A bronze statue called "The Independent Man" stands proudly atop of Rhode Island's Capitol building, the perfect sentinel for the city that he overlooks. Long a haven for those with vision, Providence has always been a city that thinks for itself.
Providence was founded in 1636 by renegade preacher Roger Williams, who was forced to flee Massachusetts because of religious persecution. Williams purchased land from the Narragansett Indians and started a new settlement with a policy of religious and political freedom. He named his new home "Providence," in thanks to God for protecting him during his exile from Massachusetts. In fact, the notion of separating church and state was pioneered by Williams in Rhode Island.
Easily accessible by water, Providence became a major New World seaport. During the Revolutionary War, Providence's craftspeople and merchants supplied goods to the Continental and French armies. Ever the entrepreneurs, Providence businesses were financing expeditions to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Far East by 1781. With trade booming, the city grew and flourished. Traditional wooden homes began yielding to ornate brick mansions.
In the late 1700s, half-brothers Nehemiah and Seril Dodge virtually invented costume jewelry. They established a technique of plating metal with gold that not only revolutionized an industry but also a city. This method of producing "cheap gold," coupled with an influx of skilled craftspeople, soon made Providence the jewelry capital of the United States. By 1860, the 86 jewelry manufacturers in the Rhode Island grossed more than $51 million a year and employed more people in the industry than any other state. Today, Providence is still the principal jewelry-making site in the U.S., with about 20,000 people employed in jewelry manufacturing and another 25,000 working in support industries.
Thanks largely to its booming manufacturing business, Providence was the seventh largest city in the country by the early 19th century. The historic Slater Mill in the neighboring town of Pawtucket was the first successful cotton spinning mill in America, earning it the status of "the Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution." Providence became America's premiere textile manufacturing center in the 1800s.
Through the past century, Providence has weathered both literal and figurative storms.
The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 wove a path of death and destruction through the city, with a tidal-wave like storm surge and wind gusts of more than 100 miles per hour. The storm's effect on Rhode Island was so severe, that earthquake instruments 3,000 miles away recorded it on seismographs. In 1954, Hurricane Carol caught Rhode Island by surprise and Providence suffered the greatest amount of concentrated damage - upwards of $41 million. Gusts of wind, at a rate of 72 to 100 miles per hour, blew into Providence, while portions of the downtown area sat under eight feet of water.
Almost as damaging as any storm was the air of neglect that had settled over the city by the 1970s. Once an industrial hotbed, the city had fallen on hard times and it showed in well-worn buildings and gritty downtown. Yet, the spirit that spawned the city was still alive -- Providence began a remarkable transformation.
In the late 1970s, the City began to upgrade the infrastructure of the neighborhoods, downtown and commercial districts. For decades, the world's widest bridge had obscured the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket Rivers, two narrow, but significant waterways which snake through the city of Providence and converge to become the Providence River, the head of Narragansett Bay. In the 1990s, the two rivers running through downtown were uncovered and moved.
Today, those two rivers are edged by cobblestone walkways, flanked by park benches, trees and flowering plants, and bisected by a series of graceful Venetian bridges connecting downtown Providence to the city's East Side. In keeping with this old-world flair, visitors may glide lazily through the waterways in one of the city's gilded gondolas. The centerpiece of this revitalization is WaterPlace Park, which boasts a stone-stepped amphitheater for summer concerts and serves as the starting point for Providence's world-renowned WaterFire, a multi-sensory art installation of more than 100 dancing bonfires that wind along the Providence River.
The river relocation was one aspect of an extensive urban renewal plan that included the construction of the Rhode Island Convention Center in 1993, the Providence Place Mall in 1999, and many elegant new hotels and critically-acclaimed restaurants. Today, a gleaming, glass Convention Center and the adjacent Dunkin' Donuts Center, form the Rhode Island Convention Center Complex. The Complex welcomes visitors from around the world, while the Providence Place Mall entices shoppers with more than one hundred stores and restaurants.
Providence also boasts a flourishing cultural and academic community. The Tony Award-winning Trinity Repertory Company and the Providence Performing Arts Center are not only historic landmarks, but also feature Broadway musicals, children's performances, popular seasonal ballets, opera, plays and musical concerts. Students and alumni of Brown University, Providence College and Rhode Island College bring vitality to the city's intellectual life. The famous Rhode Island School of Design lends the city a hipster cool, with many young artists coming to study and staying to begin their careers. The world's largest culinary educator, Johnson & Wales University, has had a tremendous impact on Providence's much-lauded restaurant scene.
Throughout its rich history, Providence has been a city transformed by its vision and spirit. Its remarkable transformation and commitment to providing the best possible quality of life has garnered remarkable results. The latest admirer of the city has been the film industry, which has set up shop filming features like the films 27 Dresses and Dan in Real Life and the ABC series Body of Proof.
We invite you to explore the rich history of Providence by visiting us soon.