Rhode Island’s Plymouth Rock never quite achieved the fame of its counterpart in Massachusetts. But it wasn’t for want of trying.
According to legend, the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620. Then in the 19th century, it was encased in an elaborate Victorian canopy. Tourists flocked to it. By 1920, canopy fashion had changed and a simple neoclassical canopy replaced the original one.
Rhode Island’s Plymouth Rock
In 1636, Roger Williams and his party fleeing the Puritan fathers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had settled in Rumford, now part of East Providence along the Seekonk River. Soon thereafter, a friend in the Plymouth Colony warned Williams that he still hadn’t left Massachusetts Bay territory–and they wanted to arrest him.
Williams and his followers paddled a canoe to the western side of the river and set foot upon Slate Rock—Rhode Island’s Plymouth Rock. There, according to another legend, Narragansett Indians greeted him with, ”What Cheer, Netop?”
From that Slate Rock landing Williams went on to found Providence and the Colony of Rhode Island.
Then in the 19th century, someone came up with the idea of enshrining Slate Rock and developing if as a tourist attraction for Providence. Having gained the support of the town fathers, in 1877 work began in clearing on and about Slate Rock. By that time, it had become overgrown and covered with sediment that washed down on it.
Someone suggested they just dislodge the rock and move the whole thing. In their infinite wisdom, they decided to use some dynamite to effect the move. Alas, they used too much dynamite and blew Roger William’s Slate Rock to smithereens.
All Not Lost
But all of those pieces were not completely lost. Enterprising merchants sold chunks of Rhode Island’s Plymouth Rock in stores. You can see some pieces in the floor of the vestibule of the Central Baptist Church on Wayland Avenue in Providence. You can see another chunk embedded in Brown University’s Waterman Avenue gates and one in the pedestal of the Brown University Bear on campus.
Eventually, a monument to Williams and his landing finally went up in a little park on Gano Street. The monument, built in 1906, still stands today.
A Roger Williams Flashing Light?
There’s more to the story. Plans to build a much more appropriate monument began in 1850. The park for it was then developed in 1867, but not until 1934 did the effort gain steam in preparation for the 300th anniversary of the colony’s founding. The park evolved into Prospect Terrace.
National Park Service Ranger John McNiff puts on Roger Williams impersonations in Rhode Island. He also works at Roger Williams Memorial Park in Providence.
His research indicates the original concept called for a 200-foot-high obelisk topped with a flashing light. Now bear in mind, Prospect Terrace is already 200 feet high. The Roger Williams flashing light would reach 400 feet. People in Boston could have seen it, as well as the ghosts of the Puritans who plagued his life so much.
However, that concept never saw the light of day. A Westerly granite statue of Roger Williams and the rest of the monument finally rose 14 feet high. At the base of the statue, the remains of Roger Williams were laid.
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Leo Caisse, the author of this story, passed away in 2020. He published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October 2017. Leo earned a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lived in East Providence, R.I. This story was updated in 2023.
Image: Roger Williams Monument By I, Infrogmation, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2292319. Roger Williams statue By Rhododendrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65213559. Brown Bear By Ad Meskens – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21442592.