1900 - 1916

Thus, at the end of the Nineteenth Century Narragansett's economic and political environment conditions were rosy. But, then things began to change.

In 1900, at the start of the Twentieth Century, two developments transpired that had a radical effect on the dynamics of Narragansett. The first was the introduction of the automobile. The internal combustion engine (gasoline-powered) had been invented in Germany in 1885, and the first auto (a Duryea) was sold in the U.S. in 1898. By 1910 500,000 cars were sold in America.

In Narragansett, visited each season by very wealthy people with much free time, the new machines were an instant hit. Francis S. Kinney, the owner of the Kinney mansion and bungalow as well as Sweet Caporal cigarettes, America's leading brand, shipped three automobiles back to New York from Narragansett at the end of the 1899 season. In 1900, Walter A. Nye, the proprietor of the elegant Imperial Hotel, advertised two autos for rent at the hotel's garage.

At first, the automobiles were an exciting diversion in Narragansett (although there were frequent accidents with horses, horse-drawn vehicles, and other autos). But, for the town's tourist trade they acted as a ticking time bomb. No longer would summer visitors be virtual captives in town. Automobiles gave them mobility - the ability to move from resort to resort (or simply tour) - without depending on trains or ships. Of course, this new freedom accelerated as the autos and roads improved.

(An early victim of the automobile craze was the Sea View Railroad. The trolley line was quickly overtaken by the new competition and failed in 1920.)

The second disaster of that year occurred on September 12, 1900 - called "the darkest day in the history of the Pier" - when the prestigious Narragansett Pier Casino burned to the ground (except for the granite foundation and walls of its magnificent porte-cochere archway, The Towers). The fire had started in the nearby massive Rockingham Hotel, and eventually consumed most of the village's center. The Casino, of course, had been the centerpiece of the town's social activity, and its loss had an immediate negative effect on the town's appeal as a tourist destination.

Nevertheless, Narragansett reacted quickly to the conflagration of the old Casino. In 1905, a new Narragansett Pier Casino was erected on the previous site of the Rockingham Hotel. Like its predecessor, the new Casino was designed by McKim, Mead & White, and received much praise for its excellence. But, more bad news soon followed with "The Great Panic of 1907." This financial meltdown and the ensuing recession eventually settled by President Teddy Roosevelt with the assistance of J.P. Morgan had a serious impact on many of Narragansett's monied summer visitors.

Some familiar and important old structures failed the test of time shortly thereafter. The 1897 steamboat landing pier on the beach lasted only a decade, and was demolished in 1908 following persistent damage by heavy surf.

In 1909, "Canonchet" (namesake of the heroic Narragansett Tribal chief sachem during the King Philip's War), the more than 60-room landmark mansion, built in 1867 by Civil War Governor and Senator (as well as Narragansett's first town council president) William Sprague, burned to the ground. As the site of many historic and romantic encounters, the loss of this enormous building was deeply felt.

In 1910, some progress returned as a permanent breachway from the ocean to Point Judith Pond was excavated between the coastal hamlets of Galilee and Jerusalem (previous outlets had been unstable and subject to closure as a result of storms). The channel correction was an important part of the lengthy federal project to improve navigation and security for the important travel and commerce passing through these stormy waters. When the great Point Judith Harbor of Refuge project - initiated in 1890 - was completed in 1914, it not only provided safe harbor for the important maritime industry, but it also became the foundation for the thriving commercial and recreational fishery that exists today.

Another positive event that took place in 1910 was the restoration of The Towers, the entrance way to the original Narragansett Pier Casino. Somewhat fire-resistant because of its granite foundation and walls, the porte-cochere had partially survived the conflagration of 1900. Re-roofed with its wooden interior replaced, the magnificent structure was able, phoenix like, to rise from its ashes and resume operations only ten years later.