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Stories unfold at NRPA lecture

April 3, 2012

Photo Courtesy Images of America William Sprague, IV, a rough and tumble character, had the Canonchet mansion built in 1866, costing over $1 million to construct and furnish, although it burnt down in 1909.

NARRAGANSETT—As Jim Crothers detailed the strange and complicated relationships of William Sprague, the audience laughed and gasped at the personalities which have shaped Narragansett’s history. Crothers, Executive Director of the South County Museum, gave his lecture to a room of about 30 locals, captivated by the images and story lines of the past.

“I’ll give an old Irish song,” said Crothers to the crowd. “All stories are true, including this one, and they may have actually happened.”

Crothers’s talk was the last of three public lectures sponsored by the Narrow River Preservation Association. He detailed the history of the Canonchet Farm land from the Pettaquamscutt Purchase in 1657 to its current status as property belonging to the town of Narragansett, and a great amount of information in between. The town’s story begins with a number of settlers, already shunned by the Massachusetts Bay Colony for following dissenting Puritan leaders Reverend John Wheelwright and Ann Hutchinson, coming to buy the land of what is now South Kingstown and Narragansett.

“Sixteen pound sterling and other considerations went to the Narragansetts for the land,” said Crothers. “We’re not sure what the other considerations were, but we got a pretty good bargain.”

Some of the names of the early colonists are well known in Narragansett. Thomas Mumford occupied large tracts of land, including the land where Canonchet Farm rests today. He also bought land and strategically placed his sons to occupy property at the north of Point Judith Pond for safe harbor and a reliable bivalve food source, as well access to sea hay on land in Matunuck. The Mumford family cemetery still exists in Narragansett, albeit in a different place than when the dead were originally buried.

“I remember playing left field as a kid at Sprague Park and the gravestones were behind me,” said Narragansett historian John Miller.
“Supposedly there were a total of 60 graves, but there are only six headstones at the graveyard now off of Kingstown Road,” said Crothers. “They could still be in left field.”

Another early colonist, John Porter, born around 1605, came to settle in South Kingstown, but failed to apprise his own wife of the move.
“He set up shop and neglected to bring his wife, so she sued him,” said Crothers. “Porter was then indicted here for taking up a relationship with the common law wife of one of the other settlers, [George Gardiner].”

Nothing could be as intriguing, however, as the life of William Sprague, IV, son of Amasa and Fanny Morgan Sprague. Born in 1830, his uncle was the U.S. Senator and namesake William Sprague, III. Sprague, IV’s life consisted of a large portion of James Bond, distilled with a heavy dose of Howard Hughes. He fought in the first Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War. He was a partner in his family’s calico-dye manufacturing company, the largest and most profitable of his time. On November 12, 1863, Sprague married the well-educated daughter of Salmon Chase, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury at the time.

“According to legend, Kate’s first words were, ‘Is he rich?’” said Crothers. “They were a happily married couple for about two weeks.”

Kate, a debutant in elite European circles, wanted a home befitting her stature, and brought the wealth of Europe back with her to furnish the newly built Canonchet Mansion, on the land where Canonchet Farm now stands. The structure cost approximately $650,000 to build, and another $650,000 to furnish. At the time, a sailor’s pay in the U.S. Navy was $156 per year.

Sprague, IV, was a womanizer. Kate was seeing the New York politician and Senator Roscoe Conkling, a ‘throughly rotten man,’ according to then President Rutherford B. Hayes. They both divorced in 1882, and Sprague, IV descended into alcoholism and financial ruin until another widower, Dora Inez Calvert, picked him up they restored the Canonchet Mansion, which had fallen into disarray.

On October 11, 1909, the mansion burned to the ground. Sprague, IV died in 1915 in Paris, France. The land around Canonchet Farm would pass through several owners since Sprague’s passing, and Narragansett’s physical makeup morphed throughout the 20th century as buildings went up along the beach and subsequently burned down. The property passed into the town’s hands in 1974, and is now the site of South County Museum, which moved there in 1985.

The annals of Narragansett’s history detail intrigue, sordid affairs, and the famous passing through on vacation. Not what one expects as they stroll along Narragansett Town Beach, looking out upon the dark-blue ocean beyond them.

For more information about the Narrow River Preservation Association, visit

For more information about events and projects of South County museum, visit

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