The Narragansett Bay Research Reserve is located in the geographic center of Narragansett Bay with 4,453 acres of terrestrial and submerged land on Prudence, Patience, Hope and Dyer islands. Habitats within the Reserve include salt marsh, eelgrass beds, rocky intertidal zone, pine barren, deciduous forest, and coastal meadow. The majority of the Reserve’s work, including its headquarters, are based on Prudence Island, the largest of the four islands. The Reserve manages approximately 63% of Prudence Island as well as surrounding waters.
Located in the center of Narragansett Bay, Prudence Island is approximately 7 miles long and 1 mile across at its widest point. At the south end of the island, the Narragansett Bay Research Reserve’s Lab & Learning Center contains educational exhibits, a public meeting area, a library, and research labs for staff and visiting scientists. The Reserve manages approximately 60% of Prudence Island.
The vegetation on Prudence Island reflects the extensive farming that took place in the area until the early 1900s. After the fields were abandoned, woody plants gradually replaced the herbaceous species. The uplands are now covered with a dense shrub growth of bayberry, blueberry, arrowwood, and shadbush interspersed with red cedar, red maple, black cherry, pitch pine, and oak. Green briar and Asiatic bittersweet cover much of the island as well.
Prudence Island supports one of New England’s most dense white-tailed deer herds. Raccoons, squirrels, Eastern red fox, Eastern cottontail rabbits, mink, and white-footed mice are plentiful. The large, salt marshes at the north end of Prudence are used as feeding areas by a number of large wading birds such as great and little blue herons, snowy and great egrets, black-crowned night herons, green-backed herons, and glossy ibis. Between September and May, Prudence Island is also used as a haul-out site for harbor seals.
History of Prudence Island:
Before colonial times, Prudence and the surrounding islands were home to the Narragansett Indian Tribe. They referred to Prudence as Chibchuwesa, “a place apart.”, and used the island for purposes such as hunting, fishing, and gathering. Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, is credited with naming the islands Prudence, Patience, and Hope after three virtues that everyone should possess.
Prudence Island was used for agriculture during the colonial era and remained sparsely populated in the century after the Revolutionary War. By the late 1800s, Prudence began to attract summer residents, and cottages were built along its western shore. Transportation was provided by steamboat from Providence, and later a ferry from Bristol. The Prudence Island Navigation Company was chartered in 1921, bringing a new era of development on Prudence.
The US military established a presence on Prudence with an army camp built during WWII. Abandoned in 1947, the camp provided a base for searchlights and light artillery. A Naval Magazine was constructed on Prudence Island in April of 1942 and remained until 1972. The land was subsequently turned over to the State of Rhode Island and was designated a National Estuarine Research Reserve in 1980.
Prudence Island has been sheltered from the impact of the large population densities normally associated with coastal New England, largely because it has always remained comparatively inaccessible and because commercial development has been actively discouraged by its residents. Approximately 150 people spend their winters on Prudence. The population swells to more than 10 times that number during the summer.
Prudence Island has benefited from active conservation measures. About 70% of its land area has been designated as an Estuarine Reserve or acquired by local conservation organizations. Patience, Hope, and Dyer Islands have been preserved in their entirety, ensuring that these unique and important resources will remain a haven for wild things for generations to come.
This 207-acre island lies to the west of northern Prudence Island. At their closest, the two islands are only 900 feet apart. Patience Island is dominated by tall shrubs interspersed with red cedar and black cherry. Common shrubs include bayberry, highbush blueberry, and shadbush. Much of the island is also covered by brier, Asiatic bittersweet, and poison ivy. A deciduous forest is gradually replacing the shrub habitat in some parts of the island. The small salt marsh on the southeastern shore provides habitat for seablite, a plant species common in other areas of the country, but rare in Rhode Island. The upland area of Patience Island supports a variety of wildlife including white-tailed deer, red fox, and Eastern cottontail rabbits. Coastal areas are used extensively by migrant and wintering waterfowl species such as horned grebes, greater scaup, black ducks, and scoters. Quahogs are abundant in the sandy sediment.
