This blog is intended to serve as companion to a walking tour of downtown public spaces focused on how things have changed, and haven’t changed, over the years. The real-life walking tour was hosted by the Downtown Providence Parks Network (DPPN) and the tour guide was me, Mike Ferguson.
Here you will find extra information and photos expanding on content provided during the tour and everything you need for a self-guided tour, whether it be in real-life or in your imagination.
The tour begins at the Burnside Monument at Burnside Park next to Kennedy Plaza and ends at the Michael S. Van Leesten Memorial Bridge (aka the pedestrian bridge).
1. Burnside Monument
In 1824, when Ambrose Burnside was born in Liberty Indiana, Kennedy Plaza was a beach and the spot where his statue is located today was under water. We have no way of knowing how deep the water in what was then called the great saltwater cove was in the spot where rides, whether he would be wading or treading water , but we do know that Washington Street came to a dead end at the water roughly where Dorrance Street is now.
After graduating from West Point, Ambrose was sent west where he was wounded in the neck by an arrow in 1849. In that year the original Union train station which sits where Washington pushes through Kennedy Plaza today was only a year old. The cove had been tamed and filled into the shape of a circle, but the location of the second Union Station would have still been under water. Burnside was next assigned to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1852, meeting both his wife and the state he would call home for the rest of his life. He resigned from the army and became first a manufacturer of firearms and then treasurer for the Illinois Central Railroad, which put him in contact with railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Burnside went back into the army at the outbreak of the Civil War where some think he became a victim of the Peter Principle, which states that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to a level of respective incompetence. Although Burnside of course knew nothing about the Peter Principle, I think he would have agreed with the opinion because despite his early successes and a commander in the Civil War he resisted promotion until Lincoln basically forced him to take command of the army of the Potomac in 1862. Soon after, Burnside oversaw defeat at the battle of Fredericksburg. He was replaced by General Hooker and the rest of his military career might best be described as a mixed bag and from our vantage point it’s difficult to tell how much of this was his fault and how much was simply the disfunction of the military at the time. However, General Grant said of Burnside that he was unfit for command of an army and that no one knew it better than Burnside himself.
After the war he was elected governor of Rhode Island for three one-year terms from 1866 to 1869. In 1871 he was chosen as the first president of the National Rifle Association. In 1874 he was elected US senator for Rhode Island, a job he held until his death in 1881. In 1887 this statue was dedicated, but not at its current location. It was placed where the US district court is now. Not only that, but the monument that is now 20 feet high was originally 31 feet high. The loss of 11 feet came from a change in the pedestal when the monument was relocated to City Hall Park in 1902. Compare the current pedestal to the pedestal in the old photo. While I cannot say for sure, I imagine that diminishing the height of the monument was a matter of proportionality. 31 feet worked when it was standing alone in the middle of the street with buildings that were considered tall at the time nearby. Most people would be looking at the statue from the sidewalk or a window or horseback or riding a buggy. In the park they would be walking right up to it. Imagine if the general’s face was 10 feet higher than it is now.
The statue originally included reins on the horse, though I don’t know if they were leather or maybe some sort of sheet metal. They are clearly visible in two photos below.
For orientation of the original location of the monument in the first photo, use the First Baptist Church and the Arnold Hoffman Building, both of which are still with us today in the background of the first photo below. If you were to stand on the northwest corner of the intersection of Exchange and Fulton streets and look northeast you would be approximating the point of view of this photo. The photo of Burnside on a horse very closely resembles the monument. The last photo is the monument in its original location as construction begins on the post office.
2. Bajnotti Fountain
One of the stories behind the Bajnotti Fountain, also known as the Carrie M. Brown Memorial Fountain, is a story of romance and heartbreak. Italian diplomat Count Paulo Bajnotti falls in love with Carrie Brown, granddaughter of Nickolas Brown for whom Brown University is named. They are by all accounts deeply in love and travel the world until the Countess Bajnotti dies of pneumonia during a trip to Italy in 1892. Heartbroken, Paulo commissions several memorials, the clock tower at brown, the thinker statue at Roger Williams Park, and this fountain. He even tried to leave an endowment that would be used to pay for one Providence couple’s wedding every year, but the city turned him down on that one.
