Spectacular water views, rich history at Mount Hope Farm, Bristol RI
- Access: Off Route 136, just north of Roger Williams University, turn east and walk down a short road to the farm.
- Parking: Available on large lots.
- Dogs: Not allowed.
- Difficulty: Easy on mostly paved roads.
BRISTOL – The short, shaded side spur descended gradually through an opening in the trees to a salt marsh on the shore of Church Cove.
The view was spectacular. To the southwest, the Mount Hope Bridge shimmered in the early morning sun. To the south, a motorboat buzzed across the creek, kicking up spray. To the southeast, Seal Island jutted out of the water, covered in white seagulls.
I found the views stunning as I drove through Mount Hope Farm, the 127-acre property owned by the non-profit organization Mount Hope Trust. The plot of land, located on the eastern shore of Bristol, overlooks the part of Narragansett Bay known as Mount Hope Bay.
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For thousands of years, the wooded promontory was inhabited by the Pokanokets until the tribe was driven off the land by English settlers and farmers. The name ‘Mount Hope’, which refers to a 209-foot hill and the highest point in Bristol, is derived from the Pokanoket word Montaup, which means ‘rocky shore’ or ‘lookout place’.
I set out to explore the farm – and learn some history – after parking behind a restored 19th-century barn topped with a glass dome and a horse-shaped weather vane. I walked south along a stone wall on a path that circled historic farm buildings, then continued through a large mowed pasture to reach a paved road. Took it east on a long, gentle incline.
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After winding through mixed forest, the shady road flattened out and passed a huge field of golden hay on the left with milkweeds, black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers growing around its edges.
Stunning views of the bridge, boats and seal island
Further down the road, I passed a side trail, then took the next dirt road to the right. It took me south to the shores of Church Cove, with its sweeping views of the bridge, boats, island and Portsmouth homes across the water. Under a clear blue sky, a wisp of salty sea breeze blew from the cove in my face. It refreshed me.
When I was done enjoying the scene, I returned to the main trail and headed north. I came to a crossroads and kept to the right, passing several stone-lined channels built to carry runoff from the hillside through seasonal streams to the bay. Greenish weathered plaques bolted to the stones told me the structures were built in 1939 by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA).
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I followed the road to Cove Cabin, an Adirondack-style log structure built in the early 20th century by Rudolph Haffenreffer, an industrialist whose family once owned the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. and the Narragansett Brewing Co.
The site is now used for weddings and special events, and I wandered past huge white tents pitched along a rocky shoreline with a pebble beach. An American flag fluttered in the breeze on a pole behind the cottage. Some wooden pilings just offshore may have once been part of a boat dock.
I rested in the shade of the trees on a wooden bench overlooking the bay and pulled out my binoculars to study the Mount Hope Bridge, completed at a cost of $5 million in 1929. You can see cars crossing the long two-lane suspension bridge with 285- foot turns.
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In the foreground I spotted the smooth, rounded rock called Seal Island. Hikers report seeing harbor seals basking in the sun on the rocks in winter and occasionally osprey in spring and blue herons in summer.
Looking at the hill that slopes down to the ocean and is Mount Hope Farm, I thought a bit more about its history.
The land was once home to the Pokanoket Nation
The territory was once ruled by Massasoit Ousamequin, the grand sachem of the Pokanoket nation. He considered the land sacred and the birthright of the tribe.
After his death, one of his sons, King Philip, also known as Metacomet, led the Pokanokets, the chief tribe of around 60 clans, tribes and bands in the region. He made Mount Hope his base of operations during King Philip’s War (1675-1676), a brutal and bloody conflict that erupted with English settlers.
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Just northeast of the farm is King Philips Chair, a rocky ledge of quartz and granite that juts out from the hillside. It was used for ceremonies and as a lookout post for enemy ships on Mount Hope Bay. The private property is now owned by Brown University.
Nearby is also Misery Swamp, where settlers shot and killed King Philip.
After his death, the remaining Pokanokets were enslaved, killed, or driven from the land, and prized ownership was repeatedly claimed by Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Rhode Island. Eventually the land passed through several owners, including the Church, Bradford and Haffenreffer families.
Today, the Mount Hope Farm property ends just east of the cabin, and after a long rest, a snack, and some water, I decided to retrace my steps on the road. At the crossroads of the hay field that I had passed before, I went to the right and climbed a small hill until I stopped at a bench under a tree at the edge of the field. Walkers report seeing rafts of wild turkeys here, and the tall grass hides mice, moles, foxes, fisherman and mink.
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A paradise for birds in hay meadows and ponds
Continuing on the road, I took a side road to the right and found two more square shaped hay meadows which are sanctuaries for nesting birds, songbirds and wildlife. Just to the west I passed a series of three small ponds. Two of the ponds were covered with water lilies, cat-o’-nine tails, tall reeds and grasses while the lower third pond was home to ducks, geese and a pair of swans.
I passed between two of the shallow ponds and found a cement weir for the water to flow from one to the other. But during the drought this summer, there was not a trickle.
Haffenreffer, who bought the farm in 1917, built a duck shade over one of the ponds. He also raised and released pheasants that he and his friends hunted. Hunting is no longer permitted on the property.
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I learned later that Haffenreffer had expanded the network of ponds with the help of the WPA. It is unclear why the public agency worked on private land.
Following the road, I passed rows of neat stone walls before returning to the terrain from where I started. I walked 2.5 miles in 90 minutes.
Several groups of young people had arrived in the meantime to visit the enclosures of hens, dwarf goats and miniature donkeys. Others were playing tag on a hill.
I decided to explore the complex of buildings, including a greenhouse, a guest house, a tool shed and the caretaker’s house.
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George Washington slept here (really)
I stopped at Governor Bradford House, built by Isaac Royall in 1745. The house is named after William Bradford, the great-great-grandson of Puritan Governor William Bradford and former Deputy Governor of Rhode Island and Senator American. He lived on the farm and invited George Washington to spend a night there in 1790.
As I walked around the house, I noticed the walled garden and the unusual beech and redwood trees before returning to where I had parked.
Walkers, joggers, families and visitors will find easy-to-follow roads and trails that run up and down the hills and along the bay at Mount Hope Farm. There is also a lot of important history to learn along the way.
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Mount Hope Farm trails are open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., except holidays.
A free walking tour app is available on the Apple App Store or Google Play. Look for Mount Hope Farm.
John Kostrzewa, former associate/corporate editor of the Providence Journal, welcomes emails at [email protected]