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5 Interesting Facts About Rhode Island

Rhode Island was the last of the Thirteen Original Colonies. Until 2020, the full name of the state was Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It is the smallest state. Rhode Island was home to the first cotton mill in America. It was the first colony to declare independence and the last state to ratify the Constitution. 

Providence, Rhode Island city skyline on the river.

Rhode Island

No one is entirely sure where the name Rhode Island came from but there are two main theories. The state is named for an island off the coast. The first is from the early 17th century when Dutch explorer Adriaen Block described the area as a reddish island. Most likely due to fall foliage or the red clay in the area. The other is that in 1524 Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano likened the island to that of the island of Rhodes off the coast of Greece. The official one that Rhode Island uses is that Block named the island. The first recorded use of the name Rhode Island is from 1637 by Roger Williams. Today, the island which gave the state its name is called Aquidneck Island. 

Gilded Age

The Gilded Age was a time of rapid economic growth in the United States and lasted from the 1870s until about 1910. Both the newly rich and old money needed somewhere to summer and Newport, Rhode Island became that place. The nation’s wealthiest families built lavish mansions there that they called cottages. One of the most famous Newport summer cottages is The Breakers. It was built by railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a member of one of the richest families in the country. The Breakers is a lavish Renaissance inspired mansion. It has 70 rooms and sits in 13 acres. It was named for the waves crashing on the rocks below the back lawn. It is regarded as the grandest of the preserved cottages. Many at the end of the Gilded Age lost their fortunes and their homes were eventually demolished to make room. However, many were preserved by the Preservation Society of Newport County and are now museum houses that can be toured. Others have changed hands over the years and are still private residences. 

Founding

The Colony of Rhode Island was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. Williams was kicked out of Massachusetts for his freethinking religious views. He believed strongly in freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. Williams was also an early supporter of abolition and believed in fair dealings with Native Americans. He settled Providence as a refuge offering “liberty of conscience”. Williams soon attracted other freethinkers like Anne Hutchinson, John Clarke and William Coddington. Soon other towns were founded. He got a charter secured and became the president of the colony. When Massachusetts passed the first laws to make slavery legal, Williams worked hard to keep slavery illegal in Rhode Island but the other towns were opposed to this. Roger Williams also founded the first Baptist church in America. 

Palatine Light

There is said to be a ghost ship that haunts the shores of Block Island in Rhode Island. The residents had a reputation for wrecking ships and looting them, sometimes viciously. In 1738, the Princess Augusta left Rotterdam with 350 immigrants from the Palatine region. The ship ran aground on December 26th, 1738. This was after an already harrowing journey that included many sick passengers. There are different accounts on what happened to the passengers. One is that the people of Block Island helped nurse the passengers back to health and even helped them retrieve their belongings. Most eventually went on their way but some settled on the island. The crew either fixed the ship or burned it if it couldn’t be salvaged. The other story is that the Block Islanders wrecked the ship by using a false light, looted the cargo, killed many of the passengers and set the ship on fire. A poem was written describing that version. Who knows when the ghost ship story first got started but one of the earliest recorded sightings is in 1810 with many other sightings to follow. It is said that between Christmas and New Year’s Day that the ship can be seen, on fire off the coast of Block Island. 

Westminster Arcade

Westminster Arcade in downtown Providence, Rhode Island is known for being the first indoor shopping mall in the United States. It was built by Cyrus Butler and was completed in 1828 and is in the Greek revival style. The mall featured three floors of shops and many skylights for lighting. It was only 74 feet wide but was about the length of a block. At first it struggled for many years since it wasn’t near the retail district and was known as “Butler’s Folly”. Then a fashionable hat shop opened next door and the Arcade began to attract a wealthy clientele. It remained a shopping center well into the 20th century but fell into disrepair. It was reopened in 1980. Business remained a struggle for the mall and it was closed in 2008. It later reopened in 2013 as a combination of shops and micro-lofts.