My favorite story behind the fountain is the story of the sculptor, Enid Yandell, a young woman who entered the fountain’s design competition uninvited. Several well-known sculptors, all men, had been invited to submit designs but Yandell’s design won. But this wasn’t her big break, she was already accomplished and had plenty in trailblazing. In 1898, just a year before the design competition for the fountain was launched, she was the first women inducted into the National Sculptor Society. Titled “The Struggle of Life,” the fountain was dedicated in 1901. Following the first world war, Yandell’s work with the Red Cross and advocating for voting right for women became her primary focus and she virtually retired as a professional artist. This photo was likely taken around 1907. Note the absence of the Biltmore Hotel. In 1893 Yandell shared a small apartment with two other women in Chicago as they all worked as sculptors for that years World’s Columbian exposition, or World’s Fair, Afterward she co-authored a book titled “Three Girls and A Flat,” a fictionalized account of their experiences. You can download the book for free.
3. Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Speaking of Ambrose Burnside, it was while he was governor in 1867 that a resolution was passed to create a memorial to Rhode Island soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. Actually, the resolution does not use the words Civil War, of course. The resolution states that a monument will be dedicated to those from Rhode Island who died in the “late rebellion.” Four and a half years later the monument was dedicated on September 16, 1871.
According to a record of the proceedings, stands were build on three sides of the monument, enough seating for 2300 family members of those who died in the war. All members of the State Militia were required to attend in uniform and only veterans and those currently serving were allowed into the center of Exchange Plaza. Honored guests included just about every politician of any kind, from Rhode Island Governor Padelford and governors from other New England states down to the town clerks of various cities. All the faculty from Brown attended and there was a Choir of 300 people. There was a military parade that started out on Federal Hill on Broadway and the Grand Marshall was, you guest it, General Burnside. The parade included 17 brass bands and drum corps from all over the state. There were horse guards and artillery battalions and nearly 2000 veterans from the war and they didn’t just simply march down Broadway to downtown. This parade involved some serious marching. They came east on Broadway to Knight, made a right on Knight to High Street (now Westminster), made a left on High Street and marched through Cathedral Square to Broad (now Weybosset). They continued east on Broad to Dorrance, turned left on Dorrance one block to Westminster, turned right on Westminster and went over the bridge to make a right on South Main, then down to Transit where they made a left, horses and tubas up the hill one block to Benefit and left. They head north on Benefit all the way to Meeting Street where they made a left, dropped one block to make another left onto North Main, then a right onto Steeple, crossed the bridge and made a left onto Exchange Place, then a right on Washington to arrive at the monument.
The record states that a “perfect ovation greeted the column along the whole distance,” meaning the entire route I just described was packed with onlookers. “Sidewalks, housetops, windows, and every conceivable place that would afford a view of the procession was occupied.”
When the parade arrived at Exchange Place veterans and militia combined into a block of 4,000 soldiers and General Burns walked up to the podium and, basically, gave permission for the dedication to proceed. There were prayers and orations and songs, including a hymn written for the event called “Memorial Hymn” that was sung by the choir of 300. I find the lyrics interesting given the times. They do not mention God or heaven but rather Valhalla and the Hall of heroes.
In 1913 the monument was moved from its original location at the west end of Exchange Place facing east, in the same area where it is now, to the center of Exchange Place and facing north. Now, I’m going to tell you how to impress your friends when you see a photo of the Soldiers and Sailors Monuments and can immediately identify whether it is a photo of the original location, the second location, or its current location.
Originally, the monument had five steps, like it does today, and there were cannon balls stacked next to the cannons. When it was moved to the center of exchanged it was raised to 10 steps and the cannon balls were moved to a resulting new ledge below the cannons.
The monument stood at the center of Exchange Place and then Kennedy Plaza for 84 years, witnessing many changes, including demolition of Butler Exchange and Construction of Industrial Trust. For the last 25 years, since 1997, the monument has been located where it is now, an approximation of it’s current location. It was lowered back down to its original height but the cannon balls went away.
4. Union Station
The original Union Railroad Depot was completed in 1848 and stretched over 700 feet, sitting where Washington Street moves through Kennedy Plaza today. It was a beautiful building with two tall towers in the center. Boston trains came and west from the east side of the station. New York trains came and went from the west side of the station. For a time it was the largest train station in the United States but 50 years after it was built it was too small for the 300 trains that were moving through Providence every day. In 1890 the inland cove that sat between the station and Smith Hill had been filled in and that land was covered with railroad tracks. As the future of the station was being contemplated, it caught fire in February of 1896 and the center section was gutted. The new station, still with us today, was built 500 feet north of where the old station stood and opened in 1898.
Because the five building were constructed on land that was once the bottom of a saltwater cove they were building on the only phrase I remember from my college geology class: unconsolidated marine sediment. They had to build on pilings sunk into the ground.
