Rhode Island - The Smallest State
Hello again, Don Milne here, your Roadtrip-'62 ™ traveler. We’re leaving Sandwich, Massachusetts, two days out from the eastern beginning point of our US-6 trip. We’ll enter the second state of this virtual roadtrip, Rhode Island, and see if we can make it into Connecticut. Stops we’ll make today include some of the whaling, manufacturing, and naval history of the area. We’ll also discuss some restaurants of the 1962 era and as always, find a few surprises. If you see anything you like, I encourage you to get out on the road and enjoy it in person. This virtual roadtrip may be fun, but there's nothing like the real thing! At any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Time for me to grab the wheel and go!
Let’s start the day with some donuts from a roadside icon, Dunkin Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts was founded in 1950 by William Rosenberg in Quincy, Massachusetts. Mr. Rosenberg brought in a partner, his brother-in-law Harry Winouker, but they broke off their partnership in 1956. Each man kept a chain of coffee and donut shops, with William retaining the Dunkin’ Donuts name and Harry founding Mister Donut. In 1990, British food conglomerate Allied-Lyons plc purchased both restaurant chains, reuniting them under the Dunkin’ brand. Because Dunkin’ Donuts started here in Massachusetts, we’ll see lots of them throughout the northeast, just as we would have in 1962. There’s one right here in Sandwich on Route 6A, though I couldn’t find how long it’s been here.
We cross the Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal and suddenly, we’re off of Cape Cod. Back in 1962 there was a large traffic circle, or rotary in New England parlance, at the west end of the bridge. The rotary was constructed in the 1930s and it was replaced in 2006 with a standard freeway interchange, so that bit of history is gone but the bridge remains. The rotary was somewhat of a traffic bottleneck for a long time, and with increasing tourism on the Cape it finally reached its limits. There are still other rotaries on the Cape: we drove through one at the beginning of the Mid-Cape Highway on US-6 back at Rock Harbor. Generally, they are all past their design capacity and probably need to be replaced.
The Cape Cod Canal was the culmination of centuries of plans to create an all-water route across Cape Cod. It was first proposed by Captain Miles Standish in the 1600s! During the American Revolution, such a canal would have been a useful way to circumvent British harbor blockades, but it was never constructed. For the next 150 years, many plans were made, but none succeeded. Finally in 1914, New York financier August Belmont completed a canal across the seven miles separating Cape Cod Bay from Buzzards Bay. It was a narrow canal and never made a profit for Mr. Belmont, and the US government bought it in 1928, turning it over to the Army Corps of Engineers to improve and operate. The canal work was successful in saving time and improving shipping safety, and the Cape Cod Canal now serves over 20,000 vessels each year. The Sagamore Bridge was part of those improvements and opened in 1935 to replace shorter bridges that impaired shipping. This bridge is a twin of the Bourne Bridge, located at the south end of the canal.
From the Sagamore Bridge we travel along the canal, as US-6 uses Shore Road down to the Bourne Bridge. If you’re lucky, you can watch some ocean-going vessels in the canal. Anything from cruise ships to fishing boats, to sailboats may be seen here. The canal shaves about 135 miles off a trip along the Atlantic coast, so there are always ships passing through. There are no navigational hazards, though the fast current changes direction every six hours due to the geography of the area, and reaches a maximum of over 5 miles per hour during the westerly tide. Because the Bourne Bridge is less congested than the Sagamore, you can still go around in a circle at the Buzzards Bay Rotary at the foot of the bridge! Then, we leave Cape Cod behind for good. If you’re interested in shipping, you can read about shipping history along our US-23 Roadtrip-'62 ™.
Wareham, Massachusetts is our next stop; home to the Tremont Nail Company. It was established in 1819, and has been making nails and related items ever since. It’s located here because the early settlers found iron ore in the swamps while plowing their new fields. So, a local tool-making industry grew, including nails. The factory used to give tours so you could see old nails and nail-making equipment. Unfortunately, times have changed and between Federal OSHA regulations and their insurance company requirements, they no longer give tours. We’ll just have to view the building from outside as we wander the grounds. They still use old nail-making equipment, including some machines over 125 years old, and flat sheets of steel instead of modern wire. In 1962 you could buy them at your local lumber yard. Today you can order from their online catalog or buy from their network of local dealers. There’s even a dealer in my hometown!
