History of Providence, Rhode Island

The Rhode Island city of Providence has a nearly 400-year history integral to that of the United States, including significance in the American Revolutionary War by providing leadership and fighting strength, quartering troops, and supplying goods to residents by circumventing the blockade of Newport. The city is also noted for the first bloodshed of the American Revolution in the Gaspée Affair. Additionally, Providence is notable for economic shifts, moving from trading to manufacturing. The decline of manufacturing devastated the city during the Great Depression, but the city eventually attained economic recovery through investment of public funds.

The Stephen Hopkins House is the oldest extant house in Providence

Founding and colonial eraEdit

The original 1636 deed to Providence, signed by Chief Canonicus
An artist's conception of how Providence may have appeared in 1650, 14 years after its establishment.

Providence was settled in June 1636 by Puritan theologian Roger Williams and grew into one of the original Thirteen Colonies. As a minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams had advocated the separation of church and state and condemned colonists' confiscation of land from the Indians. He was convicted of sedition and heresy and banished from the colony. Williams and others established a settlement in Rumford, Rhode Island in 1636 on land given to them by the Narragansett people.[1][2] Soon after settling, Plymouth Colony's Governor William Bradford gently warned Williams that he was within the bounds of Plymouth Colony, and Bradford did not wish to bring their ire to Plymouth. In response, the group moved down the Seekonk River, around Fox Point, and up the Providence River to the confluence of the a Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers. Here they established a new settlement called Providence Plantations, cultivating the community as a refuge for religious dissenters.[3]

For the land, Williams reached a verbal agreement with sachems Canonicus and Miantonomo, leaders of the Narragansetts. This agreement was later formalized in a deed dated March 24, 1638.[4]

The original town layout of Providence Plantations; many of the streets on the East Side are named after the original owners

Providence lacked a royal charter, unlike Salem and Boston. The settlers thus organized themselves, allotting tracts on the eastern side of the Providence River in 1638 of roughly six acres each. These home lots extended from Towne Street (now South Main Street) up the eastern hill to Hope Street.[5] The portion of land between Towne Street and the eastern bank of the Providence River was held in common.[6]

The settlement effectively outlawed any official government religion, and no church building was erected in the town until the 18th century. In the absence of a church, the settlers congregated for religious and civil purposes on the common land adjacent to Roger Williams' home lot.[7]

Over the following two decades, Providence Plantations grew into a self-sufficient agricultural and fishing settlement, though its lands were difficult to farm and its borders were disputed with Connecticut and Massachusetts.[8] During this period, the original temporary log dwellings built by the first settlers gave way to new clapboard stone-end houses with gabled roofs.[7]

Indians burned Providence to the ground on March 29, 1676 during King Philip's War, making it one of two major Colonial settlements burned.[9] The only two houses known to have survived the fire are the William Field House and Roger Mowry Tavern, both of which have since been demolished.[10]

After the town was rebuilt, the economy expanded into more industrial and commercial activity. The outer lands of Providence Plantation extending to the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders were incorporated as Scituate, Glocester, and Smithfield, Rhode Island in 1731.[8] Later, Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence were also carved out of Providence's municipal territory.[8]

In 1700, the first church building was erected in the city, a Baptist church on the corner of Smith and North Main Streets.

By the 1760s, the population of the city's urban core reached 4,000.[8]

In 1770, Brown University moved to Providence from nearby Warren. At the time, the college was known as Rhode Island College and occupied a single building on College Hill. The college's choice to relocate to Providence as opposed to Newport symbolized a larger shift away from Newport's commercial and political dominance over the colony.[11][12]

American RevolutionEdit

During the Revolutionary War, Brown University's University Hall served as barracks and as a military hospital.

In 1776, Providence recorded a population of 4,321.[13]

During the 1770s, the British government levied taxes that impeded Providence's maritime, fishing, and agricultural industries, the mainstays of the city's economy. One example was the Sugar Act, which affected Providence's distilleries and its trade in rum. These taxes and other official acts of the British crown caused the Colony of Rhode Island to renounce allegiance to Britain—the first of the Thirteen Colonies to do so. Providence residents were also among the first to spill blood in the American Revolution during the Gaspée Affair in 1772, an act of open defiance that preceded the more famous Boston Tea Party by more than a year.[8]

Providence escaped British occupation during the American Revolutionary War, although the British captured Newport and imposed a blockade that devastated the island's economy.

