Main Street formed the spine of the original English colonial settlement of Providence. Along the street's west side lay the Providence River, and to its east, up the steep slope of College Hill, stretched the deep, narrow house lots of the early settlers. Main Street's designation in the 1770s as “the Towne Street” even more emphatically indicated its role as the principal street of the community. It is here, at the southern end of the street, that the remnants of the principal docks and warehouses along the Providence River are located, immediately below the Market House (where South Main becomes North Main). This stretch of the Providence River, where the masts of the larger vessels thrust high above the buildings on the embankment, was the city's maritime core well into the nineteenth century. Smaller vessels could penetrate the center of the city all the way up to the Cove, as now marked by the circular pond at the heart of the Capital Center project (see PR8). Most of the river in the downtown was effectively buried in the late nineteenth century under continuous bridging, which acquired modest fame from a Guinness Book of World Recordslisting as the “world's widest bridge.” The Providence River was returned to the city's downtown in the early 1990s, not for anything as grand as the boats which once docked here, but for small unmasted pleasure craft which at least bring a sense of the old harbor into the heart of the city.
The rehabilitation of the southernmost end of South Main Street beginning in the mid-1960s reclaimed what survived from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly a row along the west (water) side of the street. Between this row and the river formerly existed the dockfront warehouses and other waterfront properties which accommodated shipping, matched by similar structures on the opposite bank.
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