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Historian says Misquamicut beach was marketed as trolley destination

WARWICK — Newspaper accounts and other historical documents from the early 1900s describe hundreds of people taking the trolley to Pleasant View, an area poised to become a first-class summer resort.

Based on an analysis of those stories, from The Westerly Sun and other publications, as well as a review of advertising, development patterns, and other records, a historian hired by the state concluded that the original owners of a 2½ mile stretch of land from the state beach to Weekapaug Breachway, in what is now known as Misquamicut, had reason to preserve public access to the entire beach area.

The historian, Steven H. Corey, a professor of history and chairman of the humanities, history and social sciences department at Columbia College Chicago, discussed his findings during testimony Monday in Kent County Superior Court. Corey, a former resident of Pawtucket, was hired by the state to serve as an expert witness in the case stemming from state Attorney General Peter Kilmartin’s lawsuit against more than a dozen individuals who now own the property.

The lawsuit claims that the original property owners established the beach area as open to the public as a means to increase the value of property on the north side of Atlantic Avenue; to entice the town to develop roads and utilities; and because one of the property owners had a business interest in a trolley company that served the area.

A central element of the state’s case is its contention that a plat or map drawn up by the original owners in 1909 depicts building lots ending at the “foot of the bank” or the area where the land stops and the beach begins.

“The plat makers had an incentive to accommodate the public because their north side holdings needed access to the shore and because at least one of them was vested in the trolley company. Such accommodation also encouraged municipal development of desired infrastructure,” Corey wrote in a report that is one of more than 200 exhibits in the case.

While he identified a possible motive, Corey stopped short of saying whether the original owners actually established the beach as public or whether such an establishment was sufficient “as a matter of law.”

Corey’s research revealed development in 1911 of a day use, shoreline facility described as a casino near the stretch of Atlantic Avenue in question. He also testified to the creation of a trolley stop at the edge of the 2½ mile stretch to the breach way. The trolley brought day-trippers “to go to the beach,” Corey said.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Rubin posed a series of questions to support the state’s theory. Corey testified that R.W. Perkins, one of the original property owners, was also a principal in the Winnapaug Co., a trolley company. J.A. Cloran, whose firm, J.A. Cloran Realty, marketed the property owned by Perkins and four others, was also associated with the Winnapaug Co.

Under cross examination by William Landry, the lawyer for most of the defendants, Corey acknowledged that he had not performed a detailed analysis of sales activity involving the land set out in the 1909 plat and that he did not know if the original five property owners who signed the plat were the only owners of property shown on the map. Landry contends that there were many other property owners who did not sign the 1909 plat.

Corey also acknowledged that he did not know whether the original owners intended to establish “private rights” to the beach for people who purchased land on the north side of Atlantic Avenue.

Landry questioned Cory’s credentials to serve as an expert witness, asking him about his academic research. Corey acknowledged that half of his academic writings focused on the history of solid waste disposal in the United States.

Corey also testified, under Landry’s questioning, that much of the Misquamicut area, including two hotels, had been developed before 1909.

Day five of the trial also included testimony from Westerly Assessor David Thompson, who testified that town tax maps depicting the area had changed. An older depiction shows the building lot boundaries ending at the start of the beach, while more modern maps show the boundaries extending to the mean high tide mark.

The trial is scheduled to resume today with Landry’s cross-examination of Alfred DiOrio, a Hopkinton land surveyor who testified last week as an expert witness for the state. Thompson will eventually undergo cross-examination as well. The state also plans to call Town Engineer Paul LeBlanc as a witness.

The non-jury trial is being heard by Associate Justice Brian Stern.

The first phase of the trial is expected to conclude in about one week. A second phase, if necessary, is tentatively scheduled for May.

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