American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of New England

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press


THE capital of Rhode Island, the second city of New England, an agricultural village in the seventeenth, a commercial port in the eighteenth, and a centre of manufacturing in the nineteenth century, lies at the head of Narragansett Bay. The mainland of the State westward to Connecticut, according to Shaler, rests on very old rocks of the Laurentian and Lower Cambrian series. The greater part of the bay and the land near Providence is upon rocks belonging to the Coal measures. These rocks, softer than the older ones, have been cut away and afford the inlets of the bay. The surface of the State and the sloping hills of Providence have been profoundly affected by the wearing course of the glaciers.

The original village skirted along the western side of the ridge, by which ran the little Moshassuck and Woonsasquetucket Riven. Eastward the ridge stretched in a plateau to the larger Seekonk, which cut off the peninsula. On the eastern side of the Seekonk, Roger Williams had settled and planted, when Plymouth Colony significantly advised him to move on. In June, 1636, with five companions, he crossed the Seekonk and landed on the rock, since raised to the grade of Ives and Williams streets. Here, as the tradition runs, Indians greeted him cordially, "What Cheer, Netop! What Cheer!" He had arranged with the Narragansett sachems, Canonicus and Miantinomi, for deeds of the lands about these rivers and the Pawtuxet, with certain undefined rights extending westward and northward.

The canoe kept away from What Cheer or Slate rock, south and westward around Tockwotton and Fox Point, up the Providence River, to land near where St. John's Church stands. The spring of water attracting the pioneer and kept as public property is in the basement of a house on the northwest corner of North Main Street and Allen's Lane. North Main was the "Towne Streete," occupied by the little band of settlers. Williams's "home lot" stretched easterly, including the land of the Dorr Estate, at the corner of Benefit and Bowen Streets. A stone in the rear of the buildings marks the spot where Roger Williams was buried.

In this man was the germ of Providence, the adumbration of the little commonwealth of Rhode Island. Whatever drove him from Massachusetts, however the Puritans enforced their narrow political scheme, the result was a free State founded on new principles of government. In the words of Thomas Durfee:

"Absolute sincerity is the key to his character, as it was always the mainspring of his conduct. . . . He had the defect of his qualities; an inordinate confidence in his own judgment. He had also the defects of his race the hot Welsh temper, passionate and resentful under provocation, and the moody Welsh fancy."

The "Plantations of Providence" began in these "home-lots," reaching eastward from the "Towne Streete." It was intended to give each settler five acres. Some had, moreover, meadow lands, and there were common rights, as in all the plantations of New England. Chad Brown, John Throckmorton, and Gregory Dexter were the committee who made the first allotment. The land had been conveyed from the Indian sachems, and Williams gave it by "initial deed" to his twelve companions, making thirteen original proprietors.

"Probably in the autumn of 1638, and certainly prior to the 16th of March, 1639," the settlers formed the first Baptist church in America. Williams was pastor for about four months, with Holyman as colleague. Chad Brown was ordained in 1642 with William Wickenden. The latter was succeeded by Gregory Dexter. The present church, adapted by James Sumner from designs of James Gibbs, architect, was built in 1975. Earlier than this, though the date is not fixed, the proprietors had made the following agreement, the importance of which can hardly be overestimated:

"We whose names are hereunder, desirous to inhabit in the town of Providence, do promise to subject ourselves in active or passive obedience, to all such orders or agreements as shall be made for public good of the body, in an orderly way, by the major assent of the present inhabitants, masters of families, incorporated together into a town fellowship, and such others whom they shall admit unto them only in civil things."

Here was laid the foundation of soul liberty. Let us refer to Diman: Thus, for the first time in history, a form of government was adopted which drew a clear and unmistakable line between the temporal and spiritual power, and a community came into being which was an anomaly among the nations." It was a pure democracy, controlling the admission of its members.

