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In contrast to an ad hoc assemblage of mid- and late-twentieth-century commercial strip establishments and the civic precinct which constitutes as much of a center as Barrington has to show, Warren has an old, close-packed seaport as its core. More emphatically than that of any other town in the state, its street pattern records the classic layout for a seaport village.

At the end of the bridge from Barrington over the Warren River a V-intersection (at the first traffic light) offers a choice between Water and Main streets. Emblematically at least, the choice separates the two kinds of commercial activity which account for Warren's existence. Water Street began as the commercial street of the village. As Warren grew, commerce jumped the intervening residential district and spread along Main Street, parallel to the rail line from Providence to Bristol, installed in 1855. Meanwhile, the functional emphases of the two streets split: along one street the life of the docks and ships predominated; along the other, household shopping, nonmaritime activity (insofar as such a distinction is possible in a small seaport), and civic affairs. The ends of the cross streets, or, in eighteenth-century terminology, “ways” which intersected them were “thrown out” to the river as docks and wharfs. The remnants of these make up Warren's modern waterfront, although the repeatedly altered and replaced commercial buildings on the water offer little more than fragments of what existed as recently as half a century ago. Houses on the ways (together with some on Water and Main) brought domestic life into intimate contact with both the maritime and mercantile aspects of the village economy, while views down the ways, then as now, opened the densely built community to glimpses of water and boats. Along the ways big houses built from local fortunes (comfortable rather than grand) mingled with the smaller quarters of working men to give a democratic aura to this constricted community, which the adjacency of small factories and the establishment of a few larger mills after 1850 intensified.

The site of Warren was originally a major camp and headquarters for the chief of the Wampanoag, whose shoreline territory ranged from Cape Cod southwest to Mount Hope Neck, the present site of Bristol. They called it Sowams. The Wampanoag found themselves in a desperate situation at the time of the English settlement of Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1620. An epidemic had decimated the tribe's numbers a few years earlier, while the powerful Narragansett tribe opposed them on the west side of Narragansett Bay. Hence they were open to offers for the sale of Sowams and much surrounding land with the promise of English support against their rivals. In 1632 the English established a trading post at Sowams which, though sparsely populated into the next century, was among the first places of white habitation in what is now Rhode Island. It was incorporated into Swansea with the founding of that Massachusetts town in 1670. English betrayal of the agreement with the Wampanoag, however, led to the bloody King Philip's War between Native Americans and colonists beginning in 1675. The opening action in a war which ultimately brought the Narragansett onto the side of their former enemies and spread across Rhode Island was the plunder of the white outpost at Sowams, leaving all houses burned and nearby the horror of the “heads of eight Englishmen stuck up on poles.” English colonization in the area resumed only after 1677 with the elimination of Native Americans as a threat. From this period few houses remain, on the outskirts of the town and mostly heavily altered.

Not until after the settlement in 1746 of a longstanding dispute with Massachusetts as to the location of the boundary line between the two states east of the bay, however, did the town of Warren (now in Rhode Island, and rechristened to honor Sir Peter Warren, the British naval hero of Louisbourg) come into existence. By the start of the Revolutionary War, Warren, which included all of present-day Barrington until 1770, was a prosperous maritime community, blessed with a narrow deepwater channel along the Warren River into the bay and a location midpoint between Providence and Newport (twelve miles from the first, nineteen from the other). The port was also backed by farms in the outlying areas. Although the war caused an immediate and severe depression which nearly destroyed the town, recovery thereafter was rapid. Warren was a major center for shipbuilding, especially from 1790 through 1860. During this period total tonnage constructed was barely second to that of Providence, and during the 1840–1860 either equaled or far surpassed the combined total of competition in Providence, Newport, and Bristol. Small manufactories for rope, sails, oil, barrels, iron molding, blacksmithing, soaps, and candles clustered around the boatyards. Warren seamen were active in all aspects of America's maritime economy, especially in the slave trade between Africa and Charleston up to 1808, despite the passage in 1787 and 1794 of state and federal laws forbidding it. From roughly 1800 until 1850, Warren was also the leading whaling port in Rhode Island. A Warren ship, the 806-ton Sea-Shell, was the largest whaling ship in the world during this period.

Without waterpower, textile manufacturing had to wait for steam, generated by coal brought in either by barge or by rail. Beginning in 1847 with the establishment of the first of several textile mills, followed later by the arrival of immigrant factory workers, the ocean-oriented economy lost predominance. The decline of whaling after the 1860s seriously diminished Warren's maritime stature. But boat building continued at a reduced scale, and continues today. Moreover, the 1880s saw the effective beginnings of a substantially new maritime industry for the town. Warren became the earliest center on the bay for shell fishing on a large scale, oysters most important at first (until they gave out around the time of World War II), but clams also.

Textile manufacturing altered the village architecturally, by adding not only the factories, but also mill workers' housing and some new mansions, which fitted into the closely packed village only by displacing earlier houses built by maritime fortunes. Still, much of exceptional interest remains, especially from the late eighteenth through the nineteenth century, saved in part by the collapse of the textile industry in its turn, and a long interval of static shabbiness for the village. Warren's current revival has occurred as new industries have occupied what remains of the old mills, and built new factories, while suburban newcomers have discovered the pleasures of the community and its harbor. Outside the village, Warren's nicely walled farmlands remained reasonably intact in several parts of the town through the 1970s, offering panoramas of fields and water. Increasingly underused for farming, the fields on Touisset Neck began to disappear into house lots, especially after 1980, and other large chunks of land north of Child Street have begun to be developed as industrial parks.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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