Greater City Providence

Notes from the PPS Symposium Morning Session

The Cove, Providence

The Cove in Providence in 1889 looking northeast as seen from today’s Kennedy Plaza. Photo (cc) Providence Public Library

The Providence Preservation Society Symposium, Make No Little Plans started today, and I was there, scribbling down notes. If you follow @gcpvd on Twitter then you caught some of it, and I’ll be Twittering again at the afternoon session.

The presentation was “By the Cask or Smaller Quantity: Providence’s Waterfront and the World the Merchant’s Made” by C. Morgan Grefe the Executive Director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. Ms. Grefe spoke about the period from Roger Williams’ settlement through the slave trading and China trade periods to just before the start of the Industrial Revolution.

I’m going to basically type my notes as scribbled down expanding what I can remember or my impressions as I can:

  • In the hundred years before 1790 Providence’s population increased from a sleepy town of under 1,000 to a city of 10,000.
  • Newport was wrecked during the American Revolution while Providence remained largely untouched, allowing Providence to take over Newport’s lead on the title of Rhode Island’s primary city (remember, through 1900, Providence and Newport were co-capitals of Rhode Island).
  • From Roger William’s time through the 18th century Providence’s urban form was mixed use. Though the town had a small population until the end of the city, it was densely settled with no separation of work, live, and recreation areas. The people of that time would have to testify to how they felt about that.
  • The early city was laid out linearly along the east bank of the Providence River and into The Cove with tall masted ships making their way almost as far as what is now College Street and other ships reaching near to where Smith Street is now. Trade and port activity took place at the wharves along South Water Street. Other merchant activity and housing climbed the hill toward Benefit Street.
  • John Brown built his house on Benefit Street so he could keep track of all the port activity from that vantage point near the top of the hill.
  • Providence was a walking city and had a temporal view of distance that reflected that and holds today. Just as Rhode Islander’s are apt to pack an overnight bag for a trip to Westerly or make specific plans for a trip to Woonsocket (and would refer to each of those as a “trip”), the Providencencians of the day lived their lives in very narrow geographic confines. Moses Brown settled in his “Country Home” at what is now Swan Point and would from time to time send letters back to Providence (a distance of about 2.25 miles as the crow flies). Historical records recount a women bemoaning her daughter’s decision to move from the family home on Benefit Street to Weybosset Street, worrying she would never be able to see her anymore as it was so far away. Trips to Boston took 11 hours by stagecoach with other historic accounts of travelers leaving Providence and stopping at Attleboro to nap on their way to Boston.
  • While residents stayed close to home and didn’t travel far by land, ships heading to all ports on Earth where berthed at India Point. While a Providencian would likely never make their way to Worcester, many of them found themselves in the Caribbean, Indonesia, or Africa.
  • The ships at India Point also brought the world to Providence. The streets of Providence were a riot of exotic languages, residents had access to spices, oranges, exotic animals”¦ all things unheard of just 20 miles from the coast.
  • Much of Providence’s trade and wealth was the result of the Slave Trade. In the late 1700s as many as 60% of the North American ships on the coast of Africa at anytime came from Rhode Island.
  • In 1787 the China Trade began. Ships from Providence made their way to Batavia (present day Jakarta), Canton, India, and Japan bringing exotic easter goods home to Rhode Island.
  • The China trade prompted a renaissance in art, design, and fashion which spread out of ports like Providence.
  • While Providence had always been a coffee town, never having acquired a taste for tea, many of the city’s fortunes were made through the re-exportation of tea to other parts of the country under cutting prices on tea imported from England.
  • The merchant activity fueled by the slave and China trades created the fortunes that would lead to Rhode Island leading the American Industrial Revolution.

The second presentation “The City Comes of Age” by Rick Greenwood the Deputy Director of the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission focused on the period from the Industrial Revolution through the turn of the 20th century.

