On any given summer day in the city of Providence, you’re likely to notice a steady flow of people—Rhode Island locals, university students, families and young children—making their way down North Main Street towards Wickenden St., in the Fox Point neighborhood of the city.
It’s more than likely that all of those individuals are en route to India Point Park, located along India Street, where the Providence River meets the Seekonk. Providence has long been a crucial port city of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States—in fact, the area now known as India Point was an important center for trade since the late 1680s, far before the United States was even a nation.
In the late 17th century, goods such as teas, spices, and textile were exchanged here between the early settlers of Providence and the world; over the years, as time and industrial needs developed continued to grow into the 1800s and later, the focus would shift more to the exchange of valued products such as hardware and machinery, wool, and coal. After the Crash of 1929 and the devastation of the Great Depression, trade activity in the area declined greatly, and came to a full halt. However, in that span of 250 years, this port saw the coming and going of an incredible volume of ships, traders, merchants, and goods, although it looks quite different today than what one would have imagined it to be all those years ago.
Today, India Point Park is one of the largest public spaces in the city of Providence. After trade activity in the area ceased, and most of the incoming cargo was redirected to a new port located along Allens Avenue in Providence, the area was used mostly as a scrapyard and fell into disarray. In the 1960’s, with increasing efforts to urbanize Providence, the I-95 Interstate was constructed, running through the Fox Point neighborhood and essentially creating a divide between the India Point grounds and the rest of the city and infringing upon the lands of other public parks in the city, leaving them fragmented and neglected.
However, in the 1970s, one woman would come about with an arsenal of great ideas and mission—a passion—to beautify to city. That woman was Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, of Providence: a passionate gardener and self-taught landscape architect with a deep love for her city. Sharpe, the wife of the 12th Chancellor of Brown University, Henry Dexter Sharpe, parlayed her passion for her sprawling home gardens into landscaping projects for the University and, later, for the city of Providence. She had a particular passion for Japanese gardens, as well as for trees—she worked many years on creating a tree-planting program for the city, and lead efforts to combat the pervasive Dutch Elm Disease, whose effects were felt strongly in the city of Providence.
Sharpe established a committee of philanthropists and donors from among the citizens of Providence in order to petition the city to allow for a conversion and repurposing of that industrial scrapyard as public land—complete with a variety of green spaces, public amenities such as benches, piers, and walkways, and direct access to the waters of the Providence and Seekonk Rivers. Mrs. Sharpe not only appealed for the allocation of funds to found what is now India Point Park and to restore other parks around the city, but also donated roughly $153,000 of her own money to the realization of her project.
Her valiant efforts did not go unrewarded, and in 1974, India Point Park was formally dedicated, and given its name hearkening back to the earliest roots of the area as a point of commerce and trade with what were then called the East Indies by the early citizens of Providence. The park’s history, rich and colorful, truly cannot be told without acknowledging the work and passion of Mrs. Mary Elizabeth Sharpe, though much of the publicly-available information regarding the park today fails to mention her incredible efforts. Even after her death in 1985, she continued to support the beautification of the city of Providence with the Mary Elizabeth Sharpe Tree Endowment, a trust dedicated to tree-planting created by the Sharpe Family Foundation in 1988 to ensure that beautiful foliage would always be had wherever it was needed.
Today, the park is a hallmark of the city’s landscape, and provides some of the most scenic views of Providence and the surroundings waters. The park has recently been outfitted with an amphitheater for public events, as well as a newly-renovated pedestrian bridge and towering staircases that have reintegrated the park into the city and made it far more accessible, allow passersby to enjoy views of Providence and the Harbor as they cross above Interstate 95 on their way to the park, the Brown University boathouse, or to the popular hotel that was recently built right along India Street.
Now, each year, the July 4th celebrations at India Point also attract thousands of people from Providence and beyond—undeniable evidence of the fact that Mrs. Sharpe’s determined efforts have not gone unrecognized, and that the park will be loved and appreciated by all those who visit for many years to come.