Little Compton Landscapes

A Long Ramble on Little Compton Roads

I recently visited the Little Compton Town Hall to research the minutes of Town Meetings during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While tracking the history of Town Meeting actions concerning bounties on crows, hawks, and foxes (a story I’ll relate in a later post), I was brought up short by a vote at the 1897 Town Meeting on an entirely different matter:

Voted that an appropriation of three hundred dollars to be, and is hereby made, to make paths for Bicycles along the Highways, to be expended under the direction of the Town Council.

Anyone who has pored over the bound copies of those meetings, recorded in the differing and sometimes-hard-to-decipher handwriting of a series of Town Clerks, knows that the exercise can open glimpses–sometimes narrow and cryptic ones–into the contrast between Little Compton life in former times and in our own. The idea that town voters in 1897 would appropriate a relatively large sum, at least by the standards of the day, to create bicycle paths at first seemed anomalous. No similar article had appeared in minutes for previous Town Meetings, and I found no further record in subsequent years of any follow-up to the appropriation or the issue.

But the brief text of that 1897 vote provides a verbal snapshot of how new technology and changing cultural expectations were affecting those who then traveled Little Compton’s “Highways,” all of which would have been unpaved at the time, in varying states of (dis)repair. The last decade of the 19th century was the threshold of the Automobile Age. During the next decade, the first of the 1900s, the automobile first began to appear on Little Compton roads in noticeable numbers.

Little Compton historian and author Janet Lisle, in her usual brisk and entertaining style, vividly depicts the swiftly changing means and conditions of Little Compton travel during that turn-of-the-century era. “The roads were rutted and unpaved,” she writes in A Home by the Sea: 1820-1950, the second volume of her lively narrative, The History of Little Compton. “Escaped livestock wandered along West Main Road. Ox-team carts hauling everything from seaweed to pigs to entire families lumbered through the Commons,” she continues. “The spring mud season promised glutinous delay. The first automobiles had every reason not to venture onto Little Compton’s roads, but they came anyway.”

Exactly when the first motor vehicle traversed Little Compton’s roads is likely unknown, but Lisle makes the case that it was the town’s “summer people . . . who had the money for the outlandish contraptions and the time to speed around in them–at an amazing 12 miles per hour.” Conspicuous among the motoring leisure crowd, by her account, was John S. Cooke, who drove around town in the open Darracq motor car he’d acquired on a 1904 French sojourn. “It’s probably fair to say,” Lisle observes, “that wherever Cooke drove, people looked up and gaped.”

A view of Sakonnet Point Road as a motor car passes a horse-drawn wagon. From a postcard by the prolific photographer O. E. Dubois, c. 1905-1915. (Image courtesy of Little Compton Historical Society)

Even as cheaper, reliable cars, such as the Ford Model T, became affordable for some Little Compton residents by later in that decade, the town was slow to improve its roads. It was not until 1928, according to Lisle, that West Main Road was first paved from the Little Compton-Tiverton town line–and then just as far as Taylor’s Lane. Only gradually during subsequent years were other town roads paved. But how were those roads laid out in the first place?

The Proprietors’ map: A cultural reflection of the natural landscape

We can never know the exact nature of the network of footpaths created and used by the Native Americans who occupied the Sakonnet peninsula for thousands of years before colonization by English settlers in the late 17th century. It’s certain, though, that in choosing their routes of travel, the Sakonnets of the Wampanoag tribe, and their ancestors and predecessors, were necessarily guided by the logic and constraints of local topography.

Much of the landscape of southern and eastern Little Compton, from Sakonnet Point eastward to the Westport town line (and the Acoaxet area beyond, as far as the Westport River, which was part of the original Plymouth Colony grant to the Sakonnet Proprietors) is divided into a series of small coastal watersheds. Each is defined by stream originating in the northern reaches of town and into Tiverton, then running southward into a series of coastal ponds and marshes strung along the south coast, and finally into the sea. The result is a “ridge and valley” landscape on a nearly indiscernible scale. In our everyday lives, we learn that our major north-south roads–West Main Road, Willow Avenue, South of Commons Road, East Main Road, Maple Avenue, Long Highway, John Dyer Road–are laid out along the slightly elevated “ridges” between these watersheds. East-west running roads descend into the “valleys,” crossing the streams–except in some low-lying places after heavy rains, when the streams may sometimes cross the roads.  West of West Main Road the land, and the water flowing over it, run into the Sakonnet River.  In the northeastern corner of town, encompassing Adamsville, land and water descend to the Westport River and its tributary streams.

