Opinion: Rhode Island’s Unicorn 

by | May 21, 2024

The now-closed treasure that is URI’s W. Alton Jones Campus

On March 1, 1962, W. Alton Jones, president of Cities Service Company, one of the country’s highest paid CEOs, and a “hero of war production” during World War II, died in a plane crash while on his way to visit former President Dwight Eisenhower. 

His wife, Nettie Marie Jones, was considering donating his hunting and fishing retreat in West Greenwich, to Brown University. Over 2,300 acres of pristine forest, streams, ponds, and a working farm was going to be Ivy League property until George Wheatley stepped in. 

George Wheatley, who passed away last fall at the age of 98, was a WWII veteran, a University of Rhode Island graduate, and caretaker of the property owned by Alton Jones. He suggested to the Nettie Marie Jones that she donate the property to the University of Rhode Island instead. She agreed. At the time, this was the largest donation the URI had ever received and it conserved land that would likely have been ultimately parceled out and developed. Mrs. Jones also established an endowment to support the property and gave generously to construct buildings there. Included among her donations were funds used to help construct the Environmental Education Center, which would be vital in helping to educate thousands of children from Rhode Island and beyond. 

For nearly 60 years the W. Alton Jones Campus was Rhode Island’s unicorn, a unique place that was unlike any other of Rhode Island’s open spaces. It provided a secure and secluded wilderness for scientists to conduct wildlife and lightning research. It provided a place for weddings, conferences, and retreats like Women’s Wilderness Weekends and relaxation retreats where people could recharge and reconnect with nature and others. It also provided a favorable first impression for the next generation of URI students with a variety of youth camps.

URI’s previous administration closed the campus in 2020 during Covid, relegating this once-thriving and valuable donation to sit empty and unused. Now URI’s new administration has an opportunity to revive the unique outdoor educational experiences the W. Alton Jones Campus once provided.  

In doing so, URI will be informing past, current, and future donors that their donations will be respected and valued, not just until it becomes inconvenient to do so but for generations to come. 

Nettie Marie Jones’ charitable heart and George Wheatley’s recommendation to her to donate her property to URI gave us Rhode Island’s unicorn.  

Don’t let the closing of this unique institution be a permanent casualty of the pandemic. It’s time to reopen the W. Alton Jones Campus.

Anthony Burnett-Testa is a teacher at Cole Middle School and writes about science and the environment for EG News.

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May 22, 2024 6:49 am

Here is the pitiful update from the URI website.

I have never been there and would like to visit. Looks like it’s not open to the public. But it must be accessible via trails?

Lois Hollingsworth
Lois Hollingsworth
May 22, 2024 7:40 am

My daughters and nephew grew up going to Alton Jones Farm Camp. They were one of best experiences of the summer!

Ray Riccio
Ray Riccio
May 22, 2024 1:50 pm

Under the tutelage of John Bradley my son Justin and Ryan Walsh with help from the many Scouts from Troop 2 of East Greenwich both were able to complete their Eagle Project at Alton Jones. Removing debris along a small brook of which with the assistance of uncle Anthony a DIY Leopold Bench was placed along the brook. That was 2018. Up until the pandemic we’d travel down primarily for the ride, get out to ensure the Leopold was still securely intact. 

WEST GREENWICH – The University of Rhode Island has decided to close its W. Alton Jones Campus and Whispering Pine Conference Center, citing financial hardships dating back several years. 

PROVIDENCE — A Superior Court jury this week awarded $31.3 million to an Iraq War veteran and his wife after a 2014 swimming accident in a pond on the University of Rhode Island’s Alton Jones campus left him paralyzed from the chest down and with limited use of his hands.
“Alcohol was not a factor,” Barry (attorney) said.

There are other law suits mentioned online. Reasonable?

(There’s other lawsuits on line. Reasonable ?)

Bruce Mastracchio
Bruce Mastracchio
May 22, 2024 2:17 pm

Agree. Agree. A thousand times agree. It is a Gem, a Unicorn and more. No development, just refurbish and enjoy!

Clare Cecil Karb
Clare Cecil Karb
May 27, 2024 12:39 pm

This was the most wonderful summer day camp – and my eldest kiddo’s first opportunity to try sleeping away at camp for a night. She was hooked and wanted to spend a whole summer at sleep away camp. We were devastated when the camp closed for the pandemic and even more devastated that future kiddos would miss out on time in this secluded organic space. I hope we – as a culture – won’t forget the importance of risky, open-ended, natural spaces for our kiddos.

declan john collier
declan john collier
May 28, 2024 12:20 pm

Hi, Mr. bt I miss your class!


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