They soon found that some delegation of power was needed for civil administration, and in 1640 they elaborated their system somewhat, and established rudimentary courts. They perceived that they could not remain safely between the unfriendly colonies of Massachusetts on one side, and the alien Dutch of New York on the other. They sent Williams to England, whence he returned in 1644, bringing a parliamentary charter. Under this, the towns of Providence, Portsmouth and Newport were united, with the name "The Incorporation of Providence Plantations in the Narragansett Bay in New England." In 1645 there were, according to Holmes, tor men in Providence capable of bearing arms. Staples thinks this estimate includes the population of Shawonet or Warwick. In 1663 John Clarke of Newport obtained the royal charter, which was adopted by the freemen of the towns, and the commonwealth was entitled the "Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." The oldest tax or rate bill extant dates from 165o, when Roger Williams was assessed £ 1.13.4. In 1663 the whole tax was £36. assessed in "Country pay," which performed such important functions in the currencies of New England, viz., wheat at Bs. 6d., peas, 3s. 6d., butter, 6d.

An important factor in the daily life of Providence has always been in the crossing of the main stream which limited the early village on the west. Mr. Fred. A. Arnold's careful investigation' shows that a bridge at Weybosset, "formerly Wapwayset," or "at the narrow passage," was built before 1660. It was repaired and renewed at various times. In 1661 Roger Williams undertook, in a most interesting document, to maintain it by cooperative labor from the townsmen and tolls from strangers. It was enlarged until, in the middle of our century, tradition claimed it to be the widest bridge in the world. Other bridges spanned the river, and in the present year the old Veybosset is being replaced by an elaborate steel structure laid on piers of granite.

In 1675-1676 King Philip's War, in which the Narragansetts joined, raged through southern New England, and our little plantation was devastated. The women and children generally, with the greater part of the men, sought safety in Newport, Long Island or elsewhere. Thirty houses were burned, chiefly in the north part of the town. After the Indians were beaten, the village was slowly rebuilt. At this time the administration of the settlement was in the hands of the Friends. Their influence was second only to that of the Baptists, until after the Revolution. The only original house standing is the interesting Roger Mowry tavern, built in 1653 or earlier, called also the Whipple or Abbott house. Guarded by a large elm, it stands on Abbott Street, which runs eastward from North Main. The town council met there, and tradition says Williams conducted prayer meetings in it.

Some of the sites of the early planters are interesting. Richard Scott, a Quaker and antagonist of Williams, lived on the lot next north of St. John's churchyard. Mary Dyre went from here to be hanged on Boston Common. Near Dexter's (afterward Olney's) lane lived Gregory Dexter. Chad Brown, the ancestor of so many men of mark, lived on land now occupied by College Street. The purpose of the original allotment was to give fronts upon the "Towne Streete" and river, and equal shares of farm lands. According to Dorr:

"This attempt at democratic equality only created a multitude of small estates widely separated, and in some instances nearly or quite a mile apart. Besides his home-lot of five acres, each proprietor had a six acre lot,' at a distance from his abode; and in a few years one or more 'stated common lots,' which he acquired by purchase from the Proprietary, or by their occasional land dividends among themselves."

The chief holdings were on "Providence Neck," but they gradually extended into "Weybosset Neck."

The latter years of Roger Williams were largely occupied by controversies with his neighbors, including his especial opponent, William Harris. The germs of a new State, rendered indestructible by the complete separation of church and state, if slumbering, yet lived in spite of the petty social stagnation of an agricultural community.