A map depicting Little Compton’s watersheds and major roads. (Little Compton RI Comprehensive Plan, 2018)

There was an abrupt change in how the land was perceived, divided, and used when the Proprietors began making their first purchases of land from the Sakonnets in the 1670s. The Proprietors, as Brown University historian and Little Compton Historical Society vice-president Steve Lubar has observed, “were as much a real estate development operation as a town government.” The rigidly linear, geometric pattern by which the Proprietors laid out the town represents a virtual overlay of the watershed template of the landscape. As they appear on the map of land acquisitions and divisions maintained by the Proprietors, the roads they laid out then and the boundaries between the parcels acquired from the Sakonnets follow closely the “ridge and valley” template of the natural landscape. That pattern has been remarkably persistent, at least in terms of the town’s road network.

As historians, anthropologists, and Native Americans have explained, however, the subdivision of the larger parcels acquired from the Sakonnets into multiple private parcels, bounded with little regard for the natural features of the landscape, represented a fundamental contrast in almost every respect to Native American conceptions of use, control, and ownership of the landscape. Importantly, the rectilinear layout and distribution of individual lots to each Proprietor facilitated conveyance of each lot to other individual owners. Indeed, any of us who owns property in town effectively traces our legal title back to these original divisions and transactions by the Proprietors.

Historian Willim Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) is a now-classic analysis of this contrast. (A friend of mine recently noted that the book was part of his children’s curriculum when they attended Little Compton’s Wilbur-McMahon School a few decades ago.) For New England’s Native Americans, Cronon writes, “Property rights . . . shifted with ecological use,” whether fishing, berry-picking, hunting, or other forms of natural-resource exploitation. “What the Indians owned–or more precisely, what their villages gave them claim to–was not the land but the things that were on the land during the various seasons of the year.”

Colonists such as the Sakonnet Proprietors, when given a grant by the Plymouth Colony to purchase land from the Indians here, initially held that land in common. But they quickly began to subdivide and distribute it into individual colonists’ ownership “to create permanent rights to it,” such as the legal means to exclude others, including Indians, from the use of each individual property.

Another reason for the persistence of Little Compton land-use patterns is the town’s relative geographical isolation. Unlike many neighboring communities, we have no new generations of state or federal highways (Rt. 6, Rt, 88, Rt. 24, Rt. 195, etc.) overlying the ancient roads; no railroad or trolley lines; no major bridges; no large rivers or water bodies providing power for industrial-scale development. Until the beginning of the 20th century, commerce and travel between Little Compton and the rest of the world relied on sailing, then steam-driven, boats arriving at Sakonnet Harbor, as well as horse-powered transport northward through Tiverton and eastward through Westport, Massachusetts. The closest railroad connection, served by legendary local stage-driver Nattie Church, was at Tiverton. Agriculture and fishing were—and remain—important elements of the economy, selling to local and out-of-town markets.

Sakonnet [Little Compton] Proprietors Map, based on original from c. late 17th-early 18th centuries, as redrawn c. 1850 by Little Compton Town Clerk, Otis Wilbour. (Image from the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University)
Bicycles, Trains, Trolleys

But what about that 1897 Town Meeting vote?

The 1890s represented a heyday of bicycling in America. The “safety” bicycle had only recently been invented. With wheels of the same size, pneumatic tires, rear-chain drive, and reliable brakes, the new style of bicycle replaced unwieldy high-wheelers and uncomfortable “boneshakers.” The recorded 1897 Town Meeting vote to authorize the Town Council “to make paths for Bicycles along the Highways” does not tally ayes and nays; the warrant article was apparently adopted by voice vote. But at that moment in time, a majority of town voters apparently saw a need to somehow provide for and segregate bicyclists from other road users, whether on foot, on horseback, or by animal-drawn vehicles. Some of those traveling Little Compton roads today–bikers and non-bikers alike–might now wonder whether the town’s apparent failure to act on that 1897 vote represented a missed opportunity.

