Rhode Island is the smallest state in the Union, and is often overlooked by tourists and historians for its neighboring big brother, Massachusetts. However, the smallest state packs quite a package of important historical sites that many tourists have no idea exist. Here are the top ten historic places in Rhode Island that just may convince you to take a trip here.
10. Great Friends Meeting House
Rhode Island was founded on the idea of religious freedom, which is why you can find many old religious structures throughout the state. Built in 1699 in Newport, the Meeting House is one of the oldest structures in the state and showcases the influence and importance the Quakers had in the area. In 1905, it ceased being a Meeting House, instead becoming a recreational center for African-Americans until the 1970’s, when it was donated to the Historical Society and restored.
It has a plain design, but that is the point. Inside the building, you will not find steeples, statues, or stained glass windows, but rather a strip down interior that fits quite well with the Quakers’ ideas for proper worship centering around simplicity. This helps any visitor better understand the way of life the Quakers desired.
9. Slater Mill
One thing Rhode Island is overlooked for is that it was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Located in Pawtucket is Slater Mill, which is North America’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill. Samuel Slater, who was born in England in 1768, moved to America in 1789. At the time, British laws forbid exporting details concerning the spinning mill outside of the country, so he memorized the plans instead.
With the plans in his head and the backing of a partner named Moses Brown, Samuel built the mill in 1793, starting the framework for the Industrial Revolution. Today, the mill will bring you back in time with its displays of items the workers used and several exhibits about mill life, including the use of child labor. Additional buildings to tour on the same property are the Wilkinson Mill and the Sylvanus Brown House.
8. The Nathanael Greene Homestead
With Rhode Island being one of the original American Colonies, it’s no surprise it will have places related to the Revolutionary War. This well-preserved home belonged to one of the unsung heroes of the war, Major Gen. Nathanael Greene. He was born in 1742 and built this house in Coventry in 1770. It’s here that he raised a family and worked in his iron forge business.
In 1775, he left his home to join the service, and eventually took command of the Southern armies in 1780. His stay in the Homestead was short lived as he gave his home to his brother Jacob in 1783 before moving down to Georgia. He died from heat stroke in 1786.
Now fully restored, the home is open for tours with two floors filled with Colonial and early American artifacts, along with personal items that belonged to Greene family. Overall, the home helps give this man his proper place in history.
7. The White Horse Tavern
Traveling and dining go hand-in-hand. When visiting Newport, you can eat at the oldest in-use tavern in the United States. The White Horse Tavern was built in 1652 but it didn’t become a tavern until 1673. One of the owners was William Mayes, Jr, who inherited the place in 1702 and was granted a license to sell all forms of liquor. What made him interesting was that he was a well-known pirate at the time.
It was a popular drinking and eating place until 1895, when it was sold and became a rooming house. However, in 1957 it was restored to being a tavern. By dining here, you have a wide selection of fabulous wines, desserts, and foods to feast upon. While the entire building has modern comfort, it keeps the proper Colonial experience. This is a place to sit, relax, have good conversations and enjoy the historic atmosphere.
6. The Rhode Island State House
There are many great state houses in the U.S., and the one in the state capital of Providence is no exception. While the outside is quite the marvel to look at, it’s the inside where it really shines. Built in 1895, the State House has the fourth largest unsupported marble dome in the world. There are several rooms to explore, such as the State Room, which houses several original paintings like Gilbert Stewart’s painting of Washington. There is also the Charter Room that contains the original 350 year old Royal Charter that made Rhode Island an official colony, along with several original items that belong to its founder, Roger Williams. The best part of visiting here: it’s free to do!
5. Gilbert Stuart Birthplace
Washington’s face on the one-dollar bill is one of the most widely recognized portraits of him, and the person who created it was born right here in Rhode Island. Famed artist Gilbert Stuart was born in 1755 in Saunderstown and would go on to paint many important figures like John Adams, James Madison, and of course, George Washington.
His birthplace was built in 1751 and originally had a water wheel for processing snuff. The home and the nearby 18th century grist mill are open for tours, and you can learn a lot about the life and times of this great artist. If you are a nature lover instead, the property has trails, a herb garden, and a boat dock for all to enjoy.
4. Brown University
One of the top Ivy League schools in the country is located in Providence. Founded in 1764, Brown University is the seventh oldest school of higher education in the country. You don’t need to enroll here in order to enjoy the University, as there is plenty to explore and see in terms of architecture and history.
The John Hay & the John Carter Brown Library have a great collection of rare books, letters, manuscripts, and research which provide valuable information and insight. Places like Van Winkle Gate, the Ladd Observatory, and University Hall provide some great photo ops. There is also the First Baptist Church of America, while independent of the University, has a historical connection to the University and even holds the undergraduate commencement. There is a lot of diverse places to see and explore here.
3. St. Anne’s Arts and Cultural Center
If you want to look at beautiful fresco paintings but can’t afford a trip to Europe, you could instead travel to Woonsocket and see the largest collection in North America. The former Catholic Church was built in 1913 to serve the local French-Canadian community, but it was closed in 2000. Today, it’s now a non-profit organization and open for weddings, concerts, tours, and other events. However, the biggest draw is the main chapel area, with the walls and ceilings covered with beautiful hand-painted artwork that features over 475 faces of angels, saints, and other forms of divinity. Coming here is like seeing the Sistine Chapel and discovering a true hidden treasure.
2. Touro Synagogue
Rhode Island showcases the historic influence of various religions like the Quakers and Baptists, and Judaism is no exception. Jewish immigrants first arrived in Newport in the mid-17th century, and the population there began building their own synagogue in 1759, completing it in 1763. During the British occupation of Newport during the Revolutionary War, the synagogue was spared from being torn down and used as firewood because it was being used as a hospital. Currently, it’s the oldest surviving synagogue in the United States.
Today, it still operates as an active place of worship but is open to the public. You can tour the interior and see the beautiful columns, chandeliers, and candles. Nearby is the Loeb Visitors Center that has several exhibits, including one dedicated to Washington’s 1790 letter to the Jews of Newport. It gives you a greater appreciation the contributions the Jews gave to the U.S.
1. The Breakers
As you can tell from this list, there are a lot of places to visit in Newport alone. So it’s no surprise that the number one location is also in the city by the sea. Along Bellevue Avenue Historic District, there are many beautiful and historic mansions, including the Marble House and the Elms. But the number one mansion to see is the Breakers.
The mansion was built in 1893 for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, who was part of the very wealthy Vanderbilt family. Though he died soon after its construction in 1899, the mansion remains in the family, with his great-grand children living on the third floor. Inside are breath-taking rooms filled with expensive furniture and art the showcases the family’s wealthy. The grounds themselves are something from a Disney movie, with beautiful gardens consisting of various flowers, Japanese yew, and hemlock. It’s no mystery why the mansion is the most visited attraction in Rhode Island.