Johnston residents would gather on a rise of granite ledges about a 100 feet high off Old Scituate Road. There, the loosely piled rocks hid the scaly beasts that caused them well-deserved fear. With …
Johnston residents would gather on a rise of granite ledges about a 100 feet high off Old Scituate Road. There, the loosely piled rocks hid the scaly beasts that caused them well-deserved fear. With their handmade weapons posed, they quietly waited for the rattlers to emerge from their dens before slaughtering as many as they could.
The Timber Rattlesnake was once very populous in Rhode Island, its habitat within rocky ledges where a single den could contain as few as 20 or as many as hundreds of snakes. With yellow, brown or gray bodies showing black or brown cross bands, the Timber Rattlesnake grows to between 36 and 60 inches in length with a rattle at the tip of the tail and weigh an adult weight of one to three pounds.
Female rattlers birth their young from Aug. to Sept. in rocky areas which are open to the sun and known as “basking knolls.” The newborns tend to measure eight to 10 inches long. A mother snake will birth from five to 22 baby snakes at a time. Timber Rattlers are most active from April through Oct. and gain their nourishment from small mammals, birds, frogs and other snakes, each rattler having a lifespan of 16 to 22 years.
The long fangs which emit a highly toxic venom make the Timber Rattlesnake one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. They are presently found in 27 states but have not been documented in Rhode Island since the 1970s when a handful of them were found in a den off Lafayette Road in Tiverton. Today, only 11 species of snakes are found in Rhode Island and none of them are venomous.
In 1899, Charles Clarke of Tiverton Four Corners was walking through his fields when he saw the heads to two Timber Rattlesnakes rise up. He hurried back to his house and grabbed his simple rattlesnake trap, a wire loop attached to a pole. He returned to the fields, caught the snakes and put them into a box. Each measured 30 inches long and one had four rattles on its tail while the other had five. Clarke gave the snakes to Roger Williams Park.
By this time, the area of Johnston which had regularly crawled with rattlers was being called Snake Den Road, Snake Den Avenue and Snake Den Valley. Those who lived in the area didn’t seem to fear the snakes as much as they should have. In 1900, the Thistle Athletic Club held a clambake there. In 1902, George Banspack hosted a German lunch spread upon tables beneath the trees of his orchard. A great meal, a ballgame and musical entertainment followed apparently without anyone worrying about uninvited, slithering guests.
That same year, Jabez Pike sold about 23 acres of woodland near the snake den to the Grey Wolf Mining Company while Mary Coffin sold the company interest in about 23 acres that she owned around the den.
In 1914, the We Six Club built a camp in the area of the den, which was situated between two hills and reached by a narrow path through the woods. A small brook flowed through the den. The Rhode Island Field Naturalist’s Club also made excursions to the property, curiosity outweighing concern.
As Timber Rattlesnakes are still common to Conn., the day may come when they slither back over the border to bask in the sunlight that touches down on some steep, rocky ledge. If they do, keep in mind that “Rattlesnake Day” has disintegrated into history - it is currently illegal in Rhode Island to kill snakes of any type.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.