John Aldrich Saunders, Jr. (1808-1882) was the central figure, chronologically and symbolically, of the noted South County family of boat builders, marine entrepreneurs, and seamen. He was born in Newport, the grandson of Stephen Saunders, a shipwright, and the son of Captain John Aldrich Saunders (1786-1832), who built one of the first three-mastered schooners and discovered that the buttonwood tree provided the best wood for a ship’s keel. In all, Captain Saunders, Sr. constructed twenty-two sailing vessels, many of original design.
Among the captain’s eleven children by Catherine Maxson Saunders, was his namesake John Aldrich Saunders, Jr. who was born in Newport on June 21, 1808. Young John carried on the family tradition, helping his father complete his final vessel, the “Lark,” in 1832 and then building fifteen vessels of his own design, plus many small boats at a shipyard and marine railway he established at Willettville in 1855.Because of the prominence of this enterprise and the migration of his siblings and in-laws to the site, this area of North Kingstown became known as Saunderstown. John’s 1855 house on 166 Ferry Road still stands. It later became the home of his equally famous son Stillman Saunders, a designer of steam ferries (such as the ones he operated between Saunderstown, Jamestown, and Newport) and founder of both the Narragansett Transportation Company and the Saunders House Hotel.
By the late 19th century, the Saunderstown community had evolved into a summer colony led by Benoni Lockwood. It attracted such luminaries as novelists Owen Wister, Edith Wharton, Christopher and Oliver LaFarge, and Caroline Hazard. The village even received a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt. John Aldrich Saunders, Jr. and his wife Susan C. Gould had thirteen children, including Stillman. Three of their other sons–Captain Daniel Saunders, Captain William Gould Saunders, and Captain Martin Luther Saunders–carried on this renowned family’s seafaring tradition, earning a reputation as “compulsive boat designers and builders.” John Aldrich died on October 7, 1882 at the age of seventy-four, but his legacy survives.