far as fishing locations go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better spot than West Island. Situated at the mouth of the Sakonnet River, the island lies smack in the middle of the spring and fall migration routes of East Coast striped bass. It’s surrounded by massive boulders, islets and underwater ledges that harbor scup, flounder, eels, lobster, crab, shrimp, cunner and other kinds of striper forage. Schooling baitfish, such as herring, menhaden and squid, also pass by the island on their way in and out of the Sakonnet River, Narragansett Bay and Buzzards Bay. In the fall, huge schools of menhaden, bay anchovies and silversides gather in the surrounding waters, setting the stage for epic feeding frenzies. Adding to the area’s appeal to stripers and other species is its exposure to the open Atlantic. The southern side of the island receives large ocean swells that serve to disorient baitfish, making them easy prey for stripers, bluefish, bonito and false albacore and even school tuna cruising below the ceiling of whitewater formed around the base of the rocks.

In short, West Island is made to order for fish and fishing, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of early residents. Records show that people were meting out a rugged existence on West Island by 1815. A commercial fisherman by the name of Andrew Seabury owned both East and West Islands until 1849, when he sold them to two Tiverton men for $800. The islands then passed into the hands of a group of Fall River sportsmen known as the West Island Association. Then, in 1864 (apparently unfazed by the ongoing Civil War), a consortium of New York City businessmen decided to buy East and West Islands for the establishment of, according to the Constitution and By-Laws of the West Island Club, “an Association for Angling and Shooting Purposes.” The price: $18,500.

A hotel already existed on West Island at the time, and the new owners set to work sprucing it up and turning it into a comfortable clubhouse, complete with a billiards room and lounge. A description of the club’s dining room is provided by Frederick Crossman’s daughter, who spent many summers on West Island:

“There were four large windows looking out on the sea with deep window-seats, a big oak table, chairs with bent wooden frames and cane seats, and a huge oaken sideboard. The wine glasses stood ranked on the marble top of the sideboard and a plaster cast of a striper hung over them. The wide boards of the floor were painted green, spattered with white and varnished. On the walls were many framed pictures of sea fowl.”

Additional outbuildings were constructed, the wharf was repaired and locals were hired as cooks, servants, boatmen, fishing attendants and groundskeepers. In the club’s heyday, a staff of 13 lived on the island during the season, which ran from June through October. A caretaker had the lonely job of looking after the buildings and grounds during the winter and attending to the provisioning of the island prior to the start of the fishing season. To see the club through the summer months, the icehouse had to be stocked with 125 tons of ice cut from local ponds. Coal was shipped over from the mainland, groceries were ferried from Newport and the finest fishing tackle of the day was purchased from the early reel-maker Edward vom Hofe in New York City. Vegetables were grown in a garden on East Island, while fresh milk and eggs were provided by a resident cow and chickens. In 1881 an eight-room annex was built next to the clubhouse, and in 1885 a Western Union telegraph cable was laid to provide rapid communication to the mainland.

The West Island Club officially opened in June 1865. Per its bylaws, membership was limited to 30 people, each of whom had to pay a $1,000 “subscription fee.” The majority of original members were New York businessmen, stockbrokers, and lawyers. The next largest contingency hailed from Philadelphia, while the remainder came from Newport. Over the club’s 42-year existence, roughly 100 men were admitted as members, among them some of the richest and most influential figures in U.S. politics and business. They included jewelry store owner Charles Tiffany and his son Luis (the famous lamp designer); John L. Cadwalader, assistant secretary of state and president of the New York Public Library and New York Bar Association; Cornelius Vanderbilt, chairman of the board of the New York Central Railroad and builder of the famous Breakers mansion in Newport; Frederick D. Tappan, president of Chase National Bank; Frank Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad; financier and ship owner Clement Griscom; William Sellers, inventor and president of the Edge Moor Iron Company; William Pepper, head of the University of Pennsylvania; Supreme Court Justice Horace Gray; Rhode Island senator and financier Nelson Aldrich; and Elihu Root, leader of the American Bar who served as secretary of war, secretary of state and senator. Over the years, the club also saw its share of illustrious visitors, including financier J.P. Morgan and presidents Grover Cleveland and Chester A. Arthur.

Although women were allowed to visit the club (the bylaws stipulated that each member could be accompanied by his wife) and did, their presence was not exactly appreciated by many of the members. Rumor has it that the growing number of women–wives, daughters and attendant maids–who began showing up at the club led to the resignation of several members who promptly joined the men’s only bass club on the nearby island of Cuttyhunk, at the end of Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Islands chain, where the striper fishing was reputed to be even better.

And what of the fishing? According to the meticulous records maintained by the club, it was tremendous–at least for a time. But perhaps more remarkable than the number and size of the fish taken were the methods used to catch them. Although boats were used on occasion, most of the fishing was done from the rocks, just above the churning surf. The designated spots where anglers fished were known as “stands,” and each angler was allotted his day’s stand the previous night via a roll of the dice. Guests were typically given the choicest stands as a matter of courtesy. In many places iron stanchions were embedded in the rocks to support long catwalks from which the anglers cast their baits and fought their fish.

