One very silly idea I’ve had about visiting Rhode Island is that I wanted to drive from one state border to the other, and time the trip, to see what it felt like to drive all the way across the state in one shot. I had asked Will if it could be done in less than an hour, and he said it probably could.
He chose a diagonal route that would make sure we gave Rhode Island the benefit of the doubt. I started the stopwatch on my phone, and took screenshots of the route too.
We crossed the state in less than 40 minutes! That is so funny to me, a longtime resident of the Western United States, where you can drive for hours and hours and still be inside the same state. It’s a 2 1/2 hour drive for me to go visit Tara at school, and we both live in Oregon. Last Fall I went to see the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, which is 5 1/2 hours away.
Our other explorations that day were more along the lines of what we had been doing already: finding points of interest, historical sites, lighthouses, and monuments.
I was interested in The Towers, a massive gate of sorts, over a road in Narragansett. It was completed in 1886 as a design element to complement a new casino. Since then the casino burned down, but The Towers was saved. It is now used as an event space. Will and I went for a closer look, and found all the doors open. So, naturally we walked right in and found the place being prepared for a wedding reception.
We visited the Point Judith Lighthouse next. It is our sixth lighthouse on this vacation so far. Though the first lighthouse was erected at Point Judith in 1810, a storm with an 11-foot surge rushed in and wiped out the tower and the keeper’s home in 1815, although miraculously the lighthouse keeper survived. The third and current lighthouse was completed in 1857.
We explored Watch Hill next, the southwesternmost point of the state of Rhode Island. In truth, after Watch Hill is when we undertook the Cross The State Journey I mentioned at the top. You can see how that makes sense by looking at the first map. In Watch Hill we found more monuments and another seafaring community taking pride in its mariner history. One monument caught my attention because it is of an Indian. It contains no explanation and no context at the monument, so I was compelled to look it up and investigate.
On the back of the boulder is a plaque reading “In memory of Clement Acton Griscom.” And the inscription of the artist Enid Yandell can be found in the bronze. With these clues I looked it up and have some questions answered, but not all. The image is of Chief Ninigret of the Niantic tribe indigenous to the Rhode Island area (the Narragansetts), holding a blackfish in each hand. The Chief was a clever strategist and unapologetic. He is said to have given his lands to the colonists (aw, what a kind thoughtful man, to just hand over his homeland as a gift to the invaders), but under whatever circumstances that led to this “gift,” it saved his people from the same levels of decimation as other nearby tribes. The Puritans then emboldened, asked him for permission to try to convert his people to Christianity, and Ninigret told them, “Go make the English good first.” OH, snap! The monument was erected in 1916 by Mr. Griscom’s widow in memory of the shipping magnate. Originally it was part of a horse-watering trough, with water from the fishes’ mouths filling the trough.
I love so many things about this statue. It honors an Indian relevant to those exact lands, the artist was a woman, and the piece of art had a practical purpose. The one thing I could not find anywhere is why Frances Canby Biddle Griscom commissioned the piece, and what it has to do with her husband. I’m tempted to imagine that the widow was free to spend her money however she wished after her wealthy husband’s death, and she was making a statement about things she was passionate about. Maybe Mr. Griscom loved Indians and women and horses, too. But it’s more dramatic to think of Frances getting to stretch her wings as an independent woman without having to ask a man’s permission.
We then made our cross-the-state journey mentioned at the top, and returned to Providence for the evening. It was going to be the first night of WaterFire for the year. I had never heard of it, but was eager to find out what it was all about.
In the center of town, floating braziers are anchored all around the Woonasquatucket River, right before it converges with the Moshassuck River. Aren’t those names great?! When we arrived, the braziers were already loaded with wood. When it got dark, mood-creating music from around the world boomed through the crowd. It grew chillier and darker and finally black boats filled with people dressed all in black came silently drifting through. People from the crowd came down to the waterfront on our right and lit torches and stood waiting. The boats passed in front of the holders of the fire, and had their own torches lit. One boat had a man twirling fire poi. He stood confidently in black and spun the fire balls around himself, with flames reflecting off his bald head. It was so dramatic.
Waterfire in Providence is a very big deal. The event bills itself as an art installation under an arts promotion and awareness organization, with the ceremony I saw as its centerpiece. As the summer temperatures warm the nights, it becomes more popular and more braziers are added, lengthening the display across more of the city’s downtown rivers. There are 100 braziers in the middle of the season. It seems that almost as many local people get excited about volunteering to help as watching it, and in that way it has been an ingenious way to rebuild the life of downtown Providence, and bring in millions of tourists.
The chill of the night lessened a bit once the fires blazed in earnest. From the shore I could actually feel their heat. The crowd was quiet; either silent or talking in low tones. We listened to the beautiful music and watched the reflections of the fire. Some small boats came through with people who had clearly purchased a ride for 20 minutes or so, and sat back in each others’ arms with glasses of wine while they were propelled between flaming braziers by Venitian gondolier-types. It was enough to sit and watch for hours.