1710: The Plainfield Road

A Colonial Roadway Buried by Mid-Century Redevelopment

Colonial era roadways tell us something about the story of Providence.

Over the course of the 17th century, the English village settlement on the banks of the Moshassuck and Providence Rivers grew, and other settlements were established on Aquidneck Island, in Pawtuxet, and to the west. New roadways were developed to connect these farming settlements to the trading center of Providence.

By 1730, the settlement around Providence had close to 4,000 people, including 81 Native Americans and 128 people of African descent. The town was governed through town meetings and an assembly composed of men of property, all descendants of the English settlers. Administration and enforcement were communal acts. Slavery existed in Rhode Island at this time, both of indigenous peoples as well as individuals forcibly brought from Africa.

In 1708, a highway to Plainfield, Connecticut, was deemed necessary, and here, up on the high ground coming out of the salt marsh that became downtown Providence, the roadway split off of the Pequot Trail, today's Weybosset and Broad Streets. The old Plainfield Road ran along the rim of land that surrounded the Great Salt Cove like a bowl, and then headed up over Christian Hill across the plain to the west, today's Westminster Street.

At the time, Westminster Street in downtown Providence barely existed, coming just west of Turk's Head into the marshy lowlands at the edge of the Cove. Throughout the 1700s, obstructions were cleared and the marsh filled in so that Westminster Street crept gradually westward in a straight line, finally intersecting around 1763 with the Plainfield highway to form what would later be known as Cathedral Square.

When I.M. Pei's plan for the redevelopment of the western edge of downtown was implemented, that old pattern of roads, of forks that split or joined together, were replaced with a grid of streets, obscuring the old, organic pattern. Imagine standing at this intersection in 1900 and looking northwest along the Plainfield Road, filled with streetcars, horse-carts and people moving back and forth from the busy harbor to the mills of Olneyville amid the whistles, bells, clangs and clatter of the industrial city.

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33 Broad Street, Providence, RI 02903