Providence History

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.

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, and citizens constructed elaborate testaments to business, government and learning. Many of these, like the Rhode Island State House and the Providence Public Library, can be toured today.

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 a great 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.

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 that 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 multisensory art installation of nearly 100 dancing bonfires that wind along the Providence River.

Providence also boasts a flourishing cultural and academic community. The Tony Award-winning Trinity Rep 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 UniversityProvidence 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.

More Historic Rhode Island

Providence Walking Tours

Immerse yourself in Providence's fascinating history, local lore and quirky tales by taking a self-guided walking tour. Explore the historic East Side, the rich culture of the West Side, the reinvention of Downtown and more.