FOX POINT HISTORY
Fox Point is a waterfront community where the Providence and Seekonk Rivers converge at Narragansett Bay—making it a natural “transportation hub” throughout the city’s long history.
In June of 1636, Roger Williams and a group of religious exiles from Massachusetts Bay Colony first landed at the eastern shore of the Seekonk River, (East Providence today) and set up a temporary community, before crossing it a couple of months later. Today, Roger Williams Landing Park at the intersection of Williams and Gano Streets marks the approximate location of Williams’ Rhode Island debarkation.
The Narragansett Indians greeted Roger Williams, accompanied by Thomas Angell with “What Cheare Netop,” a common colonial greeting combined with the Narragansett term for friend. This early terminology survives in Providence through various forms and uses today. The Native Americans directed the early settlers around the hill to where the Providence River met the bay. From there, Williams settled up the Providence River near a fresh water spring on today’s North Main Street in College Hill neighborhood. Roger Williams Spring’s Site was dedicated in 1933 marked by a well curb and tablets at the corner of North Main Street and Alamo Lane.
Historically, Fox Point refers to the point of land at the Head of Narragansett Bay where the Providence and Seekonk Rivers meet. (It was only in the 20th century, that Fox Point came to mean the neighborhood of today.
Settlers Clear Land and Establish Farms
Providence’s first plat map dates to 1638 when the land between Olney Street and “Foxes Hill,” was divided into thirteen house lots fronting the Providence River. Foxes Hill, which had its highest point at the intersection of today’s George M. Cohan and Brook Street, rose to a height of 40 feet. It was the location of a Revolutionary War fort, which was later replaced by a longtime resort known as the Fox Point Observatory. The first street was called Towne Street, which eventually was divided into North and South Main streets.
Colonists’ Relationship with Indians Sours
Fox Point was used primarily as farmland throughout the seventeenth century,
with a citywide population of only 200 residents by 1660.
Eventually, hostility developed between the colonists and the Narragnsett and Wampanoag Indian tribes over increasing land sales driven by the Indians’ growing dependence on English goods. King Philip’s War, (1675-76) which was named after the chief of the Wampanoags, resulted in more than half of New England towns being assaulted by various tribes. On March 30, 1676, the Narragansett Indians attacked Providence, whose residents had mostly fled to Newport for safety. With only 27 men remaining in town, they were able to burn most of the city’s earliest crude houses to the ground.
When King Philip was killed on August 12, 1676, the war ended. With it, the Native American fur trade also ended, along with their tribal life in southern New England. With the way completely cleared for further English settlement, Providence’s reconstruction began, signaling widespread commercial development.
1700’s Bring Maritime Innovations
In 1680, Providence’s first wharf was erected at the foot of settler Pardon Tillinghast’s parcel, near today’s Transit Street. At the end of the 17th Century, Pardon Tillinghast also built the first church for the Baptist Society on Towne Street, at the present corner of North Main and Smith streets. The Captain Joseph Tillinghast House at 403 South Main Street was built in 1770 and is one of few colonial waterfront houses to survive the South Main Street fire of 1801. A monument on Benefit Street beside the Barker Playhouse marks Pardon Tillinghast’s gravesite.
By 1708, the city’s population had swelled to 1,146 residents as waterfront activity superseded farming. Over the next hundred years, Fox Point’s development was tied directly to maritime innovation. During the 1790’s, new harbor facilities were constructed, resulting in 58 wharves spanning the Providence River—from Foxes Hill to Smith Street—by the century’s end. The early rise of commerce in the area is primarily attributed to the Brown family of merchants and their associates. Brothers (Captain) James and Obadiah Brown were involved in sea trade and other commercial interests as early as 1722. After Obadiah’s death in 1762, his nephews, Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses carried on the enterprises under the name of Nicholas Brown & Company.
This leading mercantile family of colonial America was also involved with the slave trade for over 50 years. As early as 1708, slaves outnumbered white indentured servants in the colony almost eight to one. However, the biggest increase in black population was between 1715 and 1755, which coincided with the industrial development of the colony and its emergence into the slave trade. By 1774, Rhode Island's 3,761 African-Americans were the third highest total in New England.
