by Mildred Laxton Kelley

Commerce leaves no room for sentiment.

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, September 1994. It is reprinted here with permission of the author's son.

The floating island can barely be made out in the center left portion of this circa-1911 postcard.

It was a phenomenon of nature, an island that meandered at will, back and forth between Scott's Pond and Cranberry Pond until it grew too big for its own good and caused its own demise. For untold years it floated around, this mass of live grasses, shrubs, and trees, sometimes nestled against the Lower Road shore as though resting, sometimes against the wooded hill shore opposite, but mostly just gliding around.

The late Charles Leach, who wrote such lovely columns in the Pawtucket Times, explained it thus: "The roots... were tangled and entwined beneath the water forming a mat that held the humus from the decayed foliage. This accumulation provided nourishment for the germination of seeds and the sub-surface sprouts of roots. So, it perpetuated itself."

Local folks proudly brought visitors to view this wandering island, clearly visible from many points along the shores, especially from the Narrows where Lonsdale Avenue takes a deep dip a short distance past the Lonsdale Baptist Church, before the road starts to climb again toward Saylesville. There one could stand near Cranberry Pond and watch the capricious island gently approach and recede. Guests were told that there were only two such islands in the country.

Daredevil boys thought it fun to swim from side to side under the island, jumping off one side and coming up under the other, a death-defying challenge with no thought of becoming entangled in waving roots and debris. Young ladies of that time did not engage in such activities—they simply applauded from the shore.

Water from the ponds as well as from the Blackstone River and Canal was essential to Lonsdale Company's Lincoln Bleachery operation, so when the island grew too large and floated to a narrow opening slowing the water flow, the problem at first seemed solvable by fastening the island with heavy chains to a large tree on land. But it was not that easy. The strong island broke the chains time and again and continued to float. More than once it uprooted a tree and sailed away free.

John Dawber, Lonsdale Company's Master Mechanic for many years, had been assigned, and successfully solved, every kind of mill problem, sometimes working day and night with genius-like results. Alas, after many tries, he finally conceded the floating island would not be tamed. The worst possible solution was finally suggested—destroy the floating island, local source of wonder and pride. The Lincoln Bleachery could not operate on sentiment.

And so the floating island had to be blown to bits with dynamite and the pieces hauled away.

Lincoln's 1971 centennial book, Once in a Hundred Years, has a picture on page 84 captioned, "The Infamous Floating island, Another Relic from the Past." But maybe in Lonsdale, there might be mature men who dove and swam under the floating island and lived to tell the tale.

Another view of the hard-to-distinguish floating island. This postcard view is the same image that was used in Once in a Hundred Years.

Mildred Laxton Kelley (1913-2009) was a charter member of the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, a published author, and an accomplished artist.

Editor's Notes

Scott's and Cranberry Ponds are located in the southern end of Lincoln, bounded on the north by Front Street, on the east by Lower Road and Lonsdale Avenue, and on the south by Walker Street. David W. Hoyt speculated in his paper, "The Influence of Physical Features upon the History of Rhode Island" (1910), that the floating island was created when the ponds became part of the lock system of the Blackstone Canal. "The raising of the level of the water of Cranberry Pond seventeen feet was doubtless the cause of lifting the famous floating island with its trees, still to be seen near the north end of Scott's Pond."

According to the Blackstone Canal Conservancy, "Originally, the ponds were much smaller than they are today, but in operating times they would have been larger as the surface of the ponds and the canal to Ashton were at the same elevation [as] the pool above the Ashton Dam. By use of these ponds, the canal crossed from the watershed of the Blackstone to that of the Moshassuck River to reach downtown Providence. A few years ago, a breach in the canal to the north deprived these ponds of canal water and their surface dropped about twenty feet. Repair of the breach returned them to their current level."

The Lonsdale Baptist Church was organized on April 15, 1840, at the house of Isaac Smith. A church building was soon built and was dedicated on July 21, 1842. After 1895, the original building was taken over by the town of Lincoln for use as the Town Hall. The current church building, located at 1570 Lonsdale Avenue, is still in use.

The Lonsdale Company was the largest textile manufacturing company in the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was begun in 1831, by a pair of fellows named Brown and Ives, with a single mill. Another mill and a bleachery (perhaps the one that precipitated the demise of the floating island) were erected around 1838. The village of Lonsdale grew up around the company, and over the years more mill buildings, a dye house, and a gas works followed. In addition to the village of Lonsdale, the villages of Ashton and Berkeley were also founded around Lonsdale Company mills. The company moved its manufacturing operations south in 1935.

There is a John Dawber (August 9, 1835-February 13, 1924) buried in Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. If this is the same John Dawber mentioned in Kelley's article, he would have been 76 in 1911 (the cancellation date on the postcard used as our main image above).

This article last edited February 13, 2016

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