Bicyclists and horse-drawn passenger wagon in Central Village, Westport MA. The road sign reads “Westport Point 4 Ms/ Head of Westport 4 Ms”. (Note on the back of the card reads “Just like the Little Compton Stage from New Bedford”.) Picture postcard by O. E. Dubois, c. 1905-1915. (Courtesy of Little Compton Historical Society)

In the last decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, the pace of travel began to pick up as the result of economic forces and evolving transportation technologies. For a moment, it looked as though rail travel might dramatically alter the geographical, economic, and cultural terrain of Little Compton. The Little Compton Historical Society holds in its collections the detailed plans for two specific approaches to rail travel that were planned for the town during that era.

Three modes of transportation intersect at the steamboat landing at Sakonnet Point in Little Compton RI, probably in the 1910s. The steamboat Islander, which ceased operation to Providence in 1919, is met at the dock by an automobile and a horse-drawn wagon. (Image courtesy Little Compton Historical Society)

The Seaconnet Railroad was a proposed full-scale railroad line projected to connect Little Compton to the existing Old Colony and Newport Railway in Tiverton, which continued north to Fall River and across the narrows of the Sakonnet River south to Portsmouth and Newport. The railroad dream was floated in the mid-1880s by an alliance of Little Compton owners of large real-estate holdings, fishermen, and local merchants, by Janet Lisle’s account, who sought outside investors and General Assembly authority to acquire land along the line’s projected 14-mile route. Town meeting voters approved a $25,000 investment in the project — with the condition that the funds would be provided a state appropriation. “Despite the predictions of an easy stock sale, raising money was a sticking point from the beginning,” Lisle concludes the tale. “By 1887, the railroad scheme was dead.”

In the years 1903-1904, as John Cooke was cruising the town’s rutted roads in his Darracq motor car, entrepreneurs were making plans to bring another then-popular mode of motorized rail transportation to Little Compton, in the form of electric-powered trolley lines. Several connecting routes were surveyed across town. A proposed South Shore Street Railway connecting with existing or planned lines in Tiverton and Fall River would proceed along Stafford and Crandall roads to Adamsville. From there, one connection would lead to Westport Village and beyond. The plans depicted both a “South Route” and a “North Route” from Adamsville to the Commons. The former would follow John Dyer, Pottersville, Snell, East Main, and Simmons roads to the Commons; the latter would proceed via Colebrook Road. At the Commons, according to another set of plans, the South Shore Street Railway would connect to a Tiverton & Seaconnet Railroad (a possible descendant of the Seaconnet Railroad), which would continue out of town along Meetinghouse Lane and West Main Road.  (If these lines had been built, I might today be able to step on a trolley a few steps from the front door of where I currently live on Snell Road. Of course, a lot of other things would also be quite different in town today in that alternative historical scenario.)

Whose roads are whose?

However, this fleeting phantom era of Little Compton rail travel and technology was quickly extinguished by the automobile. For better or worse, the Automobile Age has transformed everything about the way humans interact with their natural environment, in Little Compton and throughout the planet.

It is striking that a number of atlas maps from the 19th century, such as the one from 1870 included here, depict a road network that closely, though not identically, resembles today’s public road network, as maintained by the state and the town.

1870 Little Compton atlas map (Courtesy of Little Compton Historical Society)

As of 2022, ownership and maintenance of the town’s roads is divided among three categories of custodians: 1) the State of Rhode Island, through the Department of Transportation; 2) the Town of Little Compton; and 3) a wide variety of private landowners, either individually or as neighborhood groups.

Roads maintained by the state and town are public roads, accessible to all and maintained with public funds. Access to and along Little Compton’s numerous private roads is more ambiguous, as the many “Private Road” signs posted throughout town demonstrate. Likewise, the condition of private roads and the cost of their maintenance may vary widely throughout town, sometimes depending upon the deed requirements and/or road associations that may have been constituted by developers or town regulation when subdivisions were created. The chart below summarizes the mileage for town, state, and private roads in Little Compton:

Chart of mileage for town, state, and private roads, Town of Little Compton Pavement Management Program: Summary of Findings, Beta Group, May 21, 2021

State Roads

The Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has developed a statewide State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) that ranks and schedules the renovation and improvement of state roads. In relatively recent years, for example, all or portions of West Main Road, Colebrook Road, Peckham Road, and Snell Road have been substantially renovated by the RIDOT.