In 1784, John Brown constructed a new harbor on Narragansett Bay to accommodate ships sailing the triangle between New England, East Africa, and the West Indies. This location of the Brown family’s dock—where the Neck meets the Seekonk River—was nicknamed India Point after this important trade route. The Neck is the name early colonists gave to the East Side of Providence to distinguish the peninsula from the Weybosset Side. However, its original name was Moshassuck, given to it by the Narragansett Indians.
Moses Brown freed his slaves after becoming a Quaker and led a strong abolitionist force that made Rhode Island among the first of the colonies to pass legislation to end slave trading. However, no slaves were emancipated outright. The 1800 census listed 384 slaves, gradually falling to five in 1840, after which slaves were no longer counted in the censuses for the state.
The Brown family’s donations to Rhode Island College, founded in 1764, were so generous over the late 18th Century that the name was changed to Brown University in 1804.
Sea Captains, Governors and Merchants
Early Fox Point streets included South Main and Power streets in 1738; Benefit (Back) Street in 1756-58; and Wickenden Street in 1772. By 1803, the area west of Governor Street was platted and developed, including Williams, John, Arnold, Transit, and Sheldon streets. Sea captains, governors, and merchants soon built large houses; among them are The John Brown House at 52 Power Street, built in 1788, and the Nightingale-Brown House at 357 Benefit Street in 1792. Smaller dwellings were clustered in the southern and eastern sections of Fox Point for artisans, sailors, and laborers.
An early appreciation of history was demonstrated on April 19, 1822, when a gathering of residents met in the office of Judge William R. Staples. Incorporated in June of that year, the Rhode Island Historical Society was formed by a group of men, which included the familiar names of Lippitt, Tillinghast, Arnold and others. Almost 200 years later, the society is still collecting and preserving Rhode Island material and can be found at RIHS.
The area east of Governor Street remained a private 57-acre farm owned by the prosperous merchant, Arthur Fenner, who served as the anti-federalist governor between 1790 and 1805. This land was passed to his son, James, who also served as governor for a period of fourteen years as a member of the Whig, and then Jacksonian Democratic parties. James Fenner’s heirs sold the expansive farm, which was known as the “What Cheer Estate,” in 1848 resulting in the platting of the existing street patterns including the appropriately named Governor Street and other streets to the east.
Railroads Transform Fox Point in 19th Century
During the industrial revolution, Fox Point quickly evolved into one of the leading
hubs of transportation and industry in the country. Steamboat service ran between Fox Point and Newport as early as 1817, while the Rhode Island and New York Steamboat Company made weekly trips between Providence and New York. The Boston and Providence Railroad constructed its first line at the waterfront in 1835, followed by a line between Providence and Stonington, Connecticut in 1837. This emerging transportation network provided support and a logical location for the Providene Steam Engine Company in 1834—now Corliss Landing Condominiums. The Providence Steam Engine Company of South Main Street (established 1821) later helped the North in the Civil War by building two Union sloops, the Algonquin and the Contoocook.
In 1840, the Fuller Iron Works Company began operation on Pike Street, followed by the Providence Tool Company on Wickenden Street in 1844. The Fuller Iron Works constructed a new type of building, made of structural steel and ribbed-glass at the corner of South Main and Tockwotten streets in 1893. It stood for over 100 years, until it was demolished to make way for construction of the first six-story, mixed-use residential building to be built on the reclaimed Interstate 195 parcels. The building, which was covered in asphalt shingles, was last occupied by Big Daddy’s Lounge, a rowdy waterfront establishment that was closed by the City in 2001.
Industry and the Irish
Irish laborers began immigrating to Fox Point in the early 19th Century to meet an
increased industrial demand for workers. The Irish were the first Roman Catholics to
come to the state in large numbers. Between 1810 and 1845, about 5,000 Irish settled
in the state, working as coal diggers in Portsmouth, railroad builders in Providence and
ditch diggers on the Blackstone Canal.
