Providence, Rhode Island, the state's capital and largest city, and the seat of Providence County. It is at the northern end of Narragansett Bay and at the junction of the Providence and Seekonk rivers, 40 miles (65 km) southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, and about 25 miles (40 km) from the open sea. The smaller Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck rivers join the Providence River here. The city is built on three low hills, with the oldest sections in the College Hill area on the east side.
Providence began its industrial growth in the late 18th century, with the development of textile mills. The city became a major producer of jewelry and silverware and is also important for machinery and tools, fabricated metals, rubber products, and plastics.
The chief port of southern New England, Providence is a major petroleum distributing center and also handles significant quantities of coal, lumber, and cement. The city is served by rail, several airlines, and principal east coast highways, including two Interstates.
Numerous historic buildings indicate the city's early importance. In the Old State House (built 1763), Rhode Island declared its independence. The First Baptist Meeting House (1775) is the oldest Baptist church in the nation. University Hall (1770) of Brown University housed American and French troops from 1776 to 1782. Several other buildings are pre-revolutionary. Buildings completed in the 20th century include the white marble State House (1904) and the Providence Post Office (1960).
The Athenaeum (1838) is one of the oldest private libraries in the nation. The John Carter Brown Library, on the Brown campus, has a collection of early Americana. The Rhode Island Historical Society is housed in the John Brown House, built in 1786. The largest of the city's parks is Roger Williams Park, containing a zoo, natural history museum, library, and planetarium. Other cultural institutions include the Rhode Island opera guild, ballet company, and philharmonic orchestra; the Providence Philharmonic Orchestra; and several museums and art galleries.
Providence was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a dissenting Puritan pastor who had been banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. He bought land from the Indians to found a settlement based on religious freedom, and named it in gratitude for his survival.
In 1644, during the Great Rebellion in England, Williams obtained a charter from a parliamentary commission for his own and other settlements in the Narragansett Bay area. When the Stuart monarchy was restored, a royal charter was granted in 1663, renewing the guarantee of religious freedom for “Rhode Island Colony and Providence Plantations.”
Along with dissenting Congregationalists from Massachusetts Bay, Baptists, Quakers, and Jews found refuge in Providence. The town was partly destroyed in King Philip's War (1675–76), but was soon rebuilt. In the 18th century Providence developed into a major seaport for clipper ship trade, and acquired great wealth. The first printing press in Rhode Island was set up in 1762 for publication of the Providence Gazette.
Providence was a center of anti-British sentiment before the Revolutionary War. With Newport it served as capital of the state from 1776.
The Embargo Act of 1807 and Nonintercourse Act of 1809 largely halted sea commerce, but by then Providence had a new industry. A textile mill had been built in nearby Pawtucket in 1790, and with the invention of the cotton gin a few years later, the cotton textile industry flourished. Providence was incorporated as a city in 1832. The textile mills brought increased prosperity with the introduction of a steam engine by George H. Corliss in 1848.
Meanwhile, resentment against property qualifications for voting had led to Dorr's Rebellion. In 1842, when rival state governments had been set up, the Dorr administration was based in Providence. The main military action of the rebellion was an unsuccessful assault by the Dorr forces against the Providence arsenal.
The city became sole state capital in 1901. Following World War II, machinery and metal goods replaced textiles as the city's leading products. Also in the postwar period, the city began to lose population to the suburbs. Providence's central core, like that of many other cities, declined. In 1957 Providence embarked on a renewal project that led to restoration of parts of the downtown area. Additional renewal projects were undertaken in the 1970's.