Right in the heart of Westerly there is a primordial land that time forgot, the Aguntaug Swamp. The Swamp covers most of the 450 acre Crandall Preserve and it is the second largest wetland in Rhode Island. The name Aguntaug means big tree, and it’s a rare example of a white cedar swamp.
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In 1661, John Crandall, one of the founders of Westerly, arrived from Newport with a few other settlers. Together they purchased what is now Westerly from the Niantic Indians. Crandall’s portion of the purchase was about 2000 acres and included the swamp.
Crandall lived in Westerly from 1662, until the start of King Phillips War in 1675. It was at this time that all of the European settlers left Westerly and returned to Newport. This area was remote and subject to Indian attack.
John Crandall died in Newport in 1676, and it was his sons who returned to Westerly to settle. The Crandall family has occupied the land ever since.
The Westerly Land Trust
The Westerly Land Trust purchased the land from a number of individuals and organizations including the Crandall family. The five parcels making up the Crandall preserve total 423 acres. The Westerly Land Trust occasionally runs guided hikes through the preserve, so Westerly News decided to see what this unusual, and little known place, had to offer.
Although the Aguntaug Swamp is not large as swamps go, it is considered a unique and important resource. Scientists have only recently discovered how important wetlands are, and in many places around the world, efforts are being made to restore and preserve them.
Wetlands are vitally important for flood control, fish production, water purification, wildlife habitat, and carbon storage. Although wetlands comprise only 8 percent of the earth’s surface they store up to 30 percent of the carbon. Today the Aguntaug Swamp is a wildlife habitat for beaver, muskrat, bobcat, turtles, snakes, fish, frogs and coyotes – among many others.
In the 350 years since the founding of Westerly, only the swamp has remained unchanged. Historically the land was impractical to use for farming, grazing livestock, or just about anything else that humans use land for. Which is why it’s still untouched today.
Trying to tame the land
On the hike we see remnants of the old farm. On one side of the trail there’s a old rusted sawmill – used to mill cedar – some of which was used for ship building during the Civil War.
Steve Crandall tells the story of the US Navy buying 13,000 cedar posts at the start of World War II from his grandfather. They wanted to build a fence around Ninigret Airfield and Westerly Airport. There are also the remains of a horse-drawn potato planter left to rot by the side of the field – where the farmer left it.
As we travel deeper into the swamp, there is a sign for the Wolf Island Trail that leads through a unique rhododendron hardwood forest. It contains extensive mountain laurel, and large holly trees.
Wolf Island is a piece of higher ground in the heart of the swamp. Legend has it that in 1708 the last wolf in Westerly was killed here. On this gray overcast day Wolf Island does give you the feeling of death and decay.
It hardly seems possible that this wild place, almost unchanged for hundreds of years, can exist right in the heart of Westerly. It’s reassuring to know that the Westerly Land Trust is preserving places like the Aguntaug Swamp. The last of our wild places should be preserved.
The Westerly Land Trust leads hikes on many of its preserves through the winter season that are open to the public. So get the family out there, get some fresh air, and discover some of Westerly’s wild places. For more information on all the Westerly Land Trust’s upcoming hikes click the link below.
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