During the war, American troops were quartered in Providence. Brown University's University Hall was used as a barracks and military hospital for American soldiers, while French troops were quartered in the city's Market House.[8][14]

Late 18th and Early 19th CenturiesEdit

Economic and demographic shiftsEdit

During the late 18th and early 19th century, the city became a center of the lucrative China Trade. Between 1789 and 1841, Providence was one of America's major ports trading directly with China. During this era, three of the seven US consuls to China came from Providence. Exchange with Canton and the East Indies benefited Providence merchants immensely. With their newly accrued wealth, many members of this merchant class constructed large mansions on College Hill; among these homes are the Nightingale–Brown House (1792) and Corliss–Carrington House (1812).[15] After 1830, Providence's trade shifted to Canada, which supplied the rapidly industrializing city with coal and lumber.[16]

Gorham Manufacturing Company's works on Canal, Steeple, and North Main Streets, Providence, 1886

During the early 19th century, the economy began to shift from maritime endeavors to manufacturing—particularly machinery, tools, silverware, jewelry, and textiles. At one time, Providence boasted some of the largest manufacturing plants in the country, including Brown & Sharpe, Nicholson File, and Gorham Manufacturing Company.[8] The city's industries attracted many immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, England, Italy, Portugal, Cape Verde, and French Canada.

These economic and demographic shifts caused social strife.[8] Hard Scrabble and Snow Town were the sites of race riots in 1824 and 1831.[17][18]

Providence residents ratified a city charter in 1831 as the population passed 17,000.[8]

Market Square was the center of civic life in the 19th Century, and Market House was home to the city council before City Hall was built.[14]

Seat of governmentEdit

The city government was housed in the Market House from its incorporation as a city in 1832 until 1878.[19] Market House is located in Market Square, which was the geographic and social center of the city. The city offices quickly outgrew this building, and the City Council resolved to create a permanent municipal building in 1845.[19] The city spent the next 30 years searching for a suitable location, resulting in what one historian calls "Providence's Thirty Years War," as the council bickered over where to situate the new building.[19] The city offices moved into the Providence City Hall in 1878.

Jewelry industryEdit

During 19th and 20th centuries, the manufacturing of jewelry and costume jewelry emerged as a dominant local industry.[20][21] Jewelry manufacturing began in Providence in 1794, and by 1880 Rhode Island's jewelry industry accounted for more than one quarter of the entire national jewelry production.[22] By 1890, the city was home to 200 jewelry firms employing 7,000 workers.[21]

During the 1960s, jewelry trade magazines referred to Providence as “the jewelry capital of the world.”[21] The industry peaked in 1978 with 32,500 workers, then began a swift decline.[20] By 1996, the number of jewelry workers shrank to 13,500.[20]

During the following decades, the large jewelry factories that had once dominated the city's Jewelry District were closed or vacated. Many of these buildings have since been renovated and repurposed for commercial, retail, residential, and educational use, mirroring the city's broader shift from a manufacturing to service economy.[20]

Late 19th CenturyEdit

Providence, harbor view, 1858
A 19th century view of Westminster Street.


Providence experienced considerable growth during the late 1800s, with immigrants increasing the population from 54,595 in 1865 to 175,597 by 1900.[8]

In 1871, Betsey Williams, the last descendant of Roger Williams, bequeathed 102 acres of land to the city for the development of Roger Williams Park. The elaborately landscaped grounds were designed by Horace Cleveland and intended to serve as an escape for the workers of the industrial, urban center of Providence, in accordance with the ideas of the City Beautiful movement.[23]

By 1890, Providence's Union Railroad had a network which included more than 300 horsecars and 1,515 horses.[24] Two years later, the first electric streetcars were introduced in Providence,[24] and the city soon had an electric streetcar network extending from Crescent Park to Pawtuxet in the south and Pawtucket in the north.[24] According to journalist Mike Stanton, "Providence was one of the richest cities in America in the early 1900s."[25]

Increased population density caused public health problems; in 1854, an epidemic of cholera swept the city. A survey of living conditions conducted by the city discovered unhealthy crowding among immigrants and workers. In one case, 29 people were recorded as living in a single-story house; in another, 47 people shared a two-story home. The survey found 5,780 latrines in the city, of which "fewer than half were emptied annually". 1854 was remembered as "The Year of Cholera" for the next 30 years.[26]

Sole capitalEdit

Construction on the Rhode Island State House, 1898.

The Rhode Island General Assembly rotated among a number of legislative buildings throughout the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In 1900, the assembly passed the Article of Amendment XI, making Providence the state's sole capital and the legislature's permanent home.[27] This designation was concurrent with the construction of the Rhode Island State House, which was completed in 1904.