Early in the eighteenth century, the plantation took a new departure. Nathaniel Browne, a shipwright, had been driven out from Massachusetts, because he had become "a convert to the Church of England." In 1711 the town granted him one half acre on "Waybosset Neck on salt water," and again another half acre for building vessels. His vessels were among the first to sail from Providence for the West Indies. Horse carts and vehicles had been used before 1700 by the wealthy, but Madame Knight's journey to New York from Boston in 1704 shows that the saddle and pillion were the common conveyance along the bridlepaths. Galloping on the Town Street was prohibited in 1681. Through Pawtucket, the Bostonians came by the present North Burying Ground into the Town Street, then crossed Weybosset Bridge on their way toward the southwest. In the wider part of Weybosset thoroughfare, there stood a knoll, which has been levelled away. The road swept around and created the bulging lines of the street. Travel went on through Apponaug and North Kingstown, over Tower Hill and by the Narragansett shore, over the Pequot path toward New York. At this period, the road was opened toward Hartford, and improved communications were made with the surrounding towns. It was not until 1820 that a direct turnpike was opened from Providence to New London.

Of more importance even was the way into the world outward, through the bay. Pardon Tillinghast had been granted land twenty feet square for a storehouse and wharf "over against his dwelling place," in 1679-80, at the foot of the present Transit Street. There was struggle and competition for "lands by the sea side," or "forty foot lots, called warehouse lots," throughout this time, and complete division of the shore privileges was not effected until 1740. All these restless movements showed that the town was waking up and sending its commerce abroad into foreign countries. The first effectual street regulations were in 1736.

The next church organized after the First Baptist followed the faith of the Six Principle Baptists. The Friends, as they were expelled from Massachusetts, settled in various towns of Rhode Island. Mention has been made of Richard Scott. In 1672 George Fox visited Newport, and he held a meeting "in a great barn" at Providence. Here was a contestant worthy of our doughty champion, Villiams. They disputed with voice and pen, recording their angelic moods in these argumentative titles: The Fox Digged out of his Burrowed begged one side of the question; this was answered with equal logic in A New England Firebrand Quenched. The Friends built a meeting house about 1704.

The First Congregational Pedobaptist (now Unitarian) Society was formed about 1720. They built a house for worship in 1723, at the corner of College and Benefit Streets, where the Court House now stands. This building became the "Old Town House," when the society moved to its present location at the corner of Benevolent and Benefit Streets. Meanwhile the adherents of the Church of England, yet to become the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States, were gathering in our town. There is some dispute as to the first movements, but Dr. McSparran of Narragansett affirmed that he "was the first Episcopal minister that ever preached at Providence." The society thus formed finally took the name of "St. John's Church, in Providence." The church was raised in 1722, on the spot where the present building succeeded it in 1810. It will be observed that these new ecclesiastical developments moved along with the broader commercial life which was animatting the community.

Any historical student should examine Rhode Island for what it is, and even more for what it is not. Roger Williams and his fellows tried a "lively experiment" as daring as it was fruitful. They severed church and state, cutting off thereby the help of an educated clergy. They founded a political democracy, tempering it with the best aristocracy to be obtained, without the ordinary facilities of education derived through such help. Neither the Williams Independents nor the Quakers followed the common formulas of education, which were generally in the hands of Anglicans or Presbyterians. This does not prove that societies can safely drop scholastic education. Many communities have failed for lack of such education. It does prove that the Anglo-American stock engaged in political and economical development will educate itself. At first sight, it was hardly to be expected that isolated and unlettered Providence would be prominent in resisting England, or in forming a new government. But she did this, in full share, and the embodiment of her citizenship, the type of her republican character, was in one man, Stephen Hopkins - "great not only in capacity and force of mind, but also - what is much rarer - in originative faculty."

Born a farmer in 1707, removing to Providence in 1731, a member of the General Assembly in 1732, Chief Justice in 1739, one of the committee to form Franklin's plan of colonial union at Albany in 1754, a signer of the Declaration in 1776, we have here the full measure of a republican citizen, whether by the standard of Cato, or by, the later models of Franklin and Washington. "A clear and convincing speaker, he used his influence in Congress in favor of decisive measures."

In 1758 the first postmaster was appointed by Dr. Franklin. The State House on North Main Street was erected in 1759; the Fire Department began in 1763; a "vigorous effort" was made for free schools in 1767.