Federal funds provided by the ‘‘Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)” enacted November 15, 2021–the so-called “bipartisan” infrastructure bill–have enabled RIDOT to accelerate the road repair program, in combination with state funds. Little Compton residents and road users will soon see concrete results from the infrastructure bill. (As a Democrat, I feel compelled to point out that the substantial and needed infrastructure bill was accomplished under the leadership and administration of President Biden, whereas his predecessor utterly failed to do so. “Infrastructure Week” became a running joke during the Trump administration.)

IIJA “provides RIDOT with an additional $576 million of federal funds over a five-year period to invest in the state of good repair for Rhode Island’s infrastructure,” the department announced in a January 19, 2022 press release. “RIDOT has determined that the additional funding makes it possible to begin construction of over 100 projects valued at $2.1 billion, an average of four years sooner.”

According to a February 1, 2022 revision of the department’s STIP based on the new federal funding, three Little Compton road projects with a total budget of over $9-million may begin an average of seven years sooner than originally planned:

  • South of Commons Road and Simmons Road (Brownell Road to East Main Road); originally scheduled for 2028, now scheduled for 2022; budget, $4.55 million
  • Meetinghouse Lane (South of Commons Road to RI-77/West Main Road); originally scheduled for 2031, now scheduled for 2022; budget, $1.11 million
  • East Main Road (Peckham Road to Simmons Road); originally scheduled for 2028, now scheduled for 2022; budget, $3.37 million

Roads maintained by State of Rhode Island, as depicted in red on RI Department of Transportation map further below:

Little Compton roads maintained by State of Rhode Island

      • West Main Road
      • Sakonnet Point Road
      • Peckham Road
      • Meeting House Lane
      • Commons
      • Simmons Road
      • East Main Road
      • Snell Road
      • Pottersville Road
      • Mullin Hill Road
      • Colebrook Road
      • Stone Church Road
      • Bramblewood Cross
      • Crandall Road
      • Main Street
      • Westport Harbor Road

Town Roads

From the late 19th century until the mid-twentieth century, Little Compton’s town roads were maintained by district “surveyors of highways” elected at Town Meeting. This system provided some employment to town residents, though apparently the condition of the roads in different areas of the town may have hinged on the conscientiousness and competence of the highway surveyor in each neighborhood, as well as their initiative in seeking a town-meeting appropriation to improve specific roads in those individual districts. By the mid-twentieth century, this responsibility was consolidated under one elected superintendent of highways–usually a local contractor who owned the necessary equipment. After the adoption of a Home Rule Charter, which took effect in 1995, this elected position was replaced with a Director of Public Works, appointed by the Town Council, who oversees maintenance of roads and other town-owned property on a part-time basis. (My brother-in-law was the last elected superintendent of highways. One thing he learned from the job, he once told me, was that everyone in town expects that the road on which they live should be the first plowed after a snowstorm.)

Last year, the Town Council commissioned a study by the Beta Group, an engineering firm, to examine the condition of roads maintained by the town. This study used coring, visual observation, and other methods to assess road conditions and to rank those roads most in need of improvement and/or repaving.

Little Compton “Pavements Conditions Map,” Town of Little Compton Pavement Management Program: Summary of Findings, Beta Group, May 20, 2021

The study ranked Maple Avenue as a road that needed immediate attention. As this is being written, repavement of Maple Avenue has just taken place. Voter approval of a $2-million capital improvement bond at the 2021 Financial Town Meeting will provide some of the funding required to catch up with deferred road maintenance requirements, rather than the traditional annual appropriation of road-improvement funds. (In my opinion, these two initiatives–the Beta Group study and the capital bond–are in considerable part a result of the efforts and presence of an experienced full-time Town Administrator, Tony Teixeira.)

Roads maintained by Town of Little Compton, as listed at the Town website:

Little Compton roads maintained by Town of Little Compton

      • Amesbury Lane
      • Brownell Road
      • Swamp Road
      • John Dyer Road
      • John Sisson Road
      • South Shore Road
      • Maple Avenue
      • Long Highway
      • Willow Avenue
      • Old Main Road (Windmill Hill)
      • Taylors Lane
      • Long Pasture Road
      • Grange Avenue
      • Shaw Road
      • William Sisson Road
      • Burchard Avenue
      • Tompkins Lane
      • Old Stone Church Road
      • Town Way
      • R.I. Avenue and Bluff Head Avenue
      • Dump Right of Way

Private roads

I prepared the illustration below–a collage of the entrances to several private roads in Little Compton–for my own brief contribution at a 2019 program sponsored by the Little Compton Historical Society on the occasion of the publication of Little Compton: A Changing Landscape.  I had contributed to the book a short account of the adoption and evolution of the town’s Zoning Ordinance (perhaps the driest and dullest of the many otherwise lively essays in that volume).

