Stretching eight miles along Rhode Island's southern coastline and reaching inland an equal distance, Charlestown comprises two distinct zones: a flat, sandy, coastal plain and the hilly, swampy woodlands of the interior, which extend to the town's northern edge. These zones contain several distinct clusters of sites and settlements. From the north along U.S. 1 (which generally follows the coastline along Block Island Sound), between the highway and the shore are structures that reflect pre-European habitation, early European settlement, and agrarian interests. Charlestown is the center of population and activity for the Narragansett Indian tribe, whose lands are concentrated north of U.S. 1, with important buildings and sites on either side of Route 2. Inland, along the banks of the Pawcatuck River system, are parts of well-preserved nineteenth-century mill villages—Kenyon, Carolina, and Shannock, all of which continue across the river into Richmond—document early industrialization in Charlestown. Finally, the later advent of summer tourism is represented in cottage colonies such as Arnolda and Quonochontaug and the inns, small motels, and motor courts strung along U.S. 1 and Route 1A. Arnolda, established in the first years of the twentieth century and sited on the hills overlooking Quonochontaug Pond, contains numerous substantial dwellings, as does Quonochontaug, initially developed around the same time. In Arnolda's case, however, these are secluded and largely screened from the road by dense growth, making them visually inaccessible. Other resources for summer recreation in Charlestown are Burlingame State Park (established 1927) and the abutting Kimball Wildlife Refuge (1924) of the Audubon Society, which together preserve well over 2,100 acres for recreation and conservation, the largest such area in the state.
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