A great change was wrought about 1763 by the opening of Westminster Street. A town named for Mr. Fox's political district had been projected on the west side. It was strangled by the influence of the southern counties. Finally the way across the marsh was laid out. As late as 1771, there were only four houses on the southern and one on the northern side of Westminster Street.

Joseph and William Russell, Clark and Nightingale, with James Brown, the father of the four brothers mentioned below, were among the prominent merchants before the Revolution.

Next to the political change of colony into State, the greatest monument of the larger Rhode Island is the University. Rhode Island College, to become Brown University in 1804, was located under President Manning at Warren in 1766. By the "resolute spirits of the Browns and some other men of Providence, University Hall was built in 1770. A government stable and barrack during the Revolution, it has been a beacon light ever since.

We said not much might have been expected of little Rhody, by common rules of historic proportion, but the overt acts of the American Revolution began right here in 1772. The oppressive colonial administration, begun by Grenville, was especially vexatious in Narragansett Bay. The British cruiser Gaspee, attempting an illegal seizure, ran aground on Namquit, since known as Gaspee Point. The news ran like lightning through the town, that the Hawk was fettered on our shore. Four brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses, descended from Chad Brown, were all prominent merchants. John was a man of the time. Afterward, his powder, seized in a raid in the British West Indies, arrived in time to be issued in the retreat from Bunker Hill. Brown planned a daring attack on His Majesty's vessel in James Sabin's inn. The historic room has been transferred bodily by the Talbots to their home at zoo Williams Street. Eight long boats were provided by Brown and moved under the command of Abraham Whipple, afterward a commodore in the Revolutionary navy. A boat from Bristol joined the party. Lieutenant Duddingston answered the hail of the patriot raiders and was severely wounded, shedding the first British blood in the War of Independence. Whipple's men boarded the cruiser, drove the crew below, took them off prisoners, then fired and destroyed the vessel. It shows the firm temper and new American loyalty prevailing in the town, that large rewards brought out no information which would effectively prosecute Brown and Whipple or their fellow offenders. Brown was arrested and imprisoned during the occupation of Boston, but for want of sufficient proof he was discharged.

Providence contributed its full share to the Revolution. Stephen Hopkins signed the Declaration of Independence with a tremulous hand, but a firm heart. Troops were freely furnished and privateers brought wealth to the town. The second division of the French contingent passed the winter of 1782 in encampment on Harrington's Lane. The street is now known as Rochambeau Avenue. Newport, hitherto the more important port, lost her commerce through the British occupation. The natural drift of commerce to the farthest inland waters available was precipitated by these political changes. Newport never recovered her lost prestige, and Providence developed rapidly after the peace. Voyages, which had been mostly to the West Indies with an occasional trip to Bilbao and the Mediterranean, soon stretched around the world to harvest the teeming wealth of the Chinese and Indian seas. The General Washington, the first vessel from Providence in that trade, sailed in 1787. Edward Carrington sent out and received the last vessels in 1841. In the early years of the nineteenth century, the profits of the Oriental trade were very great.

The manufacture of cotton was attempted by several parties, but it was not established in Providence. Samuel Slater located in Pawtucket in 1790. He was induced to come to our State through the sagacity, enterprise and abundant capital of Moses Brown. After about a year, a glut of yarns occurred, and Almy, Brown and Slater had accumulated nearly six thousand pounds. Brown said: "Samuel, if thee goes on, thee will spin up all our farms." The manufacture extended rapidly and became the chief source of the prosperity of the State. It absorbed the capital, which was gradually withdrawn from commerce and shipping.

An important element in the development of bur city has been the free banking system. The first institution in our State and the second in New England was the Providence Bank, chartered in 1791.

Newspapers only slightly affected the life of the eighteenth century. They began, in a humble way, the great part they were to play in later, modern development. The Providence Gazette and country Journal was first published in 1796 by William Goddard. The Manufacturers' and Farmers' Journal, still continuing its prosperous career, appeared in 182o. The Gazette was enlivened by advertisements in verse, of which this is a specimen, from the year 1796:

"A bunch of Grapes is Thurber's sign,
A shoe and boot is made on mine,
My shop doth stand in Bowen's Lane,
And Jonathan Cady is my name."

