New Smithfield RI recreation space approaching web site of former YMCA camp

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SMITHFIELD – For decades, the Sprague Upper Reservoir was the centerpiece of the old YMCA Camp Shepard, a remote, wooded retreat where boys and girls swam, camped, fished, hiked, and learned about the great outdoors.

The camp was closed in 2008 and has been empty ever since. It is no longer open to the public.

But in October 2020, the City of Smithfield purchased the property for $1.225 million. Recently, city dwellers have been invited to take tours of the land and make suggestions for its best public use. The decisions made now will affect people for generations to come.

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I took some residents on a walk around the 114-acre property last month. A common theme I heard from the hikers was an interest in creating a forest experience to get their children and grandchildren off the couch and away from their cell phones and electronic games for some fresh air in the forest. Some suggested the property might one day include a zip line or a climbing wall.

There were other suggestions too.

Some suggested a small housing development on a piece of land to recoup part of the purchase price. Another resident’s petition for a proposed Frisbee golf course garnered 1,400 signatures.

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Those ideas are dead for now, according to town manager Randy Rossi, who said in an interview that the land will remain for passive recreation. More detailed plans should be decided in about a year after a subcommittee studying the country collects suggestions and makes recommendations. The nature reserve will reopen to the public next spring, Rossi said.

When planning, city guides should not forget about the history of the area, because the country can be a unique outdoor classroom, especially for young people.

A group of Smithfield residents cross a bridge over a spillway during a tour of Camp Shepard.

Why is Camp Shephard closed to the public until spring?

Our group set out to explore the camp by walking down a dirt track that opens through a gate between two stone pillars on Colwell Road where the city has posted prohibition and no parking signs. Rossi said the country is on lockdown because much of the rugged terrain has not been mapped and there are some dangerous spots that rescue workers would find difficult to reach in the event of an accident.

Our guide Bill grew up nearby and shared stories of biking with his friends to swim to the reservoir in the afternoon.

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On the right the road passes a backstop ball court, a cracked asphalt basketball court (no bars or baskets) and a wooden building with open windows that has seen better days. A hiker suggested using the area as a parking lot.

After a hundred yards the road split and we turned right and downhill. On a rise to the left is an old, roofed pavilion with a concrete floor, open to the outside. What used to be a stage has been sprayed with graffiti but overall it looked in pretty good shape.

Campers from the long-closed Camp Shepard YMCA once gathered at an open-air pavilion that stands on a hilltop overlooking the reservoir.

However, on an adjacent hill, a log-cabin style building has fallen into disrepair.

To the right of the hut and downhill is a natural amphitheater with broken wooden benches and to the right of this is the first view of the reservoir. There’s a wide opening and a short tree-lined path to a grassy beach with some litter, a derelict building, a coiled-up floating line, and several damaged boat docks.

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The hikers suggested it would be a good place to store kayaks and canoes and go for a swim. But there seemed little interest in creating a dedicated beach area like those at Georgiaville Pond or Lincoln Woods.

The view over the reservoir includes several bays, rocky outcrops, tree-covered shores and an earthen causeway with a small, square gatehouse.

The former Brown University property has become a summer playground for YMCA campers

Brown University once owned the property and sold it in the 1960s for $1 to the Greater Providence YMCA, which built Camp Shepard in the 1970s.

Over the years, the children spent their summers there, learning to swim, row, shoot a bow and arrow, and camp overnight. The camp welcomed urban youth, and volunteers from banks, insurance companies, and nonprofit organizations came to do repairs and clear land. The Rhode Island National Guard once trained there and built some of the roads.

When the YMCA decided to sell some of its assets during the COVID crisis, the City of Smithfield stepped up, bought the property and began planning.

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After stopping to explore the beach, our group continued down the gravel road, passing a red cement block garage, storage shed, and a paved lot that may have been used to store picnic tables, vehicles, and camp gear.

On the right the land drops into a swampy area before climbing a slope. Several small streams carry runoff from the hillside through culverts under the road and eventually to the reservoir.

The road then curves under pine trees in a semi-circle, with a stone wall flanking the path on the right, indicating this was once farmland. The camp is surrounded by houses, private property and several working farms. City officials said the camp is linked to Conservation Easements, Land Trust Preserves and open land to form 450 acres of protected property.

The road climbs a small hill and turns east before passing a large house on the right and then emerging at the start of a 20 foot earthen causeway that stretches 250 feet and holds back the 30 acre Sprague Upper Reservoir.

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The reservoir was built in the 18th century, probably as part of the area’s industrial past, when streams were dammed to create reservoirs to hold and control a water supply to run the mills. The derivation of the reservoir’s Sprague name is unclear, but the Sprague family once controlled the nearby land after Thomas Sprague, a former sea captain, arrived in Smithfield in the 1820s and built a large granite cotton mill.

A concrete block dock and gatehouse sit adjacent to an earthen dam that holds back water to form the Sprague Upper Reservoir.

Sprague Upper Reservoir is a popular fishing spot

Below the causeway on the left is a wooden pier with a chair and two boats and a small peninsula on which stands the concrete block gatehouse that we saw from the grassy beach. The depth of the reservoir varies as much as 16 feet depending on the time of year, and anglers report catching sunfish, pike, sunfish, and largemouth bass.

The dam was strengthened and repaired in the 1980s after the state determined it was at risk of failure.

Further on we crossed a sturdy bridge with a green metal railing over a cement spillway. Water from the reservoir flows into a stream that flows to the Sprague Lower Reservoir and then to the Woonasquatucket River.

The road ends just after the bridge, but there are unmarked trails that circle the reservoir and lead through rugged, heavily forested terrain.

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The trails climb up and down small hills along the property line and pass a high stone cliff on the right before reaching lowland which becomes swampy in spring. Soon the paths pass side by side three-sided stone foundations which may have been barns or stables. Years ago, Brown University offered horseback rides through the woods.

A little further to the left the land gradually rises to a series of outcrops and rocky bluffs above the water where campers used to jump into the reservoir.

A stream flows just below the cliffs, feeding the reservoir from the north. A path crosses the creek, climbs a slope, passes a hunting hide, goes through a gap in a stone wall and finally reaches the gravel road where our group started.

A stretch of pristine shoreline along Sprague Upper Reservoir is lined with rocky outcrops, cliffs and trees.

In total, the trails around the reservoir are about 2½ miles long.

The camp seems like a great opportunity to create something special. Most of Rhode Island’s hiking trails are well developed, and it’s interesting to imagine what could be created on a large, remote, wooded area with a peaceful reservoir at its center.

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When our walk ended, our guide asked, “Well, is it worth $1.2 million?”

I’m not a Smithfield resident and have no say in the matter, but I would answer yes, depending on whether the city authorities ensure the natural terrain is untouched and the land is used to its potential.

Camp Shepard is closed, but the city is open to suggestions about its use

Camp Shepard and the surrounding land are closed to the public while Smithfield officials review proposals for its use, including who will have access to the property and when. A public opening is planned for spring, said Town Manager Randy Rossi.

He added that recommendations for using Camp Shepard can be emailed to him at [email protected] or mailed to: Town Manager’s Office, Smithfield Town Hall, 64 Farnum Pike, Smithfield, RI 02917

John Kostrzewa, a former Associate Editor/Business at The Providence Journal, welcomes email at [email protected]