Yet it was not until the late 1820s and 1830s that Irish came in large numbers. In 1853,
St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church at 86 Hope Street was built to serve the area’s rapidly increasing Irish population. By 1875, the state recorded 27,000 Irish residents,
many of whom were fleeing the potato famine in Ireland. In Fox Point, three-fifths of the population was foreign-born--the great majority being Irish immigrants concentrated in the waterfront section known as "Corky Hill."
In 1873, this 400-acre area south of Wickenden Street, which consisted of narrow lanes and tenements, was condemned and included in a citywide slum clearance project. As part of the project, Foxes Hill was leveled and a nearby brook, which drained a considerable area of the lower East side, was over-graded to become Brook Street. In 1876, the slum district was cleared as 146 buildings, which were either demolished or moved.
The debris from the project was used to fill the mouth of the Seekonk River at India Point. The massive landfill project added Gano Street, explaining why the Roger Williams Landing Park is now about 100 yards inland from the water. What Cheer Square, the original name of Roger Williams Landing Park, was one of the eleven earliest parks in the city as recorded in 1871. When Gano Street was created with landfill in 1878, the Slate Rock—where legend says Roger Williams first stepped into “Rhode Island,” —was left for viewing in a hollow. During the 1880’s, a portion of the rock was raised and enclosed by an iron fence, but was destroyed when the present monument was erected in 1906.
Immigration Continues into the 20th Century
A second wave of immigration began around 1870, when many Portuguese and Cape Verdean sailors settled with the promise of factory and waterfront employment. By the end of the 19th century, over 2,000 Portuguese residents inhabited the neighborhood. Our Lady of Rosary Church on Traverse Street was founded in 1885 to serve the growing Portuguese and Cape Verdean population. Immigration and trans-Atlantic service peaked between 1912 and 1913, when approximately 12,000 immigrants—mostly Portuguese and Italian—debarked at the inadequate nineteenth century Lonsdale Dock in Fox Point. A modern state port was constructed in the deeper waters off of Allens Avenue in 1914, signaling a decline of Fox Point wharfs. The Portuguese population in Fox Point remains strong today with 32 percent of residents claiming Portuguese ancestry. Cape Verdeans became a significant sector in Fox Point and attended Our Lady of Rosary Church, before some in the congregation broke away to form the Sheldon Street Church at 51 Sheldon Street in 1904.
20th Century: War, Disaster and Era of the Automobile
Fox Point saw significant changes during the twentieth century because of natural disasters, world wars and the emergence of the automobile. The Colonial Wharf at South Water Street ended its passenger lines between Providence and New York as the steamers were commissioned for service during World War II. Providence’s waterfront has a long history of hurricane and high-wind damage, which goes all the way back to the 1700’s, when the town’s first bridge was destroyed by a violent storm. In 1815, the Great Gale of September again left the entire waterfront in shambles.
The hurricanes of 1938 and 1954 caused significant flooding, property damage and the eventual construction of the Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. The structure, which was completed in 1966, consists of three 40’ x 40’ gates—weighing 53 tons each. The five water pumps, which are among the largest in the world, can move three million gallons of water per minute away from the city in case of an upriver flood.
Because of increased traffic and parking needs, much of the property south of Wickenden Street was cleared again in the 1950’s—this time, for the construction of Interstate-195. This massive project displaced many residents, including the majority of the Cape Verdean population, who moved to East Providence and other suburbs.
Visit this many faceted timepiece, Faces of Fox Point, that includes local photographer Lou Costa’s memories of a neighborhood “full of immigrants: Portuguese, Irish, Lebanese, Syrian, Italian and Jews,” that “all got along.”
The interstate of the 1950’s, which was designed to serve 75,000 vehicles per day, saw a doubling of the traffic volumes as the 20th century drew to a close. In 1999, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation embarked on a $610 million project to relocate I-195 south of the Hurricane Barrier.
Approaching Millennium Stirs Preservation and Beautification
The Providence Preservation Society was formed in 1956 as a means of “protecting, improving and making proper use of” some 250 Colonial and Federal period dwellings standing in the confines of the original town area, known as the Providence Neck. Over the years, the organization has meant salvation for many historical properties and a continued interest in neighborhood revitalization throughout Providence.