Since the late 19th century, throughout the 20th century, and up until now, much of the town’s residential development and subdivision has occurred on private roads. Indeed, very few new public roads seem to have been accepted by the state or town since the early 20th century. Many of us live along private roads, as my wife and I had for many years until recently; we hope to be returning to a new home soon in the same neighborhood.

This practice and policy of private-road cuts two ways. On the one hand, all these private roads have been built and maintained without cost to town or state taxpayers. On the other hand, as previously noted, the cost and responsibility for maintenance of these roads thus falls directly on the shoulders of the residents served by each road. The town, its residents, and its property owners will be living with the consequences and legacy of development along private roads for generations to come.

In addition to the matter of cost, there are other consequences and issues related to reliance on private roads. These include:

  • Varying and inconsistent forms of neighborhood and road governance, by road associations, deed restrictions–or the lack thereof.
  • Access and responsibility for public safety, such as parking, traffic control, and fire and rescue services.
  • Questions related to road frontage and other zoning requirements for future subdivision along private roads.
  • Public use of and access to private roads. To what extent is Little Compton becoming a community of gated communities? As this is written, questions and concerns are being raised about public use of Oliver Lane, a private road in the northwest corner of town, which provides access to a parcel of land abutting Almy’s Creek and a tidal salt marsh, recently acquired by the Little Compton Agricultural Conservancy Trust with financial assistance from the RI Department of Environmental Management. 

Charging ahead?

Not so long ago, Earle’s Store on Meetinghouse Lane stopped pumping gasoline, leaving Little Compton’s residents and tradespeople without a place in town to fill their tanks. Shortly thereafter, a lifelong town resident mentioned to me that he could recall when 13 or 14 places used to sell gas in town. “I probably worked at half of them,” he noted, probably not in jest.

After its 1897 Town Meeting vote “to make paths for Bicycles along the Highways,” the town ultimately chose not to do so. One hundred twenty-five years after that vote, a Little Compton resident, Carter Wilkie, has written to the Town Council urging the town to assume some responsibility for controlling the collective impact of its residents’ transportation decisions and behavior. “Installation of charging stations in every town is critical to accelerate [electric vehicle] EV adoption,” he writes. Citing recent scientific reports predicting accelerated impacts of the effects of climate change, he urged the Council to apply for a share of the $3.38-million in new federal funds available to install EV charging stations throughout the state. “This is a no-brainer in a coastal community that faces increased flooding and shoreline erosion in the decades ahead,” he exhorts. “The free money is sitting there. Don’t leave it on the table.” The Town Council, at its March 24 meeting, voted to ask Mr. Wilkie if he would work with Town Administrator Tony Teixeira to prepare a grant application for charging-station funding. Here’s Mr. Wilkie’s letter to the Town Council:


As I noted in a previous post, “Walking Little Compton,” the town’s Comprehensive Plan (2018) included specific guidelines and policies supporting:

    • “[A] Complete Streets approach that transportation plans and investments should consider the needs of all users of our roadways; including: pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders, motorists and citizens of all ages and abilities, including children, the elderly and the disabled.”
    • “[T]he promotion of bicycling and walking within the Town as a mode of transportation and the development of multi-use paths within the Town to serve as both a transportation and recreational resource for residents and visitors. Additional bicycle and pedestrian amenities should be considered and incorporated during the planning process for the Commons circulation and parking plan.”

The recent infusion of new funds from town taxpayers and federal/state sources has provided the welcome opportunity to improve the condition of the town’s roads. While undertaking various road and transportation projects, the town and state also have the opportunity–and the responsibility–to heed their own policies for designing and investing in roads to meet identified community needs, current and projected.

By 1897, an earlier generation of Little Compton voters at Town Meeting had a glimmer of what the future might bring when they dedicated their tax dollars “to make paths for Bicycles along the Highways.” How will the successors of current Little Compton residents look back years from now to the decisions our generation made concerning transportation, energy use, and other technologies and natural resources? ♦