There is no ferry service available to this island. Visitors are welcome but you must provide your own transportation. Be aware that there is a high population of ticks, the trails may be overgrown, and camping is not permitted.
History of Patience Island
Historically, the Patience Island Farm covered nearly the entire island and was a working farm as early as the mid-seventeenth century. The farm buildings were burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the buildings were rebuilt, and the farm remained in operation until the early twentieth century. During the 1960s, construction was undertaken to create a summer resort colony on the island. The colony was never completed; however, the construction did considerable damage to the sites of the early farm buildings.
The foundation of an oysterman’s house along the northwest shore is another archaeological site on the island. This house site probably dates back to the late eighteen century when oyster beds were leased in the upper bay. The small building was the home of a watchman for the oyster beds located just off Patience Island.
This small, 91-acre island lies 1.5 miles west of southern Prudence Island and 3 miles south of Patience Island. The topography of Hope Island is very irregular, with numerous low hills, ledges, and rocky outcrops and the shoreline is generally steep and rocky. Much of the northern end of Hope is vegetated by grasses but many other areas have shrubs including bayberry, rose, and poison ivy. The central part of the island contains tall shrubs and trees such as red cedar, staghorn sumac, shadbush, and black willow. A single strand of black locust occupies a low hill on the northern part of the island. Hope is inhabited by the Eastern cottontail rabbit and serves as one of the most significant nesting areas on the east coast for wading birds including great egrets, snowy egrets, and black-crowned night herons. Other birds include double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, herring gulls, and black-backed gulls also nest on the roc. During the winter, harbor seals occasionally use the exposed offshore rocks as a haul out and resting sites. Soft-shelled clams, quahogs, American lobsters, striped bass, tautog, black-backed flounder, and sea trout are abundant in the waters around Hope Island.
History of Hope Island
There is an 18th-century farm site on the west side of Hope Island. During WWII the island was used by the Navy as an ammunition storage site. There are still ammunition bunkers and concrete roads remaining from this period. There is a ¾-mile abandoned military road around the perimeter of the island, however, access is not permitted when the island is closed during the bird nesting season.
Dyer Island is a low-lying 28-acre island situated approximately halfway between Aquidneck Island and the south end of Prudence Island. Despite its small size, Dyer Island’s ecological value is significant. It supports one of the last remaining salt marshes without mosquito ditches in Rhode Island and is a nesting area for coastal shorebirds including the locally rare American oystercatcher.
This uninhabited island also provides foraging habitat for a variety of shorebirds and was found to support 47 species of seaweed – species diversity second only to Rose Island in Narragansett Bay.
History of Dyer Island
Little is known of Dyer Island’s history. In September 2001, Dyer was acquired for preservation and incorporation into the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve using state and NOAA funds. It will be used in perpetuity for research, monitoring, education, and passive recreation.
Lab and Learning Center
Getting to the Reserve
The Reserve headquarters and learning center are located on the south end of Prudence Island, which is only accessible via ferry or private boat.
The Prudence and Bay Islands Transport Company operates the ferry that leaves from the Church Street Wharf in Bristol, R.I. The ferry dock is located at the intersection of Thames Street and Church Street across from Aiden’s Pub.
The Prudence Island ferry serves passengers, bicycles, and vehicles. If you elect to bring your own vehicle to the island, you will need to make a reservation on the ferry well in advance for both legs of the journey (to and from the island). To make a vehicle reservation, contact the Prudence and Bay Islands Transport at 401.683.0430. Ferry schedule information and reservations can be found at the Prudence and Bay Islands Transport website
- Bikes are a great way to get around the island, but keep in mind many of the roads are not paved; bikes with thick, wide tires are ideal.
- The only public restrooms on the island are located at our headquarters (typically open Monday through Friday 8:30 PM -3:30 PM) and there is a composting toilet at the south end near the T-Wharf.
- There are no overnight accommodations or restaurants, but there is a general store at the ferry landing.
- Please note camping is prohibited on Reserve properties