Robert MacKenzie Downie has lived on Block Island for many of the past decades, being a 20-year member of the North Light Commission, a member of the Board of Directors and secretary of the Block Island Conservancy for six years, and five years on the Historic District Commission, elected to the Charter Commission in the 1980s to revise the island’s original 300-year old governing system, and on the boards of other groups such as the Block Island Historical Society and the Southeast Light Foundation — a typical amount of organizations for anyone living in a small community.
By accidental diversion at first, then by design, he has gathered during the past 50 years the largest collection of Block Island memorabilia — old photographs going back to the first known from the early-1870s, antiquated pamphlets, brochures, magazines, books, newspapers, maps, and innumerable miscellany — researching them all with purposeful interest, taking him across the country as well to learn more. He has been typing away about the island’s history, with its ups and downs, on computers for 33 years, and wishes that Block Island’s most important writer, Samuel Livermore, could have included photographs of himself on the island in his seminal book “The History of Block Island” published in 1877 — for there are no photographs in that book.
The author also wrote the “Architectural History of Block Island’s Buildings,” some 30 years ago, the first and only time the history of the island’s hotels, stores, and houses has been researched, finding out when each building before 1950 was built, who constructed it, and who lived there — including thousands of other facts and anecdotes. The work has been borrowed by state and town agencies, but the vast bulk of the research remains unpublished, residing on the author’s computer in an ever-expanding state.
There are two books the author would like to publish in the future.
One is an enlarged version of Samuel Livermore’s 1877 “History of Block Island” annotated with new information and illustrated with old and new photographs.
The other book would be, of course, “The Architectural History of Block Island’s Buildings,” the intent being to save the island’s heritage by bringing the past to everyone.
Then again, there could be another volume just about lifesavers, lighthouses, and shipwrecks. And one on island steamers and ferries. And fishing boats would fill a book, too …
If you are interested in any of Bob Downie”s books “The Land and the Sea” are indeed sold out, but are at Rhode Island libraries, and sometimes available on the internet “used”.
“Block Island: History of Photography Volume 1- 1870-1910’s” and “Block Island: History of Photography Volume 2 – 1917-1960’s” can be bought on the island at Island Bound and the BI Historical Society, as well as through Bob Downie’s email ”firstname.lastname@example.org”.