Filed Under Pond Street

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.

Images

John Hutchins Cady's Map of 18th Century Providence
John Hutchins Cady's Map of 18th Century Providence John Hutchins Cady created a vision of 18th century Providence that shows the Plainfield Road coming off of the Pequot Trail/Pawtuxet Road by Snow's Meeting House, today's Beneficent Congregational Church. The intersection that had existed for 250 years was eliminated in I.M. Pei's redesign of the Weybosset Hill area.
Stephen Avery's Map of Providence
Stephen Avery's Map of Providence This tracing of the map that Stephen Avery carved into his powder horn in 1777 shows the intersection of the Plainfield Road and Westminster Street, marked with a red arrow, which did not connect with the Plainfield Road until 1763 at the earliest. This intersection become known as Cathedral Square over one hundred years later. Date: 1777
Where the Plainfield Road Once Ran
Where the Plainfield Road Once Ran Today, looking northwest from the intersection of Weybosset and Empire Streets, a Johnson & Wales building stands where the old Plainfield Road (later called High Street, then Weybosset Street) once ran along the rim of land over the tidal estuary where downtown Providence is today. In I.M. Pei's 1963 redevelopment plan, that section of road was eliminated to be replaced by the grid of streets that exist today. Date: 2019
I.M. Pei's Plan Over a 1908 Map of Cathedral Square
I.M. Pei's Plan Over a 1908 Map of Cathedral Square I.M. Pei's 1963 Plan in blue, orange, and green over the neighborhood of Cathedral Square from a 1908 plat map. The old Plainfield Road once broke off of Weybosset to travel northwest, joining with Westminster Street to create the intersection that became Cathedral Square. Date: 1963

Location

33 Broad Street, Providence, RI 02903

Metadata

Taylor M. Polites, “1710: The Plainfield Road,” Rhode Tour, accessed June 13, 2024, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/366.