Providence skyline now in view from Mercer Lookout

Providence skyline now in view from Mercer Lookout

Don Burns, Chairman of the Smithfield Conservation Commission, at Mercer Lookout. (Valley Breeze & Observer photos by David Wuerth)

SMITHFIELD - A popular hiking spot in town, with a view of the Providence skyline, is the subject of recent and ongoing improvements, according to the town's Conservation Commission, whose members are in charge of maintaining the 24-acre Mercer Lookout property.

Recent tree growth at the 450-foot high lookout, donated to the town in 1997, was removed the week before Christmas, opening up a spectacular view that was beginning to be obstructed.

"It's really just a splendid spot," Dwight Darling, member of the Conservation Commission, told The Valley Breeze & Observer. "It would have been invisible if the trees had been left to grow there."

In addition to clearing the overgrown vegetation, Chairman Donald Burns said that the commission's members have been working to implement more parking spaces to accommodate visiting hikers.

According to Burns, there is a new access at the south end of Mercer Trail through a development on Carlton's Way, off Mountaindale Road. There are two parking spots there.

The commission is also in the process of working with National Grid, which has high voltage transmission lines running through the property, to put in an access at the north end, that will include a handful of parking spaces.

Darling listed the many sights that hikers can enjoy from Mercer Lookout, including the cooling towers in Somerset, Mass., portions of Narragansett Bay, the top of the Mount Hope Bridge, the Providence skyline, and the windmill in Portsmouth.

The last time tree growth had been cleared from the spot was in 1998, Burns wrote in a letter to the Town Council.

He told The Observer that it would probably be another 15 years before the commission needed to clear the spot again, noting that "the threat is not the clear-cut area."

According to Darling, "A little bit further down the hill, there are some big oak trees that may start to block the view. We don't want to go too far down the hill, but we don't want to lose that view."

Last July, Burns said that he became aware of a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Trails Grant program. The commission applied and received a $3,000 grant - about 80 percent of the project's total cost - to help pay for re-opening the view.

The remainder of the cost will come out of the commission's annual budget.

Burns said a tree expert - a forestry guy - went up with members of the commission and offered his opinion on what they should do about the lookout.

"We did coat the stumps of some of the trees - stronger growing trees - to keep them from growing," Burns said. "There's no erosion (on the land). There were no roots removed."

Darling added that after workers cut the trees back, they left the brush on the ground, creating a habitat for certain small mammals and bird species, including wrens.

Mercer Lookout is located next to about 400 adjoining acres of Land Trust property, known as Wolf Hill Forest Preserve, which contains eight walking and hiking trails.

The property was donated to the town through the bequest of the late Hester Hastings of Lynchburg, Va., who wanted it named Mercer Lookout as a memorial to family members Joseph Mercer and Joseph Mercer Hastings.

The land once was used as a camping location by a Providence Boy Scout troop until a fire burned their cabin down in the 1940s or '50s, according to Burns.

After acquiring the land in 1997, the commission paid a contractor to clear the trees and restore the view. It wasn't until 2014 that the site needed more clearing.

Burns said that the spot also used to be a high school party place, and the trash - including beer cans - needed to be cleaned up.

Now, another problem plagues the site, according to Burns and Darling: people driving all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, on the land.

"We don't know how we're going to deal with that at this point," Darling said. "It's a thorny issue."

Burns said that enforcement is difficult, though there are signs posted. The commission plans to speak to the police department soon about the issue.

"The damage on the trails is visible," Burns said.

People can hike on the trails and up to the lookout year-round, though Burns noted the properties are closed from dusk until dawn.

Visitors can access Mercer Lookout from Mountaindale Road, one mile from Pleasant View Avenue, or one-and-one-half miles from Old County Road by entering on Wolf Hill Trail, a dirt road, in an open powerline strip beside a Narragansett Electric power substation.

For more information about Mercer Lookout, visit the town's website at www.smithfieldri.com, click News & Info, then click Seven Scenic Walks in Smithfield.

The view from Mercer Lookout looking toward Providence. On a clear day you can see buildings in downtown Providence and the cooling towers at the power plant in Massachusetts.
A sign indicating Mercer Trail just before reaching Mercer Lookout.
Trees at Mercer Lookout, located at the top right of this map, were cleared from the site in December to re-open the scenic view for hikers and visitors. According to Chairman Donald Burns, the Conservation Commission received a grant from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for $3,000 to help pay for the project.
The chimney is all that remains of a Boy Scout cabin that used to be at Mercer Lookout.