NARRAGANSETT — Every time I visited Scarborough State Beach during the summer, I would look north along the shore and wonder about the stone-walled ruins at the edge of the rocky coastline.
I knew they were just south of Black Point, the focus of a five-year fight between developers and environmentalists in the 1980s, but other than that, they were a mystery to me.
So, after the sunbathers and beach walkers disappeared, I decided to explore the area with my brother Peter, who was visiting from Florida and wanted to see and learn about Rhode Island’s coast.
We found out quite a bit and learned some history along the way.
Walking RI:5 great hikes with ocean views
On an early fall day, we set out from a pullout lot off Route 1A and headed east on a wide trail. In a short distance, the main trail went straight, but we went left on a smaller, grassy footpath that wound through thick shrubland. The noise from cars on Route 1A and the occasional chiming bells from the Christian Brothers Center across the road soon faded and were replaced by the sounds of birds tweeting in the bushes and waves crashing against rocks.
The path passed under a canopy of trees before bending toward the sea and then along a cliff above the ocean. We stopped for a good, long sweeping look that included lobster traps bobbing offshore and a half-dozen fishing boats motoring across Narragansett Bay.
Just ahead was a four-way intersection. On the right was the path back to the parking lot and to the left was a trail down a slope to the ocean. We saved the path straight ahead for later.
We took the left option down, crossing ledges and giant boulders. Some were bleached yellow and light orange from the sun and saltwater while the rocks at the shoreline and underwater at high tide were black. We found a rusted fence bolted into the rocks but had no clue about who put it there.
Fishermen were spaced out about 20 yards apart on the rocks, casting long fishing poles and trying to hook sea bass.
To the north along the coast, there were several mansions perched off Bass Rock and above a rock-lined cove. To the south, the shoreline jutted into the ocean to form what’s called Black Point.
Planned condo development in 1980s was thwarted by protests
In the 1980s, a developer planned to build 80 condominium units at Black Point on what was one of the last long stretches of undeveloped shoreline along the West Bay.
Environmentalists, however, argued that the 42-acre site had been used for outdoor recreation for generations, and footpaths gave the public access to the shoreline.
For five years, there were public protests against the project, and the developer and environmentalists fought in court and before regulatory bodies.
In 1989, the state decided to condemn the land, take the property, offer the developer $6.4 million and preserve Black Point as a state-managed public preserve.
One of the trails to the coast is dedicated to Malcolm Grant, a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management official who worked to acquire Black Point.
After surveying the shoreline, my brother and I walked back up the cliff and took the path south. Several side spurs lead down to barnacle-encrusted rocks, tidal pools and outcroppings smoothed by the waves and covered with sea birds.
One spur passed a hand-lettered wooden cross inscribed with the word “Alou” — a truncated way teenagers once said “I love you” — and dedicated to Erica Lee Knowles, who was killed in a drunken-driving car crash in 2012. After the sign was put up, it disappeared and was later found floating off the coast of eastern Long Island. A resident there returned it to Rhode Island.
While we studied the sign, a fisherman and his buddy passed us, and I asked if it was a good morning to catch sea bass.
“If we’re lucky,” one replied.
We continued on the path as it wound along the shore until I could see Scarborough State Beach as it stretched along the shoreline. Point Judith Lighthouse was far in the distance to the south.
Below us was a broken seawall and a storm fence on the cliff. I thought we might have missed the ruins we were searching for until they appeared just above the bushes off the path to the right.
What was the origin of the stone ruins at Black Point?
We explored a bit and found two end walls about 25 feet tall, built of round stones that were covered with a yellow growth. Stone steps led inside, where small trees and shrubs grew. The roof and windows were long gone. Graffiti was spray-painted on the inside walls.
A walker we passed told us the ruins once formed a carriage house that was part of a huge estate, called Windswept. Later, our research found that a mansion, perched between Black Point and Scarborough Beach, was built by the Davis family — one of many erected by wealthy Rhode Islanders along the coastline at the turn of the 20th century.
Perry Davis, the family patriarch, made a fortune in the 1890s by creating an elixir, called Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain Killer, made with myrrh, camphor alcohol and opium. The remedy promised to cure cholera, colic, dysentery and other common afflictions and is considered to have been the first nationally advertised drug for chronic pain.
Perry’s grandson, Edmund Perry, later sold the painkiller and used the proceeds to build Windswept in 1895. The 21-room mansion had five bedrooms, a kitchen, laundry, pantry, living areas and servants' quarters.
In the 1900s, the property was sold to a pair of brothers who renovated the mansion into a high-end restaurant, called Cobb’s by the Sea.
In 1952, the Albert Lownes family acquired the property but never occupied it. The vacant mansion was plagued by vandals, fires and storms and was later demolished. In the 1970s, the state DEM purchased the land.
We found several paved walkways and roads behind the carriage house, telephone poles and two 5-foot stone pillars that may have once marked the entrance to the property.
Any other remains were camouflaged by a thick tangle of shrubs, bushes and other vegetation, so we headed back to the beach and crossed a broken sea wall and some large, rectangular cement slabs.
We headed south across the sand that in summer is covered with sunbathers. Now, just a few walkers walked the public beach, bundled up against the wind.
Continuing on, we passed a cement retaining wall on the right and then a boardwalk, pavilion, concession stand and gazebo. All were boarded up.
We finished our hike just before Scarborough South at a roofed observation tower, after walking 1.8 miles over 90 minutes.
We climbed the tower and looked north to see the ruins. A hundred years ago, the mansion must have been quite a sight. We also tried to envision what Black Point would have looked like if condos covered the shoreline.
In its natural state, the rocky coastline is spectacular — a sight my brother will long remember from his visit to Rhode Island.
John Kostrzewa, a former assistant managing editor/business at The Providence Journal, welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go ...
Access: From Scarborough State Beach, drive 1.5 miles north to a small lot on the right.
Parking: Available for about 20 cars.
Dogs: Allowed, but must be leashed.
Difficulty: Easy, with some rocky trails.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Hike rugged coast, see 100-year-old ruins in Narragansett: Walking RI