In 1962 we would probably have stopped to buy some postcards or goofy gifts at the Seahorse Gift Shop. The gift shop became a landmark for people going to Cape Cod after Henry Dunseith, the shop owner, constructed a giant seahorse out front in the mid-1950s to attract people. When Henry died, his family left the property to the Mattapoisett Land Trust. They determined that the gift shop was not feasible to repair and demolished it in the 1990s. However, “Salty” the seahorse was saved, renovated, and reinstalled out front of the property, which is now a park. He’s even lighted at night just like he was 50 years ago. To add a little old-fashioned flair, fellow road tripper Len Arzoomanian has parked his 1961 Mercury Comet under "Salty" for the photo. Thanks, Len!
On to New Bedford, Massachusetts to learn about this area’s whaling history. Many of the museums along our route are too new to have seen in 1962, but not the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It’s 107 years old and a real treasure, educating with an extensive collection that includes complete whale skeletons! New Bedford was the center of whaling on the east coast in the 19th century, and one of the best places to get a look at this legacy is the Whaling Museum. Their most spectacular exhibit is the ½ scale whaling ship, the Lagoda. You can climb aboard to get a real sense of seafaring in the 1800’s. For more history, right across the street is the Seaman’s Bethel Chapel, which was built in 1827. This chapel, with its unusual ship’s bow pulpit and stone tablets honoring fishermen lost at sea, was even described in Chapter 7 of Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick". Both buildings are now within the New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park, and even though the park wasn’t established until 1996, we could have visited the museum and chapel back in 1962. The park now covers parts of thirteen city blocks and includes a visitor center well worth visiting. Besides the museums and building interiors, there are walking tours of the historic district, docks, and even a garden.
New Bedford has other significant history besides whaling. In the era before the Civil War, it served as an important stop on the "Underground Railroad", harboring escaped slaves on their way to freedom. The city was also a center for Portuguese immigrants to the United States, because by the 1890's. whaling crews were mostly of Portuguese descent. They are still a thriving community in New Bedford today, with Portuguese newspapers and other visible activity. After we’re done with the historic tourism, we could stop to eat lunch at a local Portuguese restaurant. There are many in town, as there were in 1962, but it might be hard to find one that’s been here continuously since then. Another dining option is the Shawmut Diner, an authentic diner that’s been here since the 1950s. For lunch back in 1962, we could also have stopped at a Massachusetts roadside icon, Howard Johnson’s. Howard Deering Johnson located his first franchised restaurant out on Cape Cod in 1935, so we probably drove right past the spot yesterday. In the late 1950s and through the 1960s, Howard Johnson’s restaurants were one of the first chain restaurants where quality was consistent from one location to another all across the country. The same menu, and even the same building. They made popular the idea of lots of ice cream flavors (28), which was later expanded upon by Baskin Robbins. Known in 1962 as the "Landmark For Hungry Americans", Howard Johnson's had about 600 restaurants and 90 motor lodges. At its peak around 1975 they had grown to over 1,000 restaurants, but began to decline thereafter as high gasoline prices changed traveler’s habits and the founder died. Today there are only 3 restaurants still open in the United States, and the one formerly here in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts is not one of them. The location is now a Burger King, so let’s hunt around for one of those Portuguese restaurants.
As we leave town, we’re still reminded of the whaling history of the area, passing businesses such as the Moby Dick Motel along US-6. More sailing history awaits us in Fall River, Massachusetts at Battleship Cove. The cove is an area in the harbor on the Taunton River now used as a naval museum. Though not established until 1965, the museum houses ships in use during 1962, so it’s a great stop for us. The museum began as a war memorial through the efforts of the World War II crew of the battleship USS Massachusetts. They managed to get the Navy to donate the decommissioned battleship and then registered as a nonprofit educational organization, opening in 1965. It now harbors the largest collection of preserved US Navy ships in the world, including five National Historic Landmarks. Of special interest to 1962 is the Destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., which was used in the blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The staff and volunteers are still working to help preserve, repair, restore and interpret their growing collection of ships.
