There’s plenty of pent up desire to travel, to get out of town, to see and experience something different. But boarding a plane? Staying at a resort? Not so much. Though we’re eager to get out of the house, we still want to stay close to home. Enter: the day trip. Even a short getaway can do wonders to rejuvenate your spirits.
Here is the first in a five-part series of occasional stories highlighting quick trips — 100 miles or so — out of Boston. First up? Wickford, R.I.
A village’s rich history
“This is a village that reeks of wealth,” says Tim Cranston, historian and president of Historic Wickford. “It speaks to how wonderful the situation was here.”
We were walking through the village of Wickford, one of the oldest preserved Colonial villages in the country, boasting the largest collection of Colonial and Federal homes in the country that are still privately owned. The pretty enclave, set on Narragansett Bay across from Newport, its well-known neighbor, has nearly 100 historic homes, many built by wealthy shipbuilders and sea merchants.
In fact, the entire town, filled with homes from the 1700s through Victorian times, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors come to stroll the streets, take horse and carriage rides through the village, and to browse the cluster of well-curated, independently owned shops. It would be a great place for holiday gift-shopping, with a stroll along the cove, and perhaps lunch at one of the restaurants, say Wickford on the Water or Tavern by the Sea. The village, located on what was once an island, is especially pretty in winter when homes and shops are decked out in finery and twinkling lights. It’s a delightful, step-back-in-time experience, plucked out of a snow globe, or a George Durrie landscape painting.
We love the vibe and the scenery, but it’s the village’s rich, interesting history that really intrigued us. Historic Wickford has developed a DIY walking tour, leading to 13 interpretive markers that offer a peek. (You can download a self-guided map at www.histwick.org/walking-tour; maps are also available in shops and restaurants throughout the village.) It’s a must-do for visitors.
We started at Gardner’s Wharf at the end of Main Street and near the entrance to Wickford Harbor, where an interpretive sign tells the story of the town’s once-thriving oyster business. Shucking houses, like the prosperous Wickford Oyster Company, once lined the shores of Narragansett Bay, and 22 percent of the bay’s bottom was leased to oyster barons during the early 1900s.
Earlier, during the 1700s through the mid-1800s, the harbor was a prominent commercial fishing port, and the second largest maritime community on Narragansett Bay. “Back in the day, this would have been loaded with boats,” Cranston says. “It was a very important protected, deep-water seaport.”
We walked Main Street, lined with center-chimney Colonials, to the grand Updike House, originally deeded to Captain Lodowick Updike, the founder of Wickford. The property later went to his grandson, Captain John Updike, not the famous author but a prominent, wealthy person in his own right. Lodowick was a member of the Narragansett Planters, with large agricultural lands, forests, and plantations located throughout southern Rhode Island. It was he who developed the village, and sold lots to shipbuilders, sea merchants, investment bankers, and workers. During its shipbuilding and fishing heyday, the village was a bustling community. One interpretive sign shows a scene of Main Street, dubbed The Grand Highway, during the late 1770s, filled with shops, horses, workers, and townsfolk.
During the Gilded Age, Wickford experienced another lucky turn of fate. “It was an ugly trip from New York to Newport for the top 400,” says Cranston. So, Cornelius Vanderbilt and other investors built a small railroad into pretty Wickford Village and ran a ferry service back and forth from the village to Newport. Soon, Wickford was filled with prominent people heading over to Newport. And folks who weren’t on the same level of, say a Vanderbilt or Rockefeller, quickly discovered that they could afford a place in the village. “From 1870 to 1920, nearly every historic house was bought, and often renovated, by wealthy visitors,” says Cranston. It’s another reason why Wickford remains so well-preserved. “A unique set of circumstances allowed Wickford to survive,” Cranston says.
We passed the 1707 Old Narragansett Church and the site of the Quaker Meeting House, before stopping in front of the Black Mariners House. “I kept coming back to this house because I couldn’t figure it out,” Cranston says. After closely examining deeds and documents, he discovered it was owned by Dominic Smith, a former Black enslaved person. Many enslaved people worked in the Narragansett Planters’ plantations. “But people wanted to get the most out of their investment,” Cranston explained, “so they often taught their slaves different skills so they could be rented out.” Smith was trained as a mariner, so when he was finally freed, he could make a living, and afford to buy a house. “On a ship it doesn’t matter what your skin color is; you’re all equal. You just want to make it home alive,” Cranston said.
We returned to Main Street, passing shoppers and dog walkers, joggers and strollers, when Cranston pointed out the 1805 Ben Fowler Narraganset Bank, a larger, prominent brick building near the center of the village. “Nineteenth century historians wrote about the importance of the bank and the work Fowler did,” Cranston said. “But they left out the fact that he bought it from his sister.” Fowler’s sister and her husband operated a small bakery in the back of the bank; when he died, she improved and expanded the business and eventually became a wealthy property owner and businesswoman. “There were lots of successful women in Wickford who were also very involved in the running of the village,” Cranston said. “They had opportunities here that they didn’t have in other places.” The reason was largely a matter of practicality: The village needed to keep operating even when the men were out to sea. Also, there was a Quaker influence, a religion that believes in the equality of all persons. “Can you imagine a wealthy owner coming down from Boston to check on his ship?” Cranston asks. “Here are women running businesses and Black men owning property.”
Long before the shipbuilders, sea merchants, and wealthy arrived, Wickford and its surrounding area was home to the Narragansett Tribe, which roughly translates as “The People of Small Point.” We walked through the lovely Bush Hill Nature Preserve to a point overlooking an expanse of salt marshes and fields. It was here in the 1600s when the Narragansett met with English colonizers. An interpretive sign, featuring a painting by a member of the local Narragansett Tribe, depicts how life might have been during that time. We paused to take in the tranquil sight, then headed back into town, and back on the road.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org