Early 20th centuryEdit

Influenza outbreakEdit

Charles Value Chapin was a pioneer in public health who oversaw Providence's response to the Spanish flu

In early September 1918, the first cases of the Spanish flu started appearing in Providence.[28] By the end of the month, public health superintendent Charles V. Chapin had identified over 2,500 cases in the city.[28] Chapin and other officials responded by ordering more hospital beds and increased staffing.[28] On October 6, the Providence Board of Health issued a general closure order, affecting all public and private schools, theaters, movie houses, and dance halls.[28] The spread of the influenza reached its highest level during October 3–9, with 6,700 cases reported.[28] The closure order was rescinded on October 25.[28] The flu returned for a smaller second wave in January 1919, which hit schools particularly hard.[28] By February 5, no new cases were being reported and the epidemic was declared over.[28]

Early declineEdit

The city began to see a decline by the mid-1920s as manufacturing industries began to shut down. The city was deeply affected by the Great Depression, which left more than a third of the labor force unemployed.[29] The subsequent Recession of 1937–1938 was immediately followed by the New England Hurricane of 1938, which flooded the city's downtown.[30] The hurricane was particularly destructive to the struggling textile industry, with many mills never reopening following the storm.[31]

Mid-late 20th centuryEdit

Urban declineEdit

From the 1940s to 1970s, middle class residents vacated Providence faster than any other American city other than Detroit. The remainder of these residents were disproportionately poor and elderly.[32]

Starting in 1956, construction began on Interstate 195 and Interstate 95, which necessitated the demolition of hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses. These highways ultimately severed Downtown from the South Side, the West End, Federal Hill, and Smith Hill.[33] Over the following years, the Providence Redevelopment Authority further razed a number of blocks west of Downtown in an unsuccessful effort to attract investment.[32]

Decline of downtownEdit

A postcard showing a Providence streetscape c. 1940, when the city reached its maximum population.

Providence's population decreased from a maximum of 253,504 in 1940 to only 179,213 in 1970, as the middle class fled to the suburbs.[34] Those who stayed behind were disproportionately poor and in need of social services.[34] Retail stores, movie theaters, and businesses likewise fled as Providence's downtown was widely considered polluted, dangerous to visit after dark, and lacking in parking.[34] As hotels and department stores failed, many significant downtown buildings were demolished, boarded up, or abandoned.[34] In 1964, Westminster Street was pedestrianized in a failed attempt to attract shoppers; within a decade, all the street's major stores had closed except Woolworth's.[34] Familiar local names disappeared from the city by the end of the 1970s, such as the Crown Hotel, Kent Hotel, Narragansett Hotel, Dreyfus Hotel, Arcadia Ballroom, Albee Theater, Port Arthur Chinese Restaurant, J.J. Newbury's, Kresge's, Gladdings, and Shepard's Department Store.[34]


From the 1950s to the 1980s, Providence was a notorious bastion of organized crime.[35][36] Notorious mafia boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca ruled a vast criminal enterprise from the city for over three decades, during which murders and kidnappings became commonplace.[37]

"Renaissance City"Edit

The Providence River as it appears now; the river was largely paved over until the 1980s

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, $606 million of local and national Community Development money was invested throughout the city, and the declining population began to stabilize.

In the 1990s, Mayor Buddy Cianci advertised the city's arts and promoted further revitalization. Cianci's administration uncovered parts of the city's previously paved rivers, relocated a large section of railroad underground, created Waterplace Park and river walks, and constructed the 1.4 million square-foot Providence Place Mall.[38][8]

In 1980, Providence's decreasing population began to grow once again.[39]

21st centuryEdit

New construction in Providence (August 2006): cranes seen for Waterplace Towers Condominium, Westin addition, and the GTECH Corporation headquarters prior to completion.

First decadesEdit

From the mid 2000s to early 2010s, the city of Providence worked to relocate portions of Interstate 95 and 195, with the intention of reunifying formerly divided neighborhoods on the city's West Side. The project cost more than $620 million but freed 19 acres of land in and adjacent to the city's Jewelry District.[40] The city and state have marketed the new neighborhood as Providence's "Innovation & Design District," with the intention of establishing the area as a science, technology, and education hub and cementing the city's knowledge economy.[41][42]

During the 2000s and early 2010s, new investment was triggered in the city with new construction, including numerous condominium and hotel projects and a new office high rise.[43][44] The city recruited a number of companies including Virgin Pulse and GE Digital to establish offices in Providence, offering tax incentives and advertising a lower cost of living than nearby Boston.[45]

Ongoing challengesEdit

Poverty remains a problem in Providence, with 26 percent of the city living below the federal poverty line.[46] A 2020 Brandeis University report claimed that the "opportunity gap" between white and Latino children in Providence was the third-highest of the 100 cities considered in the study.[47]

