With the completion of the construction of the Westerly Municipal Boat Ramp recreational boaters and fishermen will have better access to the Pawcatuck River. One of Westerly’s greatest assets, many people don’t realize just how historically important the river is.
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The first European to navigate the Pawcatuck River was Adriaen Block. In 1614 he took his small sailing vessel, the Onrush, up the Pawcatuck River as far as the Pawcatuck Rock, across from the river from the present day Westerly Yacht Club. The land then was all forest and Block named the point at the head of the river Nap of Trees because of the thick forest. The name evolved to Napatree Point.
In 1661 a company of men from Newport purchased land from the Narragansett Chief Sousa. It was called the Misquamicut Purchase and would later be incorporated into the Town of Westerly. The river was always a border, first fought over by the Pequot and the Narragansett tribes and later by the Rhode Island and Massachusetts colonies. King Charles finally settled the dispute awarding the land to Rhode Island in 1663.
Westerly was originally called Pawcatuck Bridge and was established where the old Pequot Trail crossed the Pawcatuck River where the bridge is today. By the end of the War of 1812 there were only fifteen homes in what is today downtown Westerly. Most of the commerce was farther down the river near Avondale at what was called Westerly Landing.
With the advent of the Industrial Revolution Westerly grew rapidly. Mills sprang up all over New England and Rhode Island. The Pawcatuck River was dammed and a number of mills were built along its banks. All of these manufactured goods needed to get to market in New York and Boston and the Pawcatuck River became a ship building center. Many famous whaling ships were built on the Pawcatuck including the whaler Dauphin. On a voyage she rescued the last survivors of the whale ship Essex that was sunk by a white whale. The story inspired Herman Melville to write his famous novel Moby Dick.
The age of the whale ship and the packet schooner are gone and the mills have closed. The Pawcatuck River slumbered until 2019 when the Pawcatuck was designated the Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic River. The river is now a major recreational resource for fishermen and boaters with marinas and two yacht clubs along its shores. One of the few public access points on the river is the Westerly Municipal Boat Ramp but over the years it had fallen into disrepair.
Rhode Island DEM and The Nature Conservancy undertook a joint partnership to rebuild the old boat ramp. This project took over two years and has just been completed. GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc. were the design consultants and the contractor was Atlantic Marine Construction, Inc., a local company located on Margin Street in Westerly.
This state owned facility gives the public better access to a 7.5 mile long, 10 foot deep, dredged channel which runs past the boat ramp, south through Little Narragansett Bay to Fishers Island Sound and finally to the ocean and Long Island Sound.
We spoke to Jillian Thompson of The Nature Conservancy about why the project was so important.
“The old boat ramp was past its useful life. Typically boat ramps will last twenty to twenty-five years. Because this one is so popular in such a beautiful area The Nature Conservancy and DEM decided that this was priority. We started with the design a few years ago and construction started this past winter. The new ramp has a brand new slab that’s basically in the same footprint as the old one except the ramp itself is a little bit longer and goes out a little bit further into the river so it can accommodate bigger boats. The biggest change is the dock system. There used to be a timber fixed dock here. At low tide it was useable but at high tide it was more or less inundated. It made it really hard for people to launch and to use. We opted to switch to a floating dock system which raise and lower with the tides so this whole area is useable at any tide level and that’s a huge plus.”
“The Nature Conservancy and DEM have partnered on a lot of projects like this throughout the state. We’re really excited for the public to come out and use this new ramp and really enjoy the Pawcatuck River.”