Religious Freedom Establishes Providence
Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, who had been exiled from Massachusetts for his radical espousal of the doctrine of separation of church and state powers. He called his new settlement Providence Plantations, believing that God had guided him there. At the time Providence was the only settlement in America assuring religious freedom and it became a haven for dissenters. The title to the area was secured from the Narragansett tribe, who knew Williams as a friend fluent in their language.
At first Providence developed as an agricultural community, but when the first wharf was built in 1680, the stage was set for its becoming a major commercial center. By 1700 Providence had begun to take part in the lucrative trade in West Indies and African rum, molasses, and slaves, rivaling Newport in this activity. Many taverns were constructed, and townspeople gathered there to voice their increasingly bitter complaints about restrictive British laws. In 1772 a British ship sent to prevent evasion of navigation acts was destroyed at Providence, and on May 4, 1776, two months before the American colonies proclaimed the Declaration of Independence, the Rhode Island Independence Act was signed there. The city was saved from British attack during the American Revolution of the 1770s by a series of forts built along the Providence River.
Following the Revolutionary War, trade with China, led by John Brown and his brothers, contributed greatly to Providence's prosperity. Huge fortunes were amassed, great mansions were built, and the city flourished socially, culturally, and economically. In 1790 the country's first water-powered cotton-spinning device was built in nearby Pawtucket and, financed by the Brown brothers, Providence became the center of the nation's textile industry. The jewelry industry, for which it is known to this day, began in 1794 when a method was discovered of covering cheap metals with precious metals.
State Capital Welcomes Renewal
By the time of the Civil War in 1861, during which Providence enthusiastically favored the Union, industry had replaced commerce as the city's economic foundation with Providence leading the country in textile and jewelry manufacture. Large numbers of Italian, Swedish, Portuguese, and French-Canadian immigrants arrived to supply labor for shops and mills. Banks, insurance companies, and the coming of the railroad in the latter part of the century supported industrial development. From being one of several Rhode Island capitals since 1663, Providence became the sole capital of the state in 1900.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Providence factories produced war materials, its shipyards built combat and cargo vessels, and the city prospered. These capabilities were again mobilized for World War II in the 1940s. In the 1950s, Hurricanes Carol (1954) and Diane (1955) brought tremendous flooding to the city and state, causing more than $260 million in damage statewide. As many industries moved to the South to defray expenses, the city's population began to decline from its 1950 high of 248,674 people, and the 1960s saw the economy stagnating. An urban renewal project initiated at that time resulted in the restoration of historic areas and the construction of many new buildings. The blizzard of 1978 brought the city to a standstill, and it took over a week for traffic to be allowed back in downtown Providence. By 1980 the population had dipped to 156,804 people.
In the 1990s, the two rivers that run through downtown Providence were uncovered and moved. In place of the pavement that once buried them, now graceful bridges span streams which are flanked by cobblestone sidewalks. In concert with the construction of the Rhode Island Convention Center, the river relocation project has transformed the city's downtown.
In recent years, Providence, during its history a leader in agriculture, shipping, and industry, has benefitted greatly from the high-technology boom that originated in Boston. The city is proud that the beginning of the new century sees it securely ensconced as a national leader in its fourth stage of economic development. Recent national surveys have named Providence the second safest city in America, and among the most livable cities. In 2002, David N. Cicilline was elected mayor, and he has the distinction of being the first openly gay mayor of a state capitol.
In his 2005 State of the City Address, Mayor Cicilline said ". . . the City of Providence can become the jewel of the Northeast. It can become America 's first metropolis on a human scale—a cultural and economic force with a personal face. It can be an incubator for the kinds of ideas and innovations that boost economies into the next dimension, yet still be a city of neighborhoods and of families that go back generations. It can be both a hub of opportunity and haven of livability."
Historical Information: Rhode Island Historical Society, 110 Benevolent St., Providence, RI 02906; telephone (401)331-8575, fax (401)351-0127
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