Housekeepers in our day consider the servant girl question a hard problem, but hear the complaint a century ago. There had been taken away then this rugged censor offers $500 reward.

"from the servant girls in this town, all inclination to do any kind of work, and left in lieu thereof, an impudent appearance, a strong and continued thirst for high wages, a gossiping disposition for every sort of amusement, a leering and hankering after persons of the other sex, a desire of finery and fashion, a never ceasing trot after new places more advantageous for stealing, with a number of contingent accomplishments, that do not suit the wearers. Now if any person or persons will restore that degree of honesty and industry, which has been for some time missing,"

In 1767 the first regular stage coach was advertised to Boston. In 1793 Hatch's stages ran to Boston and charged the passengers a fare of one dollar, the same sum which the railway charges today. In 1796 a navigable canal was projected to Worcester, John Brown being an active promoter. The project was not carried through until 1828, when the packet boat Lady Carrington passed through the Blackstone Canal. The enterprise had poor success. John Brown built Washington Bridge across the lower Seekonk, connecting the eastern shore to India Point, where the wealth of Ormus and of Ind was discharged from the aromatic ships. In this period the first steamboat came from New York around Point Judith and connected with stages to Boston.

The international disputes concerning the embargo and non intercourse with Great Britain, which led up to the War of 1812, found Providence opposed in opinion to the Executive of the United States. But the opposition was loyal and the government received proper support. Peace was very welcome when it was proclaimed in 1815. This year, a tremendous gale swept the ocean into the bay and the bay into the river, carrying ruin in their path. The waters were higher by some seven feet than had ever been known. The fierce winds carried the salt of the seas as far inland as Worcester. Thirty or forty vessels were dashed through the Weybosset Bridge into the cove above. Others were swept from their moorings and stranded among the wharves. Shops were smashed or damaged and the whole devastation cost nearly one million of dollars, a great sum in those days. It was a radical measure of improvement. New streets were opened and better stores rose amid the ruins. South Water and South West Water Streets date hence, and Canal Street was opened soon after.

In 1832 the city government was organized, with Samuel W. Bridgham for mayor. A serious riot occurring the previous year had shown that the old town government was outgrown. The railways to Boston and Stonington changed the course of transportation. In 1848 the Worcester connection, the first intersecting or cross line in New England, gave direct intercourse with the West.

We sent out Henry Wheaton, one of the masters of international law, and we adopted Francis Wayland, a citizen of the world, who set an enduring mark on Rhode Island. President of Brown University, 1827-1855, his work in the American educational system has not yet yielded its full fruit. He brought teacher and pupil into closer contact by the living voice. He projected a practical method for elective studies and put it in operation at Brown University in 1850. Started too soon, and with insufficient means, it opened the way to success, when the larger universities inaugurated similar methods after the Civil War. Nine hundred and forty six students now attend where Manning and Wayland taught.

An armed though bloodless insurrection in 1842 brought our State to the verge of revolution. The old charter of 1663 limited suffrage to freeholders and their oldest sons. Thomas Wilson Dorr was the champion of people's suffrage. His party elected him governor with a legislature, by irregular and illegitimate voting. They mustered in arms and tried to seize the State arsenals in our city. Dorr had a strong intellect; he was a sincere and unselfish patriot, though perverse and foolish in his conduct of affairs. The suffrage was widened by a new constitution in 1843, which has just been revised by a constitutional commission.

The early cotton manufacture was fostered by the well distributed water power of Rhode Island. The glacial grinding of the land had left numerous ponds and minor streams, admirable reservoirs of wafter power, just the facilities needed for weak pioneers. As the century advanced, greater force was needed. About 1847 George H. Corliss bent his talents and energies to extend the power of the high pressure steam engine. He adapted and developed better cut off valves, which preserved the whole expansive force of the steam, stopped off before it filled the cylinder. It was a new lever of Archimedes, and Corliss's machines went over the whole world. This new mastery of force stimulated all industries.

