Westerly: Where A-List Meets Blue Collar
There's so much more to this seaside town than Taylor Swift.
We’ve all heard it (and maybe even repeated it): Rhode Island is so small, you can get anywhere in the state in less than forty-five minutes. Lies, I tell you. Well before rush hour on a particularly sunny Thursday afternoon in the spring, it takes me more than an hour to get from Providence to Westerly. Luckily, I’m running early for once and the surrounding scenery (especially once I hit Route 3, a road far less traveled by me) isn’t half bad.
I arrive at the Babcock-Smith House Museum to learn more about the town and I’m met by a very tall, middle-aged man with an easy smile. Tom Gulluscio, the president of the Westerly Historical Society and lifelong Westerly resident, is here to help me answer one simple question: What’s Westerly’s deal?
It’s a town that’s always been elusive to me, if only because of the distance. It’s way out west (I’m assuming that’s where its name came from), practically in Connecticut, making it a town I don’t frequent often — I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been in the area. One time was to meet a college friend for drinks at Perks and Corks, once to see Shakespeare in the Park at Wilcox Park (and when the play was rained out halfway through, we hauled over to the Malted Barley), and…well, okay, maybe that’s about it.
But then, of course, I’m familiar with Westerly’s reputation. Hearing the name alone often conjures up visions of picturesque beaches, fine dining and pop star-packed Fourth of July parties.
“I think my skin would crawl if people’s only impression of Westerly was the Ocean House or Taylor Swift,” Gulluscio says as we walk around the museum and check out some of its highlights. Oops. Guilty as charged.
“I mean, they’re big focal points, and it’s what people today can recognize, but we don’t want them to recognize just what’s here today. We want them to recognize what Westerly was historically.”
And so we pile into his SUV and set off in search of just that.
Gulluscio is a Rhode Islander through and through; we’ve barely left the parking lot before he launches into the “used to be’s” of the town. There’s that derelict-looking structure on the corner downtown that used to be the original Smith Granite Company Store. The formidable Westerly Armory that used to be the check-in spot for soldiers before they marched to the nearby train station and left for war. A scatter of dunes on Napatree Point that used to be Fort Mansfield, a military instillation built to (theoretically — the design was severely flawed) defend the Long Island Sound during the Spanish American War. The regal-looking Industrial Trust Company building that used to be a private residence that used to be a bank.
Some of his information comes from research he performed during his time with the historical society, while some comes from his own recollections and family accounts. Not even Ms. Swift is immune; her $17 million estate in Watch Hill used to be the Harkness House, built for the founder of Harkness Ballet in 1930; Gulluscio once helped out with the property’s landscaping and pool maintenance.
It’s with these stories that I get a better portrait of Westerly, then and now. Gulluscio explains that when Westerly was founded in 1669, it encompassed Hopkinton, Richmond and Charlestown (maybe today we would call it Charihowe?). The area eventually broke up into the four separate towns that we know today, and the largest, westernmost chunk of land got to keep Westerly as its name.
“Back then it was mostly farmlands,” says Gulluscio. “Imagine, not a stick. Just fields where you could see from the river to the bay to the ocean.”
One of the most established farms at that time is now known as the Babcock- Smith House, established by Westerly’s first postmaster, Joshua Babcock. After Babcock died in 1783, the estate changed hands a couple of times before falling into disrepair. Then along came Orlando Smith.
“When Smith was walking through the surrounding farmlands, he saw all these granite outcroppings. He had knowledge of the granite industry so he bought the property and instead of planting he started mining the backyard.”
Smith might as well have found a goldmine. Westerly has, in different veins and different parts of the town, quarries filled with mixes of pink and blue-hued granite. Gulluscio explains that the granite is very fine-grained, which allowed stonecutters to put more detail in their carvings. Apparently the work was so sought after that, to this day, Westerly-born stonemasons’ work can still be seen in Gettysburg.
