Rocky Point Park: A Cultural Heritage

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Rocky Point’s history dates back to pre-European times, when the site was reportedly inhabited by members of the Narragansett tribe of Native Americans in the summer months.  The property’s “modern” history begins, however, with the advent of leisure time for nineteenth-century working-class Rhode Islanders, who by the late 1840s were able to leave the industrial centers in the state and travel south along Narragansett Bay for pleasure. 

1847 to 1995: Rocky Point Amusement Park

Since it was first used for nature outings in 1847, Rocky Point has been Rhode Island’s working-class shoreline resort. Its development as a summer resort was praised by the New York Times in 1872, when it was described as “one of the most delightful places upon our New-England coast,” a place “exceedingly popular with the masses as a delightful spot to spend a few days from the hurry and hustle of daily life.” In that era, before the midway rides that made Rocky Point famous for later generations of Rhode Islanders, the allure of Rocky Point was the land itself—over 120 acres of beach, meadows, wetlands, woods, and dramatic rocky elevations overlooking the entire upper Narragansett Bay.

By 1900 amusements had been added so that it had become “the Coney Island of Rhode Island” according to the New York Times, and John Jacob Astor organized a whimsical visit by his wealthy Newport friends to sample popular entertainments.

Over the decades, attractions at Rocky Point have come and gone—nature trails, a ferry pier, an observation tower, hotels, clambakes, restaurants, swimming pool, rides, games, and concerts—but the attraction of 120 acres of land for public use within 10 miles of downtown Providence has been a consistent draw since those first visits in the late 1840s.

As a nearby “day-trip” shoreline resort, Rocky Point was the place that Rhode Islanders wanted to be in the summer, and they came in droves. Factory workers from as far away as Taunton, Attleboro, and Fall River would enjoy their companies’ annual outings at the park, not to mention the workers from Rhode Island’s mill villages, from Woonsocket to Olneyville to West Warwick. When labor strife in the 1890s caused the Rhode Island central Labor Union to choose a destination for thousands of workers to hold a rally, they chose Rocky Point, calling all available ferries from Providence into service.

Later, when national and local politicians wanted a place to stage rallies for their campaigns, they also chose Rocky Point. Indeed, Rocky Point was the site of the first use of a telephone by a United States President, when in 1877 Alexander Graham Bell called from Providence to President Rutherford B. Hayes at Rocky Point. Baseball, too, became a draw for Rhode Islanders to visit Rocky Point. Those who were at Rocky Point for a 1914 game of the Providence Grays would have seen Babe Ruth hit a home run into Narragansett Bay.

In addition to these major historical events, virtually every adult Rhode Islander has some personal memory of Rocky Point. As children, parents, and grandparents, we can all remember spending happy times at Rocky Point, whether it was first jobs, first dates, riding the Corkscrew, Cyclone, Flume, and Musik Express, eating clamcakes and chowder at the World’s Largest Shore Dinner Hall, or attending concerts on the Midway. Many of Rhode Island’s notable political events were held at the Palladium, which was also home to many weddings, sports banquets, and other events. The openness of the amusement park allowed fishermen free access to the point, with its renowned striped bass catches, and older Rhode Islanders parked along the shoreline for a superb view of Narragansett Bay—what former US Senator from Rhode Island, John Chafee, called a “three-bridge” view, spanning from the Mount Hope Bridge to the Newport-Pell Bridge to the Jamestown-Verrazano Bridge. Some Rhode Islanders spent many summers living in their cottages in the small resort community on the northern end of the property, known as Rocky Beach. Rocky Point had something for everyone, and everyone has his or her own personal Rocky Point memories.

1995 to 2008: The Closed Years

When the amusement park succumbed to the pressure of its debts and closed in 1995, however, Rocky Point and its scenic shoreline was closed to public access. It remained generally inaccessible to any use whatsoever, because landward access was blocked by the portion of the property held in receivership under the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). The SBA, in furtherance of its duty to try to repay the amusement park’s debts, tried for years to sell the property for residential development, but those efforts failed. Indeed, residential development was just not the right answer for the property, because it would have provided only a few Rhode Islanders with access to what is properly the patrimony of everyone in the Ocean State.