Our little community showed its customary military spirit in 1861. Governor William Sprague mustered troops with great energy. After the famous Massachusetts 6th, the Rhode Island 1st Militia with its 1st Battery were the first reinforcements which arrived at Washington. In field artillery, our volunteers were especially proficient.

The growth of the population of Providence is shown in the following table:

1708 . . . 1,446

1840 . . . 23,172

1730 . . . 3,916

1850 . . . 41,513

1774 . . . 4,321

1860 . . . 50,666

1800 . . . 7,614

1870 . . . 68,904

1810 . . . 10,071

1880 . . . 104,857

1820 . . . 11,745

1885 . . . 118,070

1830 . . . 16,836

1895 . . . 145,472

We could not notice parts of Providence had curso slavery. Small as well as large impliments of iron of julery and silver, the invention and immense production of woodscrews, india rubber, worsted, - all these complicated industries have built up an extending and encroaching city, until now three hundred thousand people dwell within a radius of ten miles from our City Hall.

Old Providence, the home of Williams and the Quakers, is fading away. The "Towne Streete," its meandering curves gradually straightening, will hardly be recognized a century hence. The Mowry house, the homes of Stephen and Esek Hopkins, are small, when compared with the mansions of John Brown, Thomas P. Ives, Sullivan Dorr and Edward Carrington; while the solid comfort prevailing in the eighteenth century, as embodied in these houses, is surpassed, though it may not be bettered, by the more pretentious domestic architecture of our day. The Independent worshipers in the First Baptist and First Congregational churches would feel strange under the domes of the beautiful Central Congregational. The Anglicans of the first St. John's would be bewildered by the pointed arches of St. Stephen's. The few Catholic immigrants, bringing the Host across the seas with tender care, and resting at St. Peter and St. Paul's, would be amazed by the swarm of well to do citizens clustering beneath the massive towers of the Cathedral.

The industrial and economic evolution is fully as great as the asthetic and architectural. The crazy little organism of Almy, Brown and Slater is replaced by the long, whirling shafts, the spindled acres of the Goddards' Ann and Hope Mill at Lonsdale. The homely security of the market house (present Board of Trade), the Providence Bank and the "Arcade" is overshadowed by the City Hall, the Rhode Island Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company. University Hall burgeons into the fair arches of Sayles Hall. No medieval builder worked more reverently than Alpheus C. Morse, as he devotedly wrought at his task, getting the best lines into stone and lime.

Not always does the work of the modern builders tend toward beauty. The masterly brick arcades of Thomas A. Teft kept the city's approaches for a half century. Swept away by the more convenient passenger station of the New York and New Haven Railway, they will leave behind many regrets. The magnificent marble State House will lift the observer away from and above all the buildings below.

The growth of Providence runs even with the State's, except in the excrescent luxury of Newport in its summer bloom. We cannot stand still like Holland; we must look outward or decay. The American destiny is reaching out, notwithstanding the caution of the prudent, perhaps of the judicious. The mystic Orient, no longer mysterious, beckons from the West instead of the East. It led the Browns, Iveses, Carringtons, Maurans, and their captains, the Holdens, Ormsbees, Paiges and Comstocks, to opulence. Their descendants, with more abundant capital, ready skill and better organization, ought not to lag in the world's march. Men must be forthcoming.

There has been always a cosmopolitan flavor in the little State, isolated between the restless intellectual energy of Massachusetts and the steady Puritan development of Connecticut. Boston had more trade than Providence and Newport; she was not so truly commercial. The larger Franklin went over to Pennsylvania, but the next man, Stephen Hopkins, stayed in Rhode Island. The seed which Berkeley planted sprouted in Channing, and that influence went throughout New England. The little State has never been without ideas.

Historic towns of New England

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