To make sure I get a good feel for this artistry, Gulluscio takes me to the Riverbend Cemetery off Beach Street. Atypical for a town tour maybe, but the exquisiteness of the stones far outweighs any sense of morbidity. Gulluscio reminds me that every monument here is hand carved, from the curls of a lion’s mane to the folds in an angel’s robes to the weaving strands of a Celtic knot cross.
“How they were able to masterfully work with a piece of material that, for all reasons, should not be workable? That’s what’s amazing.”
It seems Westerly residents had a penchant for artistry.
“Most people don’t realize it, but we were also well-known for building magnificent whaling ships,” Gulluscio says as we drive by the home of a former captain, Joseph Pendleton. “Pendleton would watch them get built from the ground up on the Pawcatuck River and then go sail them around the world.”
But while Pendleton was trying to get out of Westerly, other Rhode Islanders were trying to get in. Families began vacationing here in the early 1800s. Captain Nash, Watch Hill’s lighthouse keeper at the time, quickly realized that visitors didn’t have anywhere to stay, so he built the Narragansett House, a 100-room hotel overlooking the ocean. It filled. Other locals were inspired by Nash’s foresight and went on to build the Larkin House, the Plympton House and the Ocean House. Each resort had hundreds of rooms and each one sold out nearly every night in the summer.
“They provided so many opportunities for locals to work and earn in the summer,” Gulluscio says. “Westerly teenagers work in Misquamicut today and think they’re first generation, but at age thirteen my grandfather took a trolley into Watch Hill every morning to squeeze oranges at the Plympton House.”
And so, no matter what hardship may have befallen Westerly over the years, it always had one of these core industries — granite, shipbuilding and tourism — to keep its head above water.
And water did come.
“Westerly is pretty much defined pre- and post-’38 hurricane,” Gulluscio says. “A lot of things changed. A lot of its character changed.”
The storm was a fast mover and the weather services back then didn’t have the ability to predict either its arrival time or its potential impact.
“My grandmother went to work at Moore’s Mill that morning,” Gulluscio says. “They had no idea there was an impending hurricane. She thankfully was let out early but she still had to climb over fallen trees on her way home.”
It wasn’t so much the high winds that were catastrophic as that the storm came during high tide. The river flooded into town and the beaches were swamped. Roads became canals, homes were washed away (there were reports of survivors riding out the storm on rooftops) and people died. Gulluscio says that Westerly Hospital couldn’t keep up with the number of bodies that were coming in and had to use the local high school (which has since been disassembled and moved to Ward Avenue) as a morgue.
But there were a lot of silver linings. After the original Weekapaug Inn was blown to bits by the ’38 hurricane, its owners crossed Quonochontaug Pond to salvage the timber and rebuild it in the new location. Almost eighty years later, the waterfront inn and restaurant is as popular as ever. Likewise, after Superstorm Sandy tore through the state in 2012 and wrecked a beloved waterfront restaurant, the Andrea, its owners put up a large tent in its place and created a literal beach bar while they raised the funds to rebuild. The new digs are a hit and rumor has it that any plans to rebuild have been put on the backburner.
We come up to a bend in the road where a number of cars are parked. Gulluscio pulls over, and I see that the road’s edge slopes down into the ocean, which stretches out for miles before us. He tells me that this spot, Spray Rock he calls it, is his favorite place in the whole town.
“The hurricanes totally changed the landscape over here and now when the water hits that rock right there it sprays over high onto the road,” says Gulluscio. “I don’t know why, but I find it relaxing. I’ll come here in the morning and drink my coffee or sometimes I’ll just meditate.”
Today the sea is calm, so there’s no spray action, but the sun is just starting to make its descent towards the horizon. Gulluscio is right, it’s pretty peaceful.
So what’s Westerly’s deal? It’s a resilient town teeming with beauty, both natural and man-made, that’s been through its fair share of ups and downs. But Westerly is well worth the colorful history, and it’s well worth the drive.