To my mind, few spots in Providence have gone through so many iterations while still remaining recognizable. When the station was first built Francis Street ran under the station where the ice rink is now each winter. Trolley’s would run under the station, circle around the park to a covered trolley stop in front of the main building. After the trolley’s were gone, cars and busses continued to drive under the station. In the late 50’s a parking lot was built over Francis. Until recently, we could still walk under Union Station but it’s now permanently closed to create a new food court. I’m completely enthusiastic about creating new business opportunities but I am a little sad that after 125 years we can no longer pass travel under the station, even on foot.
For a long time, the middle 3 buildings were connected by colonnades. In 1941 the easternmost building burned down. The foundation remained and they turned that area into a loading dock where trucks would pull-in to load onto trains. That Building is a recreation built in987. In 1986 they built the current train station and as part of the reuse plan for Union Station they recreated the original building east building that had burned down in 1941. That was the good news in 1987. The bad news was an “upper stories fire” in the main building in 1987. Even a casual student of Providence history will be familiar with the phrase “suspicious fire,” which is how the 1987 fire was described by the fire department, which found evidence of arson. While the complex eventually succeeded as office space, the mixed-use plans in place at the time of the fire were abandoned.
5. Waterplace Park
The first time I visited Waterplace Park I wondered where the park was but if you look at pictures of Waterplace from when it first opened in 1994 as part of the Capitol Center Plan, there was a lot of grass actually. The first photo below was taken in 1983, the year all that you see here now was proposed. Work began in 1984 and took 10 years to complete. The second photo below was taken in 1995. Note all the grass.
As a citizen historian I think my favorite thing about Waterplace park is that the lagoon harkens back to the saltwater cove that 200 years ago stretched from Canal street to the east, the bottom of Smith Hill to the north, the valley between Smith Hill and Federal Hill to the west, and where Kennedy Plaza is today to the south. Then began the taming of the Cove as the city began to shape the shorelines. By the time the first Union Station was built in 1848, the cove sort of looked like a jellyfish, with a very clearly man made oval at the east end, a very straight uniform shoreline to the southwest, but still sort of wild out west. By 1875 it was just a near perfect circle with a promenade around the perimeter. By 1890 it was gone, filled in to create more space for railroad tracks. At the website Art In Ruins you can find a really fascinating post, Cove Basin and it’s Evolution, which presents an illustrated history of how the cover and this part of the city has changed over 200 years.
6. Elevated Railroad Tracks
In 1916 there were over a quarter of a millions miles of rail in the US but the rise of the automobile would ensure that was the peak for railroads. The railroads began to decline rapidly after WWII. In the 50’s came the highway act providing 25 billion dollars for creations of the interstate system. In the 60’s railroads were merging and in the 70’s the mergers were failing and railroads were declaring bankruptcy. By the late 70’s as the city considered its option much of the land once given over to railroad tracks had been turned into parking lots.
The photo below was again taken in 1983 and it shows how dramatically the part of the city has changed since then. On both sides of Union Station there were raised railroad tracks. The viaduct in the photo crossed two roads before vanishing into a tunnel. The tunnel remains, though it is closed. You can find it at the edge of the parking lot that sits behind the building on Thomas between North Main and Benefit.
7. Suicide Circle / Memorial Square
The 150 feet tall WWI memorial that now stands in Memorial Park was dedicated in 1929 and originally stood in what is today the intersection of Washington and Memorial Boulevard. It was the center of a traffic circle that was actually more of an oblong and being fed by seven streets had the nickname suicide circle, though I’m not sure whether that refers to driver or pedestrians. The memorial was moved in 1996 as part of a cluster of projects that included river relocation. Veteran’s groups were opposed to moving the monument away from such a prominent spot but when it was pointed out that people could actually walk right up to the memorial of it was located in a park, which was difficult to do when it was in the middle of a traffic circle, they decided it was a good idea.
8. Market Square
After a lottery raised $4,500 for construction, the Market House was built in 1775 and for over 100 years served as the heart of the city. City leaders agreed a market house was needed 1758 but it took nearly 20 years for them to take action, finally driven in part by small merchants demanding a central market.
Market Square was the center of town going back even further. The same year Market House was build the citizens of Providence held their own tea party as a tax protest only they didn’t simply toss the tea into the ocean, they set it on fire, and I sort of enjoy this contrast between what they did with the tea in Boston and what they did with the tea in Providence. What do we do with the tea? Throw it into the bay, says Boston. Burn it all, says Providence.
Originally the bottom floor was a market place and the second floor houses city offices. The third floor was added in 1797 to house a Masonic Hall.
From 1845 to 1875 Market House served as City Hall while town leaders debated construction of new City Hall. Like burning the tea, a 30 year debate about the future of City Hall also seems so Providence to me. In 1897, Emma Goldman, described in most accounts as an anarchist and feminist, was arrested here for unlawful “open air speaking” because she attracted a crowd. Market House has survived 3 hurricanes (see water line markers on the south side of the building) and gone through at least two comprehensive restorations. It’s been part of RISD since the 50’s.