  • The early Industrial Revolution was powered by water. Mills at Woonsocket, Worcester, and of course Pawtucket were powered by the drops along the Blackstone River. Lacking any water power, the early Industrial Revolution bypassed Providence, though the port continued to profit from moving the products of those mills.
  • In the 1850s George Corliss was drawn to Providence by its capital. He was seeking investors to develop his sewing machine. No one was interested. However, when Corliss developed his steam engine the Providence investors realized it meant they could now get in on the Industrial Revolution as it obviated the need for the water power that Providence lacked, investors lined up.
  • The Corliss steam engine was a globally transformative technology and Providence reaped the benefits
  • In 1850 Providence’s population was still steady at around 10,000. Following the Industrial boom unleashed by Corliss’ engine, the population rose to 200,000 by 1900.
  • The Industrial growth prompted Providence’s population to shift from the East Side, where the city was first settled to Weybosset Neck (today’s Downcity) on the west side to the river where the city’s factories and housing for their workers would be built.
  • Early railroads gave Providence access to raw materials and created transport infrastructure to move the goods Providence produced.
  • The Cove was first blocked to shipping when a permanent bridge was built at Weybosset Street in 1815 following a storm which devastated the waterfront.
  • In 1844 the Providence & Worcester Railroad was built along the course of the Blackstone Canal.
  • The Boston & Providence Railroad ran to India Point via a bridge over the Seekonk River from East Providence.
  • The railroad from New York ran up what is now Allens Avenue ending near where the Hurricane Barrier is today. A ferry shuttle people and goods between their and Fox’s Point.
  • The P&W Railroad moved to fill the eastern and southern sides of The Cove so their trains could reach Weybosset Neck (today’s Downcity) which was quickly becoming the city’s center of trade and commerce. The New York line moved to bring their trains up from the west to meet the P&W trains at a new “Union” Station.
  • While the City Council, (many members of which were Railroad shareholders) moved quickly to approve P&W’s plans for the Cove and a new station, Zachariah Allen called for the input of Architects and Engineers to ensure The Cove would be a public amenity. Inspired by the egalitarian parks and square he saw in Europe, he insisted that Providence should have the same. Allen organized a group of influential businessmen to get the Council to agree to his vision.
  • Allens intervention resulted in The Cove having a Promenade (where we get the name of today’s Promenade Street from) around The Cove between it and the railroad tracks. Mature trees were transplanted and decorative railings, bridges, and gravel pathways where installed for the benefit of the residents of Providence. The Cove and Promenade became Providence’s version of Central Park, allowing for a place for recreation and even a place for people to organize rallies.
  • In 1849 Thomas Tefft’s original Union Station (the one which predates the one on Exchange Terrace today) was completed as were much of the Promenades along The Cove.
  • In 1857 the western side of the circular Cove was completed and the Promenade looped completely around it.
  • Though much of the project was realized, the Railroad never finished what they agreed to do and paid the City $10,000 to be released from their obligations.
  • Though The Cove acted as a center of recreation and leisure activity for the residents of the City for about 10-20 years after 1850, The Cove gradually filled in with silt (sound familiar?). As the Industrial Revolution ramped up, that silt became filled with refuse from the Industrial processes along the rivers. At one time, dye from clothing mills turned the waters magenta. Slaughter house poured their waste directly into the river. And, the city lacking sewers sent human waste into the rivers and The Cove. The small outlet to the Bay did not allow for tidal flushing and The Cove became a fetid sewer.
  • While The Cove was turning vile, the Railroads were expanding and the small freight yards they built in the area of The Cove were inadequate. The popular solution to both of these problems was to fill The Cove and deck over the rivers.
  • the City and Railroads spent years debating who would pay for filling The Cove. In the late 1880s the Railroads, after changes in ownership and more need to expand their freight yards agreed to a plan to fill The Cove.
  • The bluffs of Smith Hill were graded to obtain fill for The Cove and the State House lawn we have today is a result of that grading.
  • In 1890, a year after The Cove was filled Providence began work on its municipal sewage system, which would have solved part of the issues with The Cove.
  • The station Exchange Terrace was built in 1898 with Francis Street passing under it as a response to concerns about the elevated tracks creating a “Chinese Wall” and having only small dark holes to pass under it.

The afternoon session starts shortly and addresses the “Renaissance Period,” 1960 on. I’ll likely be doing some more Twittering and hope to have a post up here some time tomorrow.

Jef Nickerson

Jef is Greater City Providence's co-founder, editor, and publisher. He grew up on Cape Cod and lived in Boston; Portland, Maine; and New York before settling in Providence. In addition to urbanism, Jef is interested in art, design, and ice cream. Please feel free to contact Jef if you have any question or comments about Greater City Providence.


  • It seems that Providence has had a history of bad leadership and poor ideas for modern urban design…I have high hopes for the future but low expectations.

  • Amazing that Providence to Boston can now be done in under an hour. And 2.5 miles? Hell I commute 3 miles to my office and back home every day.

    I had to laugh about Benefit St. to Weybosset St. That’s too funny.

    BTW, if you ever get a chance hit the State Archives and the State Library. They have a veritable treasure trove of interesting historical articles and items. For example, the State Library has the maps of Providence from the 17th and 18th centuries and at one point Providence extended all the way to the CT border.

    And the State Archives, they have photos from the late 19th century showing the laying of gas lines, sewer lines, etc.

    And where I live off Broadway, it was all built between 1849 and 1900.

  • Love the history. Keep it comin’!

    I always wonder what would have happened if the Brits hadn’t throttled Newport in the Revolution. I’d love to hear an expert analysis of their battle strategy: why here? I’ve always guessed that Newport/Providence offered a two-for-one opportunity and a strategic advance in the fight for control over Boston. Also, I think Newport and Boston, being right off the Atlantic, made for easier naval targets than Philly and New York, where rebel cannons could bombard any fleet long before it came in sight of the city. But those are just speculation. I don’t really know. Somebody must. Whatever the reasoning, the events certainly changed the history of RI dramatically.

  • In the age of sail, Newport was far more convenient than Providence. An ocean-going ship could take a day or more to tack up or down the bay. In the revolution, control of Newport certainly offered control of Providence as a 2 for 1.

    Providence could not have become a major city until the time of railroads and steamships.

Providence, RI
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