Big Moments in the Woods

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the W. Alton Jones Campus

Web Extra: W. Alton Jones Campus—By the Numbers

The campus, located 25 miles from Kingston in the town of West Greenwich, is a site like no other. Its 2,309 acres of forests and lakes and farm fields is almost three times as large as the city of Central Falls, and its acquisition by URI in 1962 tripled the size of the University’s landholdings, giving it more land than any other of the six New England state universities.

The property was originally a group of farms that were purchased by William and Sophia Louttit, owners of several laundry services in the state, who named their weekend retreat Hianloland Farm. When it became too much for them to maintain, it was put up for sale in 1954 and purchased by oil company executive William Alton Jones, who wanted the property for periodic hunting and fishing weekends.

It has been used as a movie set and a safe house for mob informants, as a presidential retreat and fishing lodge, and as a destination for weddings, conferences, and youth camps. A former Rhode Island governor even survived a helicopter crash there. This year the W. Alton Jones Campus, whose history also includes a visit by royalty and the wedding of former URI President Robert L. Carothers, is celebrating its 50th anniversary.”

According to a story about Jones in Newsweek, accepting an invitation to relax with him was often a strenuous experience. “Jones got us up at 6 a.m. for one of his typical breakfasts: Five kinds of fruit, three eggs, ham, bacon, biscuits, coffee, milk, pie, and cheese,” said one friend. “Then we rushed through 36 holes of golf before stopping for lunch about twice the size of breakfast. He worked lunch off with a 3-mile horseback ride, an hour of tennis, and a swim. Next he drove us 40 miles to a roadhouse for dinner. When we got back to his house, he suggested we go night fishing. Nobody would go, so he talked us into an all-night session of bridge. It started all over again at 6 a.m. I haven’t recovered yet.”

Highlighting the Jones years were four visits to the property by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who frequently vacationed in Rhode Island. An important supporter of the Republican Party, Jones had met and become friendly with the president in the early 1950s. The president visited Jones at Hianloland Farm in 1958 and 1960, when the pair engaged in fishing, duck hunting, and skeet shooting.

“It was a hectic time,” said George Wheatley ‘51, who managed the property for Jones and later served as manager of campus operations for URI. “We didn’t know he was coming, and one day I was near the cow farm and these two guys get out of their car. They told me they were Secret Service, just checking the place out because Eisenhower might want to visit.”

President Eisenhower wasn’t the only famous guest at Hianloland Farm. In May 1960, His Majesty Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Deva, the king of Nepal, and his wife visited at the end of a 36-day tour of the United States and Canada. In thanks, the king gave Jones a pair of large coffee tables that incorporate bronze engravings of cultural scenes of Nepal, both of which are still in use today.

On March 1, 1962, Jones was en route to Los Angeles for a fishing date with President Eisenhower when his plane crashed on takeoff at Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy International Airport) in New York City. All aboard were killed.

Not long after the fatal crash, Wheatley heard that the property had been put up for sale, and there were rumors that it might be donated to Brown University. “So I called Mrs. Jones and asked if there was any way of giving it to somebody,” Wheatley said. “She said yes, so I asked her about URI, and she said yes.”

A formal dedication of the property, including speeches by Gov. John Chafee and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall, was held in April 1964. By that time, plans were already underway to designate 1,000 acres of the property as a research reserve. Dozens of faculty members have conducted research at the site since then: C. Robert Shoop spent decades tracking the movement patterns of salamanders and other amphibians at the campus; Stanley Cobb conducted numerous studies of the aquatic life in the campus ponds; and Irene Stuckey surveyed the property for wildflowers and led public wildflower walks for more than 30 years. Others led studies of white tailed deer, erosion control, soil moisture, caddisfly larva, and colors that elicit avoidance behaviors in mallard ducks, among many other topics. The Rhode Island Department of Health has used the campus to monitor ozone levels in the state since 1975.

During its 50 years of operation by URI, the campus has been caught up in some rather strange events. Perhaps the most famous of these occurred in 1976 when then-Gov. Phillip Noel planned to visit the campus to speak at a meeting of the Providence Newspaper Guild. As the governor’s helicopter was approaching campus, its tail rotor malfunctioned and flew off the aircraft, causing the helicopter to plunge into the forest below. According to Wheatley, the helicopter went straight down and was impaled on a tree trunk that went between the seats occupied by the governor and the pilot. Neither were seriously injured.

Lesser known is the story about the day when the State Police used the conference center facilities as a safe house to hide an important organized crime informant. The conference center received a call from State Police Superintendent Walter Stone, who was looking for an isolated place to use as a temporary hideout. “They kept him here for about a week, and they strung trip wire around the building to keep everyone out,” Wheatley recalled. “One of our workers walked over there and accidentally tripped it, and they came out with their machine guns.”

The first construction project at the campus—a youth science center (now called the Environmental Education Center)—was completed in 1966, and an extensive variety of camps and educational programs have been offered ever since. Accredited by the American Camp Association, the camp program at the Alton Jones Campus has repeatedly been rated as one of the top three camps in Rhode Island and one of the 15 best in New England.

Even before the first camps got under way, the facilities were being used as a conference center where managers could get away from the distractions of their urban offices to think and reflect and plan. Thousands of organizations have held conferences there, from major corporations like IBM and Polaroid to religious organizations, government agencies, and other universities. The coaches of the National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers even gathered there for a meeting in 1964, the first of three years that the team held its training camp at URI’s Kingston Campus.

In the early 1980s and continuing into the 2000s, Alton Jones was the site of an executive M.B.A. program that targeted those with significant business experience who were rising to the top of their organizations. Part of the program’s allure was that it was scheduled as a residential program on weekends to accommodate busy professional calendars. “Alton Jones was an ideal setting for this program,” said Richard Scholl, who directed the program. “The residency component was important because there was a lot of work that got done after class at night, and that’s when a lot of the bonding happened.”

In more recent years, Alton Jones has marketed itself as a wedding destination. Today the campus is the site of about 50 weddings per year, one nearly every Saturday and Sunday from April through October. “We like to create the impression that the wedding is being held at the bridal couple’s private estate,” explained George Lewis, assistant director of the campus. “It’s modeled after Alton Jones’ philosophy of bringing friends and family to a private place to build relationships.”

Looking ahead, Alton Jones Campus Director Thomas Mitchell hopes to expand campus facilities to attract larger conferences, more campers, and bigger weddings. But he doesn’t anticipate making any major changes.

“We’re a unique facility in New England,” Mitchell said. “Nowhere else can you go that combines a research forest with a retreat for adults and an environmental classroom for children. We embody all three venues in one.”

— By Todd McLeish