Napatree Point is a beautiful strip of sandbar connected to Watch Hill on the westerly side of town. It’s beautiful, peaceful, and a great place to enjoy numerous activities in the warmer months. Napatree today belies it’s horrendous past events that disrupted the lives of hundreds and ended some of those lives forever.
At one time the spit was abundant with trees, but in September of 1815 a fierce windstorm – also known as, “the Gale of 1815” – destroyed many trees in the area and wiped out just about all of them on Napatree Point.
Over time the peninsula was built up. The U.S. Army built Fort Mansfield at what used to be a bend at the end of the peninsula at Sandy Point and a spit of land that reached toward the bay.
Until 1938 Napatree and Watch Hill became a mecca for wealthier families in the area – and tourists – to get out of cities in the heat of summer and enjoy the sun, sand, numerous shops, and restaurants the area was known for. People built cottages and houses on Fort Road that followed the golden sand along the Long Island Sound.
Then on 21 September 1938 the “Great Hurricane” struck the area. In a matter of hours life was never the same. You have to remember that at this point in history weather predicting was nowhere near the scientific endeavor it is today. There were no satellites, no buoys in the ocean, no internet, and not much of any other technical advantages we have today. Most storms were discovered by reports from ships out at sea. It was known there was a hurricane that was expected to pass Cape Hatteras and keep going east, out to sea. That didn’t happen.
The tempest hit the Napatree area around 2:20 in the afternoon on the autumnal equinox. People had no warnings and most didn’t know about it until they saw the 50-foot wall of water approaching them at about 60 miles per hour. There was no time to prepare – or get out of the way. Winds were blowing between 90 and 120 mph, rivers, ponds, and streams were overflowing their banks everywhere and flooding started happening immediately.
Within six hours houses, boats, cars, ships, and trains were being swept away and smashed into whatever was in the way. So were people. Bodies were strewn everywhere. Many were found under feet of rubble The coastline was remade. Sandy Point became Sandy Island. In the Watch Hill area about 100 people died and many more were missing. Statewide the destruction was estimated to be about $400 million dollars – and that was at 1938 currency value. Reconstruction took and long time and emotional scars lasted forever.
Visiting the picturesque, soft-sand beach today, you’d never guess all the devastation that happened 82 years ago. Old foundations have been hidden by sand dunes and seaside vegetation has taken root. The beach is pristine and the water is beautiful. Many shells dot the sand along the shore. Sometimes even a fork or spoon still washes up onto the beach.
It isn’t always so serene though. People have heard sobbing and some hear what sounds like children yelling for help, There seems to be an older man who can sometimes be seen looking over Little Narragansett Bay toward the harbor. Maybe just as he did in life. And then there is the woman who appears to walk out of the ocean and disappear when she reaches shore. With all the pain and suffering that took place in this locale, it isn’t surprising that some of the energy of that trauma still lingers.