The prime fishing spot was known as the Hopper, a rocky projection on the island’s southeast corner. The sportsmen and their guides, also known as gaffers or baiters, reached the Hopper via a special causeway of large, flat rocks that were often submerged at high tide. Members were often rowed out to a group of small islands known as the Clumps, which were also outfitted with metal railings to create stands. Eventually, a small bridge was built to provide easier access to the Clumps from West Island, but the structure has long since been demolished by storms.

Among the species targeted by club members were tautog, flounder, false albacore and bluefish; however, striped bass were by far the most coveted game fish of the day. Since stripers feed best in the morning, the sportsmen and their gaffers were usually on their allotted stands by first light. As the sportsman readied his tackle, the guide would chum the area by tossing chunks of lobster, menhaden and other fish into the water. Once the stripers arrived to feed on the free handouts, the angler would cast his baited hook into the foaming waters. When a fish was hooked, the angler played it from his perch until the guide could pluck it from the water with a long-handled gaff.

Make no mistake: Fighting and landing a big striped bass among slick, surf-pounded boulders is no easy feat, no matter what era you’re from, but anglers of the late 1800s had it especially tough. They had to rely on fragile bamboo rods, linen lines and crude reels equipped with leather “thumbstalls” to apply drag. It’s nothing short of astonishing that the West Island fishermen were able to land fish of 40, 50 and even 60 pounds with their primitive gear, and one can only wonder how many truly giant stripers were lost to broken lines and other types of equipment failure.

All of this no doubt provided ample fodder for some grand fishing tales to be shared by members upon returning to the club for breakfast. Genio C. Scott, who wrote of early American sport fishing in the mid- to late-1800s, visited the West Island Club with a friend and recorded this description of a typical breakfast:

“As the breakfast-table is the morning’s trysting-place for the members of the club, where they recount their exploits over their tea and coffee, with broiled bluefish, striped bass, and scopogue (scup), or with broiled chicken and beefsteak, the tender of congratulations to my friend for his success, and the stories of successful takes by some, and of parting tackle with others, acted as charming opiates to witch away the time.”

Club logbooks provide an intriguing glimpse into the history of striped bass fishing in the late 1800s. The best action occurred in the early years, from 1866 to 1875, when the total number of bass caught per season averaged 1,192. Plenty of big fish were taken, too, including numerous bass over 50 pounds. The largest striper taken at the club was a 64-pounder, caught in 1877.

The period from 1875 to 1906 saw a steady decrease in catch numbers, and there were some years when a mere 22 or 23 fish were recorded. Records show that in 1906 only six stripers were caught. The dwindling catch reflected a coastwide decline in the striped bass population at the time, most likely due to the cyclic nature of the species (stripers have exhibited recorded periods of boom and bust since the 1600s, independent of pollution and overfishing).

The poor fishing eventually led to the demise of the West Island Club in 1907. By that time club membership had dwindled to 17. In 1907 ownership of the islands passed into the hands of club member Joseph R. Wainwright, who bought them for $7,500. Wainwright continued to maintain the former club facilities and to fish the old stands on his own. Upon Wainwright’s death in 1917, the property passed to his sons, who visited the property only occasionally.

Over the next decade the abandoned club buildings were vandalized and used by bootleggers, eventually falling into disrepair. In 1927 the Wainwright family presented the islands to the Espiscopal Diocese of Rhode Island, which then sold it to Newport resident Marion Eppley in 1929. That summer a fire set by arsonists destroyed the old clubhouse and annex buildings. Nine years later the island was wiped clean by the great hurricane of ’38, save for the lonely stone columns that have miraculously survived to this day. West Island had all but returned to its natural state.

The ownership of West and East Islands changed hands again in 1949, when Jessie Lloyd O’Connor bought them for preservation purposes. In 1983 O’Connor bequeathed the property to the Sakonnet Preservation Association. West Island remains a lonely, deserted place, save for a thriving colony of cormorants and gulls.

Special thanks go to Fred Bridge of the Little Compton Historical Society (401-635-4035) for providing valuable information on West Island Club.

6 thoughts on “The West Island Club

  1. Good story! The NYT and WSJ charging on the internet is a sore subject among us poor folks!! I can understand the economics of it but I miss them.

    1. We get home delivery of both papers so that entitles us to free access to online content. A fair trade-off. We get a daily WSJ but only the Weekend NYT and that still gives us access. I bet at some point one will have to have a seven-day home subscription to maintain free online access.

      Could you even get home delivery of the Journal and Times if you wanted – or would they both come by pony express a week late? 🙂

  2. Hi,
    What a wonderful piece of history, there certainly isn’t much left after all the devastation, really enjoyed the read, and the link worked without any problems.

    1. Such a time gone by, isn’t it Mags? And I love the New York Times article in particular – it sets such a tone of the era. All those wealthy men looking for a quiet retreat, a place to catch fish, and get away from the “women folk”!

      Glad to know the link works. Thanks.

  3. By-gone prose of the 1800’s: “The breakfast-table is the morning’s trysting-place for the members of the club, where they recount their exploits over their tea and coffee, with broiled bluefish, striped bass, etc…”

    This beauty of a piece also gives nice insight into “we are not over-fishing these waters,” when the annual catch drops from over a thousand bass per member to twenty-some total per summer in under three decades.

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