Rhode Island’s Natural Laboratory: A History of URI’s W. Alton Jones Campus was written by Todd McLeish, a URI public information officer, and designed by the URI Department of Publications and Creative Services. It details in words and pictures how, in the 1920s, the Louttit family of Providence acquired eight farms that would later be sold to oil executive W. Alton Jones, whose death in a plane crash led to the donation of the property to URI.
“Jones was quite a character who walked around everywhere with a $10,000 bill in a money clip in his pocket and another $50,000 in cash in a briefcase,” said McLeish, who has written several books about wildlife. “He was an imposing figure, but he also gave freely of his money to the less fortunate he met in his travels, including waitresses and golf caddies facing hardships.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower made several visits during the years Jones owned the property (1954-1962), and the king of Nepal stayed there at the end of a month-long tour of the country.
When Jones died and his wife, Nettie, donated the 2,309-acre property to URI, the University built a Youth Science Center (now called the Environmental Education Center) to host nature camps and educational programs for children. It also turned the homes the Louttits built on the property into the Whispering Pines Conference Center, where 350 conferences and 50 weddings are now held each year.
“My favorite chapter of the book is the compilation of oddball things that have happened there over the years,” McLeish said, “like when the State Police asked to use one of the buildings as a safe house to hide a mob informant. They strung trip wire around the building, and when a maintenance worker accidentally hit it, the police came out armed with machine guns.”
The chapter also details the day in 1976 when then-Gov. Phillip Noel’s helicopter crashed on the campus and became impaled on a tree stump. The helicopter’s pilot provided his personal photographs of the crash scene for inclusion in the book.
“Todd’s book really pulls together the story of the W. Alton Jones Campus,” said Thomas Mitchell, director of the campus. “We had pictures in lots of different files and archives, and for the first time this book brings everything together into a fun and very readable history.”
One chapter in the book focuses on the approximately 50 research projects that URI faculty and students have conducted at the campus. Among the research subjects were salamander migration, fish populations, eels, lilac blooms, soil moisture, caddisfly larva, and colors that elicit avoidance behavior in mallard ducks. The 24-hour BioBlitz event in 2004 counted 1,005 species of wildlife living on the campus.
“The undisturbed nature of the campus makes it an ideal site to study wildlife in pristine ecological conditions,” McLeish said.
The book can be purchased in hardcover for $24.95 by contacting Cheryl Conti at the W. Alton Jones campus at 401-397-3302, ext 6043 or email@example.com.
“An excerpt of the book can be viewed at http://www.uri.edu/ajc/50th/book/
Photo by Nora Lewis