This brief discussion of Gardiner’s and Nelson’s Ponds, which border the Norman Bird Sanctuary, is an excerpt from an historical study in progress on the Sanctuary by Cynthia Bidart.
Destroying wildlife habitat is rarely looked upon by naturalists as a positive or productive act and yet in the unusual case of the Norman Bird Sanctuary, the destruction of acres of ideal shore bird habitats indirectly resulted in the sanctuary’s existence. A salt water marsh generally supports a more diverse bird population than almost any other natural habitat and before George Norman built a dam on Paradise Creek, and created what are now Gardiner’s and Nelson’s Ponds, the existing salt and fresh water marshes were an important habitat for shore birds in this area. But, ironically, by creating the ponds and thus the revenue of selling them to the Newport Water Works in 1931, his daughter, Mabel Norman Cerio, was able to donate the land that is today a priceless sanctuary for wild bird life. And even though the ponds destroyed important salt marsh habitat, they have, over the years, attracted an increasing number of migratory birds to our area who, before this time, by-passed Aquidneck Island in search of areas with large fresh water ponds.
The ponds have also affected aspects of our community other than bird life. Over the years they have been used for a variety of recreational activities, much to the consternation of water works officials. Before St. George’s School built their indoor hockey rink, Nelson’s Pond was frequently the scene of informal hockey matches and local recreational skating. Natives of the area recall fond memories of bonfires and hot cocoa at the pond’s edge. Fishing has never been good in the ponds and for obvious reasons greatly discouraged by the Newport Water Works. And yet, some local people claim to have dropped a line from time to time. Today, skating as well as fishing are prohibited for safety and sanitary reasons.
Some interesting facts about the ponds were uncovered with the help of Manuel Bothello at the Newport Water Works. A report written for the City of Newport before their purchase of the Water Works in 1931 covers all aspects of Gardiner’s and Nelson’s Ponds. In 1882 the dam was built to create Nelson’s Pond and at the same time the pumping station and works for diverting the waters of Paradise Brook were built. Gardiner’s Pond was formed between 1889 and 1902 by constructing embankments on three sides of a small natural pond and the large expanse of adjoining marsh. The conduit on Paradise Brook to Nelson’s Pond was extended to Gardiner’s Pond at this time. This 1931 report describes the quality of the water supplied to Newport and Middletown as “generally good from a sanitary standpoint, but for at least part of the time during the year the water is unpalatable on account of tastes and odors which are emphasized by a relatively high temperature of the water.” But they describe the water as conforming to the present U.S. Treasury standard.
Today, Nelson’s Pond has a surface area of 29.70 acres and a capacity of 99 million gallons. The usable capacity is 95 million gallons and it is estimated to be 11-12 feet deep. Gardiner’s Pond was originally about 90 acres with an average depth of 8 feet and storage capacity of 285 million gallons. Around 1938 the dike was raised to its present level allowing for 400 million gallons of storage, a depth of 15-20 feet, and a surface area of over 100 acres.
Probably the most astonishing facts uncovered, though, were the estimated real estate values of the ponds in 1931. Three real estate experts separately appraised the properties and the averages of their figures were recorded as the estimated land values. For Nelson’s Pond, in 1931, the 30 acres of land were valued at $5,598 dollars. Gardiner’s Pond, which is of considerably greater acreage, was valued at $22,167 dollars. At the current values of Aquidneck Island waterfront properties, it is certainly fortunate that through George Norman’s ingenuity and Mabel Norman Cerio’s forethought and generosity, the land around the Middletown ponds has been protected from development and preserved as a sanctuary for not only birds, but for the rest of us, as well.
Note: Photograph of George Norman was taken in 1894 and was donated to the Norman Bird Sanctuary by Louis Lorillard.