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East Providence

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East Providence is a long, narrow, zigzag-shaped town—three to four times as long as it is wide—squeezed between the Seekonk River to the west and, to the east, the Ten Mile and Runnins rivers, which, together with other streams and ponds, mark most of its border with Massachusetts. The state boundary was not always where it is, not until a boundary settlement made as late as 1862, in fact, after long dispute. Fleeing from Puritan Massachusetts, Roger Williams first settled in the northern part of what is now East Providence in 1636, on what came to be called Omega Pond. He called his settlement Seacunke, the Indian name for the river from which the pond was barely separated. But his stay was brief, for the governor of Plymouth curtly reminded the heretic minister that he was still on Puritan soil. So Williams crossed the Seekonk to a new site on a river a short distance farther west which he called Providence.

Some two hundred Puritans, led by the Reverend Samuel Newman, arrived in the area vacated by Williams in 1643, having purchased land in the area from the Wampanoag. They called the place Rehoboth, a biblical name connoting an open space near a river. There they proceeded to lay out an immense, irregular common, preserving the crossing of two major Wampanoag trails toward its center (now the junction of Pawtucket and Newman avenues). Its 200 acres made it perhaps the largest common in Puritan New England. Its surrounding road was known as the “Ring of the Greene” or the “Ring of the Towne.” Each of the typically very long, very narrow land holdings of the original settlers butted one of its narrow ends against this road. The “ring” designation disappeared with time as segments assumed various street designations. At the center of the green, near the crossing of the Indian trails, the settlers marked the center of the town with their church (on the site of the Newman Congregational Church; see EP8) and laid out an adjacent burial ground.

The Puritan town of Rehoboth was very extensive, including the present Massachusetts towns of Rehoboth and Seekonk and pieces of the Attleboroughs, as well as corners of the present Rhode Island towns of Cumberland and Woonsocket. Over time the fuzziness of the location of the boundary between the two states and the tug of much of Rehoboth's population toward Rhode Island occasioned a long dispute. Two bridges of the Seekonk into Providence, just south of the settlement around the common, reinforced the Rhode Island leanings of its population. By the mid-nineteenth century there grew around the ends of the bridges a more commercially oriented portion of Rehoboth known as Watchemocket. After the 1862 settlement of the interstate arbitration, the dense commercial core of the new town became known as East Providence Center. Meanwhile, other village developments both north and south of the core village of East Providence had, by the final decades of the nineteenth century, disrupted the traditional agricultural emphasis of the town. To the north (which included the green and came to be known as Rumford), industry and suburbs replaced farms; to the south (known as Riverside) it was resorts and suburbs.

So long as industry depended on water power, it could not flourish either on the slowmoving flow of the Ten Mile River or on the tidewaters of the Seekonk, although a few small, scattered mills developed, and from shortly after 1800 even a few minor cotton mills. Not until the coming of the railroad and steam power and the move of the Rumford Chemical Works from Providence to East Providence in 1857, however, did the industrial base begin to change. Rumford Baking Powder and Horsford's Bread Preparation were staples in American pantries from the founding of the company in the nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, when factory baking eventually did the firm in. It was a joint venture of Charles F. Wilson and Eben Horsford: the first skilled with machines and management; the second the Rumford Professor of Chemistry at Harvard, who saw to the product. The company took its name from the professor's chair and the illustrious British chemist for whom it was named.

In 1858 Wilson bought a large tract of land in East Providence, including most of the ancient Rehoboth Green. He moved his Providence plant to the very center of the former green—proof in itself that land sacrosanct to Puritans had no such protection in Rhode Island. Wilson continued to purchase land and water rights to small mills, apparently intending some kind of large-scale real estate venture, which included a riverfront industrial park, along the Seekonk. But his plans for his land remained amorphous.

The other notable nineteenth-century industrialist to locate in East Providence was Eugene Phillips, a wire manufacturer, who, in 1893, moved his plant from Providence into a factory building vacated by a bankrupt business Wilson had lured to his Seekonk industrial park just five years earlier. There, the Phillips Electric Company (which in 1910 absorbed another wire manufacturer, assuming its name as Washburn Wire) became highly profitable, in largest part as a major supplier for the rapidly expanding telephone industry.

Meanwhile, the big Sayles textile operation built its Glenlyon Bleachery north of Washburn in 1899. Although trolleys brought most of the work force to these plants, both Washburn and Glenlyon lined the trolley route along Roger Williams Avenue with a variety of model housing, mostly duplexes, beginning in the 1890s. The village cluster which resulted came to be known as Phillipsdale, as the area around the chemical plant (and the old green) became Rumford. In another sizable land deal, Wilson sold land to Agawam Hunt, organized in 1893 for horse-and-hound drag hunting. More important in the long run, the club became Providence's most important elite recreational adjunct. So rapidly did this new sport catch on that Wilson made another large land sale to the nearby Wannomoisett Country Club, founded in 1898. It occupies the site of Wilson's former estate. His eighteenth-century house, first leased for a clubhouse, was then successively purchased, extensively altered, and eventually replaced.

South of the core village of East Providence, in Riverside, the pattern of development was radically different. Views from the bluffs over Narragansett Bay (which at this point is the wide mouth of the Providence River—hence “Riverside”) encouraged the steady replacement or conversion of farms into summer or suburban residences and hotels—eleven of the latter by the 1890s. Colonies of small, tightly packed cottages worked their way between the larger places. Of the latter, Cedar Grove is of special interest. For gourmands, a string of shore banquet halls offered heaping plates of seafood, while gourmets frequented the dining rooms of the more exclusive hotels, the most exalted among them belonging to the Squantum Association, an exclusive eating club with grand views up and down the bay. Amusement parks—for a short period of time, two of them—joined the other resort attractions. Crescent Park in Riverside opened in 1886. A rival, Vanity Fair, opened in 1907 between Crescent Park and Providence. Inspired by such planning as that of the 1902 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Copeland and Dole conceived of Vanity Fair as an assemblage of festively monumental buildings set in a formal axial composition as a series of terraces which stepped down to the water. It was the grandest plan for an amusement park north of Coney Island conceived up to its time. Too grand, as it turned out. Vanity Fair failed after a few seasons, while still only a suggestion of what was intended. On its site today is the Silver Spring Golf Course.

Finally, to complete the landscape which once graced this stretch of shore, the Olmsted firm provided the plan for a parkway, begun in 1910, which wound along the top of the bluffs from Providence halfway to the Riverside depot. It supplemented the network of trolleys, suburban trains, and steamboats which once served this close-in escape from the city. The parkway also heralded the demise of this network, signaling the way in which the automobile would spread the possibilities for recreation. The hotels, the shore dining halls, the amusement parks, the old mix of summer mansions and cottages are gone. So, in the Rumford end of town, are the old industrial mainstays, although new companies lease space in the mills along the Seekonk and in the old Rumford factories. Pockets of farming which persisted, especially in Rumford, into the 1920s and 1930s have also disappeared into suburban housing. But the ghosts of what was once East Providence are worth pursuing amid its suburbs, apartments, strip commercial development, and industrial parks. And in Riverside the blithe spirit of the past has partially returned with the completion (1992) of the East Bay Bicycle Path (no motor vehicles). It runs along the bluffs of the parkway for a piece, then dips to the right of way of the old suburban rail line for 14.5 miles, terminating at Bristol. So the venturesome architectural pilgrim can cycle to most points in the Riverside section of East Providence, Barrington, and (even more conveniently) Warren and Bristol.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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