In 1962, Mary Elizabeth Sharpe proposed developing the old, battered and abandoned transportation hub on the bay into India Point Park.
Dedicated in 1974, the park at the head of the bay is bringing residents and tourists back to where so much of Rhode Island’s history occurred. The establishment of historic districts in Fox Point, growing universities nearby and re-investment in infrastructure by local government began to generate another demographic shift in the latter part of the 20th Century—urban gentrification. This nationwide trend began to grow in the neighborhood as more affluent newcomers from Boston, New York and other more expensive cities moved into a slower paced Fox Point.
As in other places, the newcomers brought an increase in the median income, a eduction in household size, and increased real estate values with higher associated rent and home prices. Many of the earlier Fox Pointers chose to sell or found they could no longer afford their homes because of dramatic increases in property taxes. On the positive side, gentrification generated healthy community activism through non-profit organizations like FPNA.
The India Point Pedestrian Bridge, which re-connected Fox Point in 2008, is 1,235 feet long and 164 feet wide. The bridge helps provide an aesthetic consciousness of Providence’s Old Harbor at Narragansett Bay and furthers tourism.
Transportation Remains Important in Fox Point
Old Fox Point, where it faced the Great Salt River, continues to find transportation an important factor in its redevelopment discussions and plans. Many civic leaders are seeking the City of Providence to recognize Fox Point’s continuing status as a ‘transportation hub,’ as a major reason for allowing greater public access to Narragansett Bay.
Colonists referred to the head of Narragansett Bay (and portions of the Providence River) as the Great Salt River. Its closing by the British in December of 1776, crippled its shipping trade during the Revolutionary War Period of Providence’s history. Unlike Newport, however, Providence was never occupied by the British and its commerce continued.
During the first decade of the 21st Century, advocates with FPNA, Friends of India Point Park, Head of the Bay Gateway Committee, the Providence Foundation and other non-profit organizations diligently urged city and state officials to return much of Fox Point’s waterfront and street grid back to public use. These advocacy efforts, which continue today, were responsible for Shooters, the prominent waterfront property adjacent to India Point Park, becoming permanent public waterfront space in 2010. With an economy that is slowly recovering from the Great Recession of 2008, a designated maritime use has yet to be developed.
The removal of the old stretch of Interstate 195, also in 2010, has added seven-tenths of a mile of new and reconstructed streets, five development parcels of 4.4 acres and a park, consisting of 2.6 acres back to Fox Point. After almost 50 years, residents will gain a greater appreciation and access to the Providence Riverfront, as well. For Wickenden Street, the removal of the somewhat oppressive overpass provides for a new interchange, which no longer blocks Fox Point from the Jewelry District and the rest of the city.
Alternative transportation modes, like pedestrian and bicycle use, continue to make great advances during the second decade of the 21st Century. In 2012, the Rhode Island Legislature passed the Complete Streets Law, which mandates that road systems safely accommodate, all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit and the automobile. In 2015, a linear park on the Washington Bridge linked the East Bay Bike Way to Providence, making India Point Park a nexus of alternative transportation. The greenway is expected to be expanded further when an extension of the Blackstone Bike Way, (an eventual Woonsocket to Providence link) will be completed through Gano Park in 2016.
For a closer look at the present, go to Fox Point Today. For the future developments, go to the web site’s News section.
The Fox Point Neighborhood Association, (FPNA), would like to recognize the wealth of information that can be found in John Hutchins Cady’s The Civic and Architectural Development of Providence, which was used extensively to fact check this History section. Cady, whose book was published in 1957, was an architect and the historian for the Providence Preservation Society, (PPS). FPNA applauds PPS, which in cooperation with the federal government’s Urban Renewal Administration, developed College Hill, the first study in the country aimed at the preservation of an old neighborhood, instead of demolition and new construction.
FPNA would also like to acknowledge the Rhode Island Historical Society for its contributions and photography.