From 2004 to 2005, Providence had the highest rise in median housing price of any city in the United States.[48]

Bicycle and pedestrian initiativesEdit

The late 2010s saw a number of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvements.[49] A greenway opened in Roger Williams Park in 2017.[49] In August 2019, the Providence River Pedestrian and Bicycle Bridge opened, connecting the east and west sides of downtown.[50] The bridge was built on the granite piers of the old Route 195 bridge.[50]

A bicycle sharing program started in September 2018, only to be halted within a year due to vandalism and theft.[51]

In January 2020, mayor Jorge Elorza introduced a "Great Streets" initiative to create a framework of public space improvements to encourage walking, riding bicycles, and using public transit.[52] The plan includes establishing an "Urban Trail Network" which includes 60 miles of bicycle paths, bike lanes, and greenways within Providence.[53]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Three and One-Half Centuries at a Glance". City of Providence, Rhode Island. May 2002. Archived from the original on January 13, 2006. Retrieved January 17, 2006.
  2. ^ "Roger Williams - Founder of Rhode Island & Salem Minister - HISTORY". www.history.com. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  3. ^ "Rhode Island's Plymouth Rock—Well, Almost". New England Historical Society. March 20, 2020. Retrieved October 16, 2020.
  4. ^ "Educational Resources - Original Deed to Providence - Roger Williams Initiative". www.findingrogerwilliams.com. Retrieved October 16, 2020.
  5. ^ Providence, Mailing Address: 282 North Main Street; Us, RI 02903 Phone: 401-521-7266 Contact. "Roger Williams: In Providence - Roger Williams National Memorial (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Retrieved October 16, 2020.
  6. ^ Auwaerter, John Eric; Cowperthwaite, Karen (2010). Cultural Landscape Report for Roger Williams National Memorial: Providence, Rhode Island. Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service.
  7. ^ a b Auwaerter, John Eric; Cowperthwaite, Karen (2010). Cultural Landscape Report for Roger Williams National Memorial: Providence, Rhode Island. Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, National Park Service.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Three and One-Half Centuries at a Glance". City of Providence, Rhode Island. May 2002. Retrieved January 17, 2006.
  9. ^ Lepore, xxvii.
  10. ^ Witcher, Pheamo (1992). A Study of the Providence Historic District Commission (Thesis). University of Rhode Island. doi:10.23860/thesis-witcher-pheamo-1992.
  11. ^ Withey, Lynne (January 1, 1984). Urban Growth in Colonial Rhode Island: Newport and Providence in the Eighteenth Century. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-87395-751-9.
  12. ^ FitzGerald, Frances (September 4, 2005). "Peculiar Institutions". The New Yorker. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  13. ^ Arnold, Samuel Greene (1874). History of the state of Rhode Island and Providence plantations. New York, etc.: D. Appleton & Co.
  14. ^ a b Cady, John Hutchins (October 1952). "The Providence Market House and its neighborhood" (PDF). Rhode Island History. Rhode Island Historical Society. 11 (4): 97–106. Retrieved April 9, 2015.
  15. ^ Johnston, Patricia; Frank, Caroline (November 4, 2014). Global Trade and Visual Arts in Federal New England. University of New Hampshire Press. ISBN 978-1-61168-585-5.
  16. ^ www.rihs.org https://www.rihs.org/mssinv/MSS028sg1.htm. Retrieved October 22, 2020. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |title= (help)
  17. ^ "Hardscrabble". Brown University. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  18. ^ "Snow Town Riot". Brown University. Archived from the original on July 17, 2011. Retrieved August 2, 2010.
  19. ^ a b c Campbell, Paul. "A Brief History of Providence City Hall". City Archives. City of Providence. Retrieved April 10, 2015.
  20. ^ a b c d Abbott, Elizabeth (January 26, 1997). "Providence Jewelry District Gets a New Luster". The New York Times. Retrieved July 27, 2016.
  21. ^ a b c Davis, Paul (July 4, 2015). "R.I.'s jewelry industry history in search of a permanent home". Providence: The Providence Journal. Retrieved July 27, 2016. In 1794, Seril Dodge opened a jewelry store on North Main Street in Providence, and Nehemiah Dodge developed a process for coating lesser metals with gold and silver. Historians say that the two men started Rhode Island's jewelry industry.
  22. ^ Lightfoot, D. Tulla (February 21, 2019). The Culture and Art of Death in 19th Century America. McFarland. p. 132. ISBN 978-1-4766-3518-7.