Another ship of significance for our favorite year is the HMS Bounty reproduction built for for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty." This ship is not currently at Battleship Cove but has docked here in the past as part of its mission sailing the country offering dockside tours teaching about the history of ancient high-masted sailing vessels. The HMS Bounty has also appeared in many films, including "Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Mans Chest." Also nearby, overlooking the cove, is Fall River Heritage State Park, which includes the Fall River Carousel, from the nearby, demolished Lincoln Park amusement park. We could have visited in 1962 but today only the carousel and a few other rides that were sold to other parks remain. The park closed at the end of the 1987 season following a couple of accidents on its old roller coaster and declining attendance.
Leaving Massachusetts behind after over 2 days, we finally enter the second state of our 14-state trip, Rhode Island. Rhode Island is the smallest state in the country. Sometimes it seems that the entire state is either Providence or its suburbs, but there are still some smaller towns. One of these is Pawtucket, home of the Slater Mill Historic Site. This is a museum complex we could have visited in 1962, as it was opened as a museum in 1925. By the early 1950s, the museum was open on a regular basis for interpreted tours, demonstrations and exhibits of textile machinery. The Slater Mill was built in 1793 for production of cotton thread. It was used for that until 1829, and continuously occupied until 1921 for various other industries including jewelers' tools, coffin trimmings, cardboard and bicycles. When it closed at that time, local businessmen had been watching the demise of the textile industry in the Northeast in favor of the cheap labor and raw material in the South. Though they could not reverse the loss of their textile-based economy, they sought to preserve and protect a piece of it in the Old Slater Mill. These businessmen organized to restore and preserve this "Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution." They were able to interest nationally recognized business leaders such as Henry Ford, Walter Chrysler and Harvey Firestone in becoming founders and created one of the first industrial museums in the United States. It has grown some from the first building, and now includes the mill dam on the river, two historic mills (the Slater Mill and Wilkinson Mill), the Sylvanus Brown House, and the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center.
If you didn’t ride the carousel back in New Bedford, you have another chance at one in East Providence, Rhode Island. The city operates the Looff Carousel in Crescent Park. Built in 1895 by Charles I.D. Looff, one of the earliest and foremost carousel designers, it was privately operated until the late 1970s. It sits inside it’s restored specially designed building with colored "sandwich glass" windows that provide a sparking, kaleidoscopic effect as you ride. If you don’t need another merry-go-round ride, there’s a lot to see in Providence too, and most of it has been here since long before 1962. Providence is also where we cross our first US-numbered routes. US-1 is another of the longest routes, running from Fort Kent, Maine at the Canadian border down to land’s end at Key West, Florida: 2,377 miles. It mostly runs near the Atlantic Ocean coast and passes through the largest metropolitan areas in the country, including New York City. We met US-1 on our first Roadtrip-'62 ™, when US-23 traveled along with it from somewhere north of Waycross, Georgia. By contrast, US-44 is a much shorter route, running only a couple of hundred miles from the Massachusetts coast into southern New York state. After crossing it here, we will find it again and travel along with US-44 through Hartford, Connecticut.
There are so many old places in Providence that we may not have time to see them all before they close today. We’ll stay here tonight and catch something before we leave in the morning. Where to start, though? We may just have time to see the Rhode Island State Capitol or the Athenaeum, which is the local library, but not both. The Athenaeum was opened to the public in 1838. It is in the Greek Revival style, based on the temples of ancient Greece. This architectural style dominated American building from 1820 to 1850, especially in public buildings. The building has been added to twice. It is somewhat unusual in US libraries in that it is a member-supported library. Most are public-supported, but two hundred years ago, membership was the more common method of funding libraries.
