by Rosemary Enright and Sue Maden
Saltwater freezes at a much lower temperature than fresh water – minus 6 degrees Fahrenheit, if salt fully saturates the water. So it’s not surprising that Narragansett Bay hasn’t frozen over often, although icy crusts still form along the edges where fresh water streams reduce the salinity.
Freezing happened more often in the past. Some biographies of Roger Williams report that the upper bay was frozen in 1636 when he escaped from Salem to Providence. In 1710, people walked between Providence and Newport on the ice.
The winter of 1740-1741 was, according to Deputy Governor William Greene (1695-1758), who was governor for 11 years between 1743 and 1758, “the coldest known in New England since the memory of man.” A snowy November was followed by a few days of warmer, rainy weather in mid-December while the General Assembly met in Newport. “Soon after this the weather was again so exceedingly cold that the Narragansett Bay was soon frozen over, and people passed and repassed from Providence to Newport on the ice, and from Newport to Bristol.”
As cold as the winter of 1740-1741 had been, the winter of 1779-1780 was worse. From mid-December through mid-March, frigid Arctic air – accompanied by three major northeasters – kept the temperature below zero for 11 consecutive days. Not only did the bay freeze, but according to some sources much of Block Island Sound and the ocean beyond almost to the Gulf Stream was solid.
For the approximately 400 Jamestowners who had survived the British occupation that had ended in October, times were particularly hard. There was little firewood on the island because most of the trees had been cut down to provide fuel for the occupying forces. Sleds hauled by oxen brought wood across the ice from South County, but most sleighs were headed for Newport. Food was also hard to get. Most of the island farms had not been cultivated during the war, and farm animals had been moved to the mainland by order of the General Assembly. Few of the animals that remained had escaped the British foragers.
The ice did not break up until the March thaw, and traffic of sailing vessels on the bay was impeded until May.
For most of the 19th century, the bay around Conanicut Island remained passable, although the upper bay with its lower salinity sometimes froze. The floating ice set free in the spring of 1875 carried away pilings from the new wharf at Conanicut Park and damaged the pier on Gould Island.
In mid-January 1893, ice returned. On the 17th, the New York Times reported “As far as the eye can reach Narragansett Bay is an ice plain. . . . All passenger steamboat traffic is stopped, and to-night is expected to embargo Sound steamers.” Again on January 5, 1904, the Times carried an item about ice on the bay. “For the first time in ten years the eastern and western passages of Narragansett Bay are closed by ice. . . . soldiers walked to-day from Fort Greble on Dutch Island to the West Ferry.”
Twenty-five years later the bay froze again. During the week between December 29, 1917, and January 4, 1918, daytime temperatures hovered around 10 degrees and nights dipped as low as minus 10. With steamboats now moving up and down the bay, the sea lanes in the East Passage were kept open, but automobiles crossed the West Passage on the ice to the Plum Beach Lighthouse. On January 4, the Fall River Line, after a tense trip north, cancelled the return trip of the Priscilla to New York for fear of having the ship become ice bound in Long Island Sound.
The Jamestown & Newport Ferry Company tried to keep the ferries running across both the East and West Passages. Service to Newport was intermittent, and the ferries docked at Long Wharf, unable to reach their normal berth at Mill Street. The West Passage crossings were more difficult, but in some ways more important to the company since it had a government contract to supply Fort Greble. Dutch Harbor was totally iced in. The only access to the fort was from Saunderstown, and the bay west of Dutch Island was clogged with ice. The ferry worked its way into the ice to get as close to the island as possible, and the soldiers walked out to gather the provisions and sled them in to the fort. When the fresh water pipeline under the bay froze, barrels of water were added to the ferried supplies.
The last time the lower bay froze was 1934. On February 9, the temperature dropped to the lowest ever recorded for the month – officially 11 degrees below zero, though unofficial measurements went down to minus 17 degrees. The bay was clogged with ice, and the Governor Carr took an hour and half to make the half-hour trip to Newport.
The West Passage, because it is shallower and less used, once again presented more difficult problems to the ferry company. On February 19, the Beaver Tail barely made the crossing to Saunderstown when ice jammed the steering mechanism. Lines were thrown to shore, and she was wrested into the wharf. She returned to Jamestown that day, but no further crossings were attempted. Regular service was not resumed on the West Passage until March 6.
Narragansett Bay is warmed now, and it is unlikely to freeze again in the near future. In the winter of 1917-1918, the coldest recorded, the water temperature averaged 33.2 degrees Fahrenheit; in the winter of 2012, the water temperature was 42 degrees.
This article originally appeared in the Jamestown Press, March 6, 2014