In My Footsteps
Trip 36: Bristol, Rhode Island
March 25, 2010
When it comes to the most historic towns in New England there are many that would come to mind right away. It might take a while to name the beautiful coastal town of Bristol, Rhode Island as one of those towns. However after taking a drive down the east coast of Rhode Island and walking the amazing downtown area of Bristol any visitor will find out just why this town ranks up near the top of historic places in this region.
For the first trip outside of Massachusetts I chose Bristol because of the fact that it was an underrated historical town; its history goes back as far as 1675. It was here that the first battle of King Philip’s War took place; this was the battle between the European settlers and Native American sachem, or chief, Metacom. Founded in 1680 originally as a part of Plymouth County and named for a town in England, Bristol’s main settlers were the DeWolf family.
James DeWolf started out as a leading slave trader and was a Revolutionary War veteran captured twice. He eventually became a senator in Rhode Island from 1821-25. Fortunately local Quakers fought to abolish slavery not too long after the Revolution. The DeWolf family’s home, Linden Place(left) on Hope Street, was built in 1810 and is currently a museum. Concerts and performances take place during the year and there are many other events going on to celebrate the bicentennial of Linden Place. This piece of history, however, is only the beginning of an incredible visit to Bristol.
A great place to start a trip into Bristol is the entrance to the town: The Mount Hope Bridge(right). Named for a hill in Bristol which overlooks Mount Hope Bay, it is a very important site as it is located close to the spot where Metacom met his demise during King Philip’s War. The bridge itself was initially proposed in 1920 as a way to connect Bristol and Portsmouth across one of the narrowest parts of Narragansett Bay. The bridge is built in a classic suspension style, much like San Francisco’s Golden Gate, it spans more than 6,000 feet from end to end and is a registered historic place. There is a small parking area at the foot of the bridge where the history of it is captured in several images.
The only unfortunate part of the Mount Hope Bridge being built is the fact that it hides another historic Bristol location. The Bristol Ferry Lighthouse(left), built in 1855, sits almost directly underneath the bridge. Discontinued shortly after the completion of the bridge, the lighthouse is now privately owned. It can be viewed from the end of Old Ferry Road which runs along the dorms of Roger Williams University. This is a must see spot for the great views of the lighthouse, bridge, and the shoreline of Portsmouth across the bay. It is from this spot that you can truly appreciate just how long the Mount Hope Bridge really is as it stretches out of sight. It is a perfect example of the progression of our own capabilities as humans to see this mammoth steel creation towering over a modest forty-foot brick lighthouse.
There is no shortage of historic places to see in the historic downtown area of Bristol. In fact the best way to fully appreciate this area is to find a spot along Hope Street and walk. If you are like me you will find yourself stopping every few steps and snapping photos of almost every building you see. I wanted to make sure that I pointed out at least a couple of really amazing spots that caught my eye during my walk on the streets of Bristol. The first one actually sat right in front of where I parked.
The Burnside Memorial Building which doubles as a courthouse at times is located next to the Bristol Town Hall. It was originally built in 1883 as a tribute to the Civil War General, and Bristol native, Ambrose Burnside. Along the side and behind the building is a spectacular war memorial(left) encompassing all of the major conflicts faced by our country. It begins with a statue featuring