2008 to 2014: The Reopening

In 2008, the City of Warwick, through a complicated transaction involving federal, state, and city efforts, acquired title to 41 acres of the property—mostly wetlands, but importantly including a strip of land along the entire mile-long shoreline of the property. This visionary purchase assured eventual public access to the unrivaled resource of the property’s coast. The acquisition was made possible through the herculean efforts of many parties: through a federal grant of over $2 million obtained by Senator Jack Reed, who was an early proponent of public access to the property, along with Congressman Jim Langevin; through necessary matching funds from the City of Warwick and the RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM) under the leadership of Mayor Scott Avedisian and Director Michael Sullivan; and through the cooperation of other city and state officials and the SBA. Following the City of Warwick’s purchase, Mayor Avedisian, with the support of DEM and the SBA, arranged several occasions when the public could drive and walk through the city-owned property. Thousands of Rhode Islanders took advantage of these one-day events in 2008 and 2009 to show their interest and enthusiasm for a public Rocky Point. Anyone who attended these events could attest to the incredible response of the public to once again be able to visit “their” Rocky Point.

After the public’s appetite for a fully reopened Rocky Point was whetted, efforts to cause the state to purchase the remaining 80+ acres of the property gained traction.  The case for the state purchase, pursued by the Rocky Point Foundation following its formation in 2009, was easy to establish.  Rocky Point is less than 10 miles, by direct measurement, from Downcity Providence, which would make it the closest state park for anyone in or around Providence who wants to reach swimmable bay waters. The meaning of this accessibility could be overstated, as a visit to the Goddard Park beach on hot summer day would demonstrate. There is an incredible demand in Rhode Island’s urban center for shoreline recreation on clean water that is accessible without a longer drive to South County.

And Rocky Point, with its two sandy beaches, not to mention salt water fishing, nature trails, rock climbing and open spaces for family sports, is precisely where this demand can be met. Near the southern terminus of the current RIPTA bus line (Line 3), the trip to Rocky Point from Kennedy Plaza takes just over a half hour. By boat, the trip is more direct, and the possibility of rebuilding the deep-water dock at Rocky Point is a major advantage to the accessibility of the property. By car, the trip from Providence is also brief, and the prior development of Rocky Point makes virtually any amount of shoreline-adjacent parking possible without any disruption to existing natural habitats. By any means, a family sitting in their home in Providence could decide to go to Rocky Point on a Saturday morning and be there by noon, without having to worry about filling the car with gas, or beach traffic, or whether there is a parking space when they get there.

The accessible location of Rocky Point has another advantage that makes the property unique—its ability to serve as the keystone property for a marine link between the East Bay and the West Bay, and for an inland link to other open space in Warwick and beyond. On the east of the property, Rocky Point looks straight across to Colt State Park about 4 miles away, and northern Prudence Island and Patience Island are about 2 miles to the southeast. This set of properties calls to mind the “Bay Island Parks” system idea that has been on the drawing boards for decades, with a potential ferry service running a short loop across the Bay and to Newport, with its Fort Adams state park. Likewise, on the west of Rocky Point, the property abuts a network of wetlands and informal trails that connects to the old Rocky Point trolley line right of way. This connection could be utilized to link Rocky Point to the system of bike trails that the state has so effectively pursued in the last two decades, and accessibility by bike path would add to the utility of a public park at Rocky Point.

With all of these thoughts in mind, and at the insistence of the Rocky Point Foundation, in partnership with Save the Bay, the Rhode Island Land Trust Council, and other organizations and volunteers, the Rhode Island General Assembly approved a statewide bond referendum in the November 2010 election, seeking approval to borrow $10 million to purchase the remaining 80+ acres of Rocky Point to establish Rhode Island’s newest state park.  The referendum was overwhelmingly approved by Rhode Island voters.  After several years of negotiations and court proceedings that followed, the remaining Rocky Point acreage was finally purchased by the state in early 2014, and by the end of 2014 the entire property had been cleaned up in preparation for full public access.

2015 and Beyond: The Future of Rocky Point Park

As any visitor to Rocky Point Park will attest, the park is already being used robustly by a variety of Rhode Islanders.  The mile-long walking and biking path is heavily traveled, and the beach is used for swimming (caution: no lifeguards), seaglunking (collecting sea glass), and just enjoying the view.  People come to see the remnants of the old amusement park (the hallmark arch transplanted from the 1964-65 World’s Fair, the Skyliner ride stanchions, the Circle Swing tower, and the water cistern foundation), to tell stories about their memories at Rocky Point, and to walk on the boundless grass lawn and into the rocky woods.

The park has been the site of several Rocky Point 5K road races, a Rhode Island Natural History Survey “bioblitz” event, and several “movie nights” on the great lawn.  Plans for a possible new dock are being pursued, composting toilets have been installed, and an extension of the pathways is in the works.  The exact future of Rocky Point Park is still in the making, which is consistent with the ever-changing, but also always highly-valued, nature of this treasured Rhode Island landscape.