9. Washington Buildings (Washington Row)
Built in 1843 as part of the same economic moment of prosperity that saw the first Union Station built (you can see the towers in the background of the first photo), the Washington Buildings were home to the Washington Insurance Company and a wide variety of businesses and retailers over more than 60 years until is came down in 1916 to make room for the Hospital Trust. Addresses for businesses inside what must have seemed like a huge building at the time were “Washington Row.” The photo below was taken in 1868.
10. Memorial Park
While I would encourage everyone to explore Memorial Park and Remembrance Park on the west side of the river, I want to talk about the moment in time this photo, taken by Lawrence Tilley in 1958, captures. Tilley was a Providence photographer, described as an industrial photographer. In 1958 he was hired by the Historical American Buildings Survey to capture Providence. The survey is a decades long collaboration among the Library of Congress, US Parks service, and the American Institute of Architects. You can find over 200 photos taken by Tilley in the spring of 1958 in the online archives of the Providence Public Library. Something I appreciate about his photographs is he didn’t mind capturing time stamps, like transportation and even, in one or two instances, people. My impression of many photographers taking pictures for the survey is they they attempted to avoid times stamps to focus on the buildings and keep the photos somewhat timeless.
Here he captures the peak of the parking lots all along and over the river in the 50’s. As railroad tracks were taken up or just covered up parking lots replaced them. 100 years ago this land between the river and South Main was filled with building, both residence and business, including an early location for the fledgling Brown and Sharpe. And then, as so often happened and still happens, building were demolished to put up a parking lot. But in this instance, something very rare happened, a parking lot actually became something better.
11. Crawford Street Bridge Looking South
Once upon a time, our walking river was a working river. In this photo we are looking south from the Crawford Street Bridge in 1891. In the distance we can see the first iteration of the Point Street Bridge, a “bow-spring” construction built in 1872. In the foreground is the What Cheer, a long-serving and much beloved ferry that is now part of a crowded ship graveyard off India Point.
12. Crawford Street Bridge Looking North
Looking north from Crawford Street bridge toward Market Square in 1891 the skyline is dominated by the steeple of First Baptist Church but other than that and the Market Square building familiar landmarks are missing. [More Coming Soon]
13. East Bank of River
The east side of the river at Packet and South Water streets. Based on the Coca-Cola logo and slogan, ‘Relieves Fatigue,’ I’m going to say this old photo is circa 1910. The brick ‘Oakdale MFG’ building is still with us today as the Industrial Design Building for RISD. Butterine was a butter substitute. If you’ve ever looked closely at this building it’s apparent that it was once two buildings. The north building was once only five stories. Your can tell by looking closely that a sixth story was added to make it the same height as its neighbor to the south and then at some point to two were sort of welded together. John R. White & Sons were coal merchants with offices in the Blackstone Block at 27 Weybosset next to Turk’s Head, now a parking lot. The wooden ship is likely delivering coal.”
14. West Bank of River
Once upon a time the west bank of the river was marked by inlets and wharfs that reached to Dyer street and even further in the first half of the 19th century. In this photo, circa 1900, we can see the Bay Queen ferry backed up to the Hay Building. The Bay Queen is sitting where the west side of Memorial Park, Remembrance Park, is located today.
This ferry is one of the ships resting at the bottom of the bay off India Point, the largest ship graveyard in New England, I believe. The Hay Building (1866) is still with us. I’m not certain of the dates of this photo. If you believe the Banigan Building is absent I’d guess early 1890’s. If you think the Banigan Building is hiding behind that tall shed then I’d guess circa 1900.
15. Looking North From Pedestrian Bridge
This 1891 photo was likely taken from the Point Street Bridge looking north. The Ferry is Queen City. Formal ferry service began in Providence in 1678 and early ferries were basically row boats where the rower stood in the center and a dozen people sat around the edge of the boat. By 1747 there were 19 ferries operating on the waterways of Providence and the city began to regulate the services, inspecting equipment, requiring ferries to dock at a wharf that met certain standards, and setting the hours of operation. Steam ferries started operating in the 1850’s 2 cents per person and 10 cents for a horse team. Even after the the first Point Street Bridge was built in 1872 demand for ferry service remained strong because there was so much traffic the bridges created bottle necks and there would often be bumper to bumper traffic waiting to cross. I’ve also read that the original Point Street Bridge, mechanically ambitious for its time as a pivot bridge, was often closed for repairs.