About Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital of the state of Rhode Island, its most populous city, one of the oldest cities in the United States, and the third-most-populous city in New England, after Boston and Worcester.
Situated at the mouth of the Providence River at the head of Narragansett Bay, it was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a Reformed Baptist theologian and religious exile from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He named the area in honor of “God’s merciful Providence,” which he believed was responsible for revealing such a haven to him and his followers. This settlement later merged with others to become the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, one of the original 13 colonies. From the beginning it was a refuge for persecuted religious dissenters.
In March of 1676, despite the good relations between Williams and the sachems with whom the United Colonies of New England were waging King Philip’s War, Providence Plantations was burned to the ground. Later in the year, its legislature formally rebuked the other colonies for provoking the war.
During the Gaspee Affair of 1772, Providence residents were among the first patriots to spill blood in the lead-up to the American Revolutionary War. Rhode Island was the first colony to renounce its allegiance to the British, on May 4, 1776. It was also the last of the thirteen states to ratify the United States Constitution, doing so on May 29, 1790, after receiving assurances that the Bill of Rights would become part of the Constitution.
Following the war, Providence was the country’s ninth-largest city, with 7,614 people. The economy began shifting from shipping and other maritime endeavors to manufacturing, in particular machinery, tools, silverware, jewelry, and textiles.
Despite ambivalence about the Civil War—some prominent merchants had ties to Southern cotton and the slave trade—the number of military volunteers routinely exceeded quota, and the city’s manufacturing proved invaluable to the Union. Providence thrived after the war, and by the end of the nineteenth century, waves of immigrants more than tripled the population.
Providence in the early 1900s was one of the wealthiest cities in the United States. Immigrant labor powered its large manufacturing centers, producing such industrial products as steam engines, precision tools, silverware, screws, and textiles. Giant companies based in or near Providence included Brown & Sharpe, the Corliss Steam Engine Company, Babcock & Wilcox, the Grinnell Corporation, the Gorham Manufacturing Company, Nicholson File, and Fruit of the Loom.
As manufacturing changed and in many cases moved away, Providence struggled in the 1960s and ‘70s with urban decay. Thanks to hundreds of millions of dollars in community development funds, the city revitalized, realigning the railroad lines that had bifurcated downtown, uncovering and moving the rivers to create Waterplace Park and walkways along the rivers’ banks, and building downtown shopping plazas, residences, hotels, and entertainment facilities.
Today Providence’s eight hospitals and seven institutions of higher learning have shifted its economy into service industries, though it still retains some manufacturing activity. It is known for its vibrant and diverse culture, art, innovation, architecture, and cuisine.