Sawtooth, Rhode Island

On February 21, 2016 · 5 Comments

Twelve Mile Circle received a handful of mysterious search queries focusing on the word "sawtooth" recently, and then specifically referencing a location named Sawtooth Point, Rhode Island. I assumed they all derived from a common origin because they landed on the same day from the same metropolitan area.

One shouldn’t get too alarmed. Usage statistics can’t identify individual readers by name although a lot does get recorded whenever someone lands on a website. I do enjoy reviewing aggregated data especially searches dropped directly onto 12MC. Sometimes they pique my curiosity, as with the aforementioned Sawtooth Point, and I learn a thing or two in the process. Hopefully my curiosity will also satisfy the needs of our anonymous reader who placed the notion in my head if he or she ever returns.

sawtooth by aesop on Flickr (cc)

Spoiler alert, I quickly discovered that Sawtooth Point was a fictional location. It simply didn’t exist. Rather it was the setting for a novel written by John Casey in 2010 titled "Compass Rose." I haven’t read it although it sounded interesting, more character focused than action driven, and of course I liked the title. The New York Times Sunday Review gave it favorable marks.

… the story of a handful of people who live in a small coastal community in Rhode Island’s South County. Yet this bit of a world is complete unto itself, with its own force fields, its own variations of true north, its own ways of tilting into alignment.

Rhode Island Monthly offered some additional background in John Casey Comes Back to South County

John Casey finished writing Spartina in 1986, but his characters weren’t done with him. The novel went on to win the National Book Award, Casey went on to other books — but he never stopped writing about his fictional South County world. Twenty years later, the highly anticipated sequel, Compass Rose, brings it all back. "I was thinking the next time I’m in Rhode Island, I’ll go look at that big old white house on Sawtooth Point," Casey says. "Then I remember that I made it up."

That certainly addressed the question with certainty. The author himself stated unambiguously that Sawtooth Point didn’t exist except in his fertile imagination. Or was it? Did the "made it up" refer to the old white house or to Sawtooth Point itself? Could there still be an actual Sawtooth Point? The designation didn’t appear in the Geographic Names Information System. In fact no place anywhere in Rhode Island had any variant of sawtooth in its name. That only meant that no formally designated Sawtooth Point existed in Rhode Island. It could still exist off-the-books, I figured. Maybe.

South County Balloon Festival 2011
South County Balloon Festival by Heartlover1717 on Flickr (cc)

Wait a minute, though. I celebrated capturing the final two counties on my trip through the area last May to complete my Rhode Island county counting map. I didn’t remember any South County. Rhode Island had only five counties: Bristol; Kent; Newport; Providence and Washington. There wasn’t a Sawtooth Point and there wasn’t a South County.

By an odd twist of fate, I’d received an email message from reader "Dave" just a few days before I noticed the Sawtooth Point queries. He recounted a dinnertime conversation where his family discussed county names. That made me jealous because I couldn’t imagine a geography-based conversation happening anywhere around my dinner table, although that was really besides the point. Their discussion turned to the counties of Rhode Island, and the notion that Washington County (map) was rarely referenced in that manner. Locals called it South County. I supposed it related to its geographic placement within the State although I couldn’t find any concrete reason why Washington County wasn’t a good enough name. Maybe it was because Rhode Island disestablished its county structure except for various statistical and judicial purposes in 1846 and it simply didn’t matter anymore. Washington County, South County, whatever.

Dave had wondered whether this was a unique situation, a county with a largely ignored official name and a frequently referenced nickname. I didn’t know of any other situation like that, however, before declaring it unique I thought it might be best to consult the all-knowing 12MC audience.

I supposed I also needed to add two more titles, Spartina and Compass Rose, to the long list of books I should probably read someday. And I still didn’t know if there was an actual Sawtooth Point.

On February 21, 2016 · 5 Comments

5 Responses to “Sawtooth, Rhode Island”

  1. CTMQ says:

    First, “I couldn’t imagine a geography-based conversation happening anywhere around my dinner table.” – LOL.

    Second, I don’t have any examples that rival your own, but it is mildly interesting that in the other state that did away with county governance any need for counties (Connecticut) pretty much never refers to any counties except for 2 of the 8.

    Fairfield County is always “Fairfield County” because it has become an entity unto itself.
    Litchfield County is always “Litchfield County” because it’s where the Fairfield County people have their country homes.

    But the rest? You’d be hard-pressed to find life-long residents to name all eight. Windham County is known as “The Quiet Corner.” More people could point at “the Quiet Corner” on a map than point to where “Windham County” is.

    Revisit this top in, let’s say… 20 years. The tourism folks have been pushing the idea of Mystic Country as a tourism district of sorts. it has caught on, and I’ve even seen people write/say “Mystic County”. (Mystic, btw, isn’t even a real CT town and is actually partly in the real town of Groton and the real town of New London so the state is promoting a fictional “Mystic Country” which is morphing into a fictional Mystic County which is based loosely on a town that isn’t even a real town.)

  2. Dave Kearns says:

    Thanks for the mention!

    AS long as you’re talking about RI counties, I draw your attention to Bristol Cty which shares a border with Bristol County, MA. Originally all part of Plymouth colony, the land was moved back & forth between RI and MA up until the end of the 19th century. Are there other counties which appear to spread across state lines?

  3. Michael says:

    Wow, funny that you posted an article about my state and my county–on my birthday! Never heard of Sawtooth Point before, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. We do have Succotash Point in South County, though. I can tell you that South County is used way more often than Washington County–in businesses, local references, etc. We even have South County Hospital, and if you’re looking to visit, you can visit the South County Tourism Council website! Can’t say as to why its referred to as that more than it is referred to as Washington, but I think you have a good guess. The term “South County” is used more to describe a region rather than the set borders of a county, which really aren’t even a thing here. In fact, the South County Tourism Council lists three towns in neighboring Kent County as being part of South County. I wouldn’t describe South County as just being Washington County, it’s more of a region of the state such as West Bay or Blackstone Valley.

  4. Gary Lucas says:

    I grew up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, which is in the previously mentioned Washington County. Most people that live in RI call it “South County”, as it is in the southern part of the state. I was born at South County Hospital. When I was a kid, there was a South County Museum not far from my house! The museum moved to its current location in I believe the 1980s.

    I may live in Florida now, but did live in Rhode Island for the first almost 40 years of my life. What amazes me is how county government is so prevalent here, and doesn’t mean a thing in Rhode Island. After all, counties in Rhode Island have not had any government since 1846 except for courts.

    Anyway, the museum website is here:

  5. Peter says:

    New York, Kings and Richmond counties, New York, are the best-known examples of counties rarely referenced by their official names.

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