On the Trail — by Sindy Hempstead
WildfloraRI, Winter 2013
Islands are little worlds of their own. Two of these little worlds, Rabbit and Cornelius Islands, eight and nineteen acres respectively grace the north- west arm of Wickford Harbor in North Kingstown. Both are uninhabited by humans, though not by deer. In the 1630s the wife of the Narragansett Chief Canonicus, known as Queen Sachem, gave Rabbit Island, then known as Queen’s Island, to Roger Williams for his goats, because they were making short work of her gardens on the mainland. Later, in 1651, Roger Williams sold the island along with his trading post to William Smith. Rabbit Island has been part of the Smith’s Castle property ever since, and relatively undisturbed.
The south point of Rabbit Island is salt marsh, a watery meadow made up of Saltwater Cordgrass, (Spartina alterniflora), and the fleshy leaves of Glasswort (Salicornia europaea), which are bright red in autumn. Along the southwest shore the Spartina border narrows, and the land, rising steeply behind it, bears a dense band of Marsh Elder (Iva frutescens). Farther along there are patches of Spike Grass (Distichlis spicata) but no wide expanses of the Salt-hay Grass (Spartina patens) typical of many salt marshes. The edge of the island to the north and east is a beach that partially disappears at high tide. Here the Spartina alterniflora gives way to beach species such as robust clumps of Sea Lavender, (Limonium carolinianum), white daisy-like Marsh Asters (Aster tenuifolius), Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervi- rens), Glasswort, and Sea-blite (Suaeda linearis).
The island itself consists of a central plateau, six to ten feet above sea level, surrounded by the gently sloping tidal flat that supports the salt marsh on its sheltered sections and beach where it is more exposed to wind and waves. In the center of the plateau is a cathedral-like forest, comprised of majestic Red, and a few White, Oaks (Quercus rubra and Q. alba) with a scattering of Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina). A ring of large Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) surrounds the forest. The sparse understory includes Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina), Poison Ivy, Bullbrier (Smilax sp.), and an occasional Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), but no delicate woodland wildflowers. The local deer swim over and partake of any luscious leaves that dare to appear above ground. The deer goodies apparently include tree seedlings, which doesn’t bode well for the future of the forest.
East of Rabbit Island, past Wickford Point and across the narrow channel that separates the island from the mainland lies Cornelius Island. Its topography is similar to that of Rabbit Island – a central plateau surrounded by salt marsh and beach – but its history is very different. Originally Cornelius Island was part of Wickford Point, then known as Calf’s Point. A 1660 survey shows the intact Calf’s Point; in the next survey, 1802, a channel separates Cornelius Island from the peninsula. How, why, and by whom the channel was dug remains unknown. Both islands were grazed and presumably logged by early settlers; however, Cornelius Island has been intensively used since then.
In 1861 Earl Gardiner bought Cornelius Island and built a house on it that came to be known as the Old Stone House, the remains of which are clearly visible across the water from the west. In 1865 a company from Fall River bought the island in order to set up a smelly fish processing business producing fish oil and fertilizer, using the house as a cookhouse. Eight years later the local citizens voted to expel that unpleasantness from the town. Benjamin and Delia Northup then rented the Old Stone House, in which they raised a large family. Fishnet tarring and heavy duty gardening followed. Eventually in 1897 Capt. Rollin Mason bought the island and passed it on to his heirs who, in conjunction with the town of North Kingstown, still own it. The stone house, extant in 1935, became the headquarters of the Wickford Yacht Club. After the 1938 hurricane, however, the Yacht Club moved to the mainland. John Huszer, a well known local artist, lived in the house in the early 1960s until, in 1963, Wickford Harbor was dredged and the soils dumped on the eastern portion of the island, turning it into a barren hill of gray bottom muck. Although the stone house wasn’t buried, the island became uninhabitable. For the fifty years since then it has been relinquished to vandals and the forces of nature. As the vandals were more interested in destroying the Old Stone House than in the plant cover, the present vegetation of the eastern part of the island can be considered the result of forty-nine years of natural succession on harbor bottom soil.
On the north and west the vegetation is similar to that on Rabbit Island with a small forest of large trees, a band of Spartina alterniflora on the northwest shore, and beach species on the north and northeast.
A cursory plant inventory turned up 57 species on Cornelius Island as against 27 on Rabbit Island. The additional species on Cornelius are, unsurprisingly, mainly on the area of the dredge fill, which is treeless except for a few sturdy junipers within it and around the edges.
The most noticeable shrubs are rugosa rose, Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) and bayberry. The grasses, Little Bluestem and Switchgrass, are common as are many roadside species, including Cypress-spurge (Euphorbia ), Horseweed (Conyza Canadensis), Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Rough Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa), Round-headed Bush-clover (Lespedeza capitatum), and Orach (Atriplex patula). There are invasives as well — Oriental Bittersweet, Autumn Olive, Japanese Honeysuckle, and Phragmites — although they aren’t as dominant as one might expect. One surprising find was three substantial Box-elder (Acer negundo) trees along the north shore, Box-elder being a common, almost weedy tree in the Midwest, but seldom seen in Rhode Island.
Exploration of Wickford Harbor with a walk on Cornelius Island and a look at the Old Stone House is a pleasant way to spend a summer afternoon. However, it might be best to forego a hike on Rabbit Island, because, after checking out the vegetation there, I noticed a “No Trespassing” sign.
Access: Wickford Harbor is easily accessible from the Wilson’s Park launching site, at the end of Intrepid Drive off Post Road, and canoes and kayaks are for rent from the Kayak Center at the south end of Brown Street in Wickford. The paddle from the boat rental dock to Cornelius Island is a pleasant mile’s paddle, the distance from the Wilson’s Park launching site to Rabbit Island is about 500 feet, and the distance between the islands is roughly a third of a mile.
Clauson, J. Earl. 1935. “The Mystery of Cornelius Island.” The Village Fair News. Cranston, Timothy. “The Islands of Wickford Harbor.” Personal communication.
Cranston, Timothy. 2000. “Cornelius Island.” The View from Swamptown. Fagnant, Mimi Huszer. Personal communication.
Peckham, Ardelia Wyllie. 1974. “The Small Island with a Big Past.” The Standard-Times, North Kingstown, R.I. July 18, 1974.
Sherman, Nancy Whyte. Personal communication. The North Kingstown Standard Times. Archives, 1962-3.