Fishstory Lesson: Rhode Island’s West Island Club
April 11, 2019
I’ve been fascinated by the history of West Island ever since I first fished off Sakonnet Point in the mid-1990s, and learned that this imposing chunk of granite served as home to an exclusive fishing club from 1864 to 1906. I wondered what it would be like to set foot on the island, and in 2011 I got my chance on a kayak trip with good friend and underwater videographer Mike Laptew. We met at the Sakonnet Harbor launch ramp in Little Compton, where we launched a pair of Wilderness sit-on-top sea kayaks.
After a 20-minute paddle, we anchored our kayaks on the protected northeast side of the island and made our way ashore. Once home to a two-story hotel and annex, plus several outbuildings, a long pier, and extensive vegetable garden, West Island is now inhabited by a rookery of loud and smelly seagulls. Gull bones, gull nests, and flightless juvenile gulls littered the rocks and weeds, while the air was filled with the cacophonous cries of the birds and redolent with the stink of fish-based guano. It’s no place for a picnic.
West Island Time Travel
The scene was obviously much different in the late 1800s, when the West Island Club welcomed some of the most powerful and wealthy men in the country, including Grover Cleveland, Cornelius Vanderbilt and JP Morgan. They came here to socialize and to fish, and their main quarry was striped bass, which patrolled the edges of the surf-pounded rocks and deep holes of the islands. According to the records maintained by the club, the fishing here was tremendous—at least for a time.
But perhaps more remarkable than the number and size of the fish that were caught 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 stations where anglers fished were known as “stands,” and each angler was allotted his spot 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 and catwalks constructed to provide supports for the anglers.
Fishing at West Island
The prime spot was known as The Hopper, a rocky projection on the island’s southeastern corner. The sportsmen and their guides—also know as gillies, gaffers or baiters—reached The Hopper via a special causeway of large, flat rocks that were often submerged at high tide, making for a wet, cold slog to and from the bass stands. In addition to The Hopper, members were often rowed out to a group of small islands knows as The Clumps, which were also outfitted with metal railings. Eventually, a small bridge was built to provide easier access to The Clumps from West Island, but the structure has long since been demolished.
Among the species targeted by club members were tautog, flounder and bluefish, but by far the most coveted game fish was the striped bass. Since stripers feed best in the morning, the anglers and their gaffers were usually on their allotted stands by first light.
As the fisherman rigged his gear, the guide would chum the area by tossing chunks of lobster, menhaden, and other fish into the waters around the stand. Once the stripers arrived to feed on the free handouts, the angler would cast his baited hook into the foaming waters where the fish were spotted. When a fish was hooked, the angler played it from his rocky perch until his guide could haul it from the water with a long-handled gaff.
Landing a big striped bass from among slippery, surf-swept boulders is no easy feat, no matter what era you’re from. Anglers of the late 1800s had it especially tough, as 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 guess how many giant stripers were lost to broken lines and other types of equipment failure.
Logbooks Tell a Tale
The club logbooks provide an intriguing glimpse into the history of striped bass fishing in the 1800s. The best action occurred in the early years of the club, 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 specimens over 50 pounds. The largest striper taken at the club was a 64-pounder, caught in 1877.
From 1875 to 1906, the club saw a steady decrease in catch numbers, and there were some years when a mere 22 or 23 fish were caught. Club records show that in 1906 only 6 stripers were caught. The dwindling catch reflected a coastwide decline in the striped bass population, most likely due to the cyclic nature of the species (stripers have exhibited recorded periods of boom and bust since the 1600s, independent of human-induced factors of pollution and overfishing).
The decline in fishing eventually led to the demise of the West Island Club, which occurred after the 1906 season. By that time, club membership had dwindled to 17. In 1907, ownership of West and East Islands passed into the hands of club member Joseph R. Wainwright, who bought them for the sum of $7,500. Wainwright continued to maintain the former club facilities and to fish the old stands. Upon his death in 1917, the property passed to his sons, F. King and Clement R. Wainwright, who visited the island only occasionally.
Fire & Hurricanes
Over the next decade, the buildings were vandalized and used by bootleggers, eventually falling into a state of disrepair. In 1927 the Wainwright family presented the islands to the Espiscopal Diocese of Rhode Island, who then sold it to Newport resident Marion Eppley in 1929. That summer, a fire set by arsonists destroyed the old clubhouse and annex buildings. Two years later, the island was wiped clean by great hurricane of ‘38, save for the 3 stone columns that survive to this day.
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. Today, West Island remains a lonely, deserted place. Scant evidence remains of human habitation, let alone a grand fishing club shared by the wealthy elite.
Special thanks to Fred Bridge and the Little Compton Historical Society for providing historic photos and much valuable information on the history of the West Island Club. Photos of the West Island Club and other Little Compton landmarks, as well as old scenic photos, books and more, can be purchased via the Society’s website.