We don’t pass through many state capitols along the eastern end of US-6, so I’m going to see that instead. Rhode Island’s current capitol building is not their first, as it was completed in 1900. The General Assembly met here for the first time on January 1, 1901. Touring the building, we find a reproduction of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell in the Bell Room, in the south entrance lobby. After the end of World War II, each state was presented with a liberty bell as a token of appreciation for their contributions to the war effort. Typical of statehouses of the period, there is a central rotunda with paintings on the walls and ceiling, and a large chandelier in the center. The paintings at the corners represent Commerce, Education, Justice, and Literature. A solid brass state seal, adopted in 1636, is embedded into the floor. An odd feature of the Gun Room is a Civil War cannon that was damaged during the war by heat, such that the cannon ball that had been loaded into the muzzle was fused to the barrel. It had been inside the capitol since 1903, still loaded for 99 years with its charge of gunpowder! The powder was finally removed in 1962, when the potential danger was noted.
Time for dinner, so let’s see what we can find from 1962, if anything. If you’re fond of diners, Providence has several including the Havens Brothers Diner, recognized as the country’s oldest diner on wheels! Some would call it a lunch wagon, but it’s much bigger than that. You can find it any day after 4:30pm at the corner of Dorrance Street and Fulton Street, next to the Providence City Hall. But I’m going to try a stop in the Federal Hill section. This area is also known as Little Italy, and it’s a great place for some fine ethnic food. Some choices for something old enough are Camille's, which has been a Rhode Island dining landmark since 1914; Angelo's, a family business here since 1924; Joe Marzilli's Old Canteen, in the same location since 1956; and Andino’s, which also seems to date from the 1950s. I’m sure there are others, so have fun hunting around!
Unfortunately, it’s too late to see the Roger Williams Park Zoo after dinner, because they closed at 4:00pm. My wife loves zoos, so I’m sure this trip will include stops at many across the country. This one is rather special, so you might want to plan your Roadtrip-'62 ™ differently than I did. Roger Williams Park Zoo is one of the oldest zoos in the United States, having opened in 1872. Today, Roger Williams Park is a 435 acre urban oasis which includes the Zoo, a museum of natural history, a carousel (Yes, another: these New Englanders must love them!), a botanical garden, and more. The park is named after the founder of Rhode Island. In the early 1960's, we would have still seen the Zoo animals exhibited in nondescript areas throughout the entire park, as recreating natural environments for the animals on display was a relatively new concept in the United States. The sea lions lived in a pool on a hillside below the Casino building, and bison, deer and bears were kept behind crude fences. There weren’t even any admission gates, you just wandered in and out. However, in 1962 Sophie Danforth founded the Rhode Island Zoological Society that still supports and manages the Zoo today. Her vision helped usher in an era of tremendous change and growth, and today the 40 acre Roger Williams Park Zoo includes over 100 species of animals from around the world in naturalistic exhibits.
Everything may be closed, but we can make our own driving tour past some fine Federal era mansions and churches on Benefit St. and nearby. This architecture dates from the formative years of our country: from about 1780 to 1820. We won’t miss much by just driving by, as it’s unlikely that many were open for tours back in 1962. In fact, back in the 1950s, the City of Providence planned to demolish part of historic Benefit Street and redevelop it for expansion of Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, but Rhode Island Historical Society’s Betty Pettine notes that, "Providence was too poor at the time for that." As it happens, often the best urban renewal was that which didn’t happen at all. Because it remained largely intact, today Benefit Street is a treasure of residential, institutional and religious architecture of the Colonial and Victorian eras. The homes are in much better condition than we would have seen 50 years ago. You can find a handy list of some of the buildings that are now open at GoNomad.com. If you need one more snack before bed, Havens Brothers Diner, back downtown, stays open until the wee hours of the morning. For me though, after a bit of touring, it’s time to find a motel and get to bed. We have an early start tomorrow, so we can see something else in Providence before we head into Connecticut on Roadtrip-'62 ™ .
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2016, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2016, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.