  23. ^ "The People's Park". Roger Williams Park. Retrieved October 19, 2020.
  24. ^ a b c Molloy, Scott (2007). Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line. UPNE. pp. 65–66. ISBN 978-1584656302. Retrieved May 31, 2015.
  25. ^ Stanton, Mike (2003). The Prince of Providence. New York: Random House. p. 7. ISBN 0-375-75967-0.
  26. ^ McKenna, Ray (April 19, 2020). "My Turn: Ray McKenna: R.I. residents of 1854 would relate". The Providence Journal. Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  27. ^ Conley, Patrick T. (2011). The Rhode Island State Constitution. Robert G., Jr. Flanders. New York. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-19-987776-8. OCLC 867050350.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h "Providence, Rhode Island". Influenza Encyclopedia. University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library. Retrieved June 6, 2020.
  29. ^ Gilkeson, John S. (1986). Middle-Class Providence, 1820-1940. Princeton, New Jersey. p. 340. ISBN 978-1-4008-5435-6. OCLC 889248754.
  30. ^ Goudsouzian, Aram (2004). The Hurricane of 1938. Beverly, Mass.: Commonwealth Editions. p. 42. ISBN 1-889833-75-4. OCLC 55517964.
  31. ^ Blaine, Stephanie N. (2009). "Rhode Island's Greatest Natural Tragedy".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  32. ^ a b Coren, Samuel A. (May 2, 2016). "Interface: Providence and the Populist Roots of a Downtown Revival". Journal of Planning History. doi:10.1177/1538513216645620. S2CID 219960281.
  33. ^ "Rhode Ghosts". Post-. October 26, 2017. Retrieved March 13, 2021.
  34. ^ a b c d e f Coren, Samuel (May 2, 2016). "Interface: Providence and the Populist Roots of a Downtown Revival". Journal of Planning History. 16 (1): 4–7. doi:10.1177/1538513216645620. S2CID 219960281. Retrieved August 28, 2020.
  35. ^ Smith, Andy. "Mafia nostalgia ... it's a Rhode Island thing". providencejournal.com. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  36. ^ Patinkin, Mark. "Mark Patinkin: Delicious memories of the mob in Providence". providencejournal.com. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  37. ^ "CHAPTER ONE: DIVINE PROVIDENCE". CRIMETOWN. Retrieved July 20, 2018.
  38. ^ Petro, Pamela J. (August 31, 1997). "Providence". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  39. ^ Leazes, Francis J.; Motte, Mark T. (2004). Providence, the Renaissance City. UPNE. ISBN 978-1-55553-604-6.
  40. ^ Brown, Eliot (March 5, 2014). "Providence Reclaims a 'Link' to Its Past". Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  41. ^ Abbott, Elizabeth (August 18, 2015). "Providence, R.I., Is Building on a Highway's Footprint (Published 2015)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  42. ^ Abbott, Elizabeth (December 14, 2011). "Providence Puts Focus on Making a Home for Knowledge". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  43. ^ Lynn Arditi. "Condo supplies risings as prices drop". projo.com. Providence Journal. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  44. ^ Daniel Barbarisi. "Hunger for Hotels". projo.com. Providence Journal. Retrieved June 9, 2007.
  45. ^ D'Ambrosio, Daniel. "How Rhode Island Is Sparking Another Industrial Revolution". Forbes. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  46. ^ "U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Providence city, Rhode Island". www.census.gov. Retrieved October 20, 2020.
  47. ^ Borg, Linda. "Brandeis report: Opportunity gap among children of different races in Providence among nation's widest". providencejournal.com. Retrieved October 21, 2020.
  48. ^ "Money Magazine: Best Places to Live: Home Appreciation". cnnmoney.com. Cable News Network LP, LLLP. Retrieved March 6, 2007.
  49. ^ a b Curley, Bob (June 22, 2017). "Building a More Bikeable Providence". Rhody Beat. Archived from the original on May 22, 2020. Retrieved May 22, 2020.
  50. ^ a b List, Madeline (August 9, 2019). "$21.9 million later, pedestrian bridge opens in downtown Providence". The Providence Journal. Retrieved August 29, 2019.
  51. ^ Amaral, Brian (May 20, 2020). "Watchdog Team: Company behind Jump bikes was stunned by level of vandalism in Providence". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on May 21, 2020. Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  52. ^ "City of Providence Unveils Final Great Streets Plan". City of Providence. City of Providence. Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  53. ^ "Providence Unveils Plan for 'Great Streets'". Eco RI News. January 29, 2020. Archived from the original on May 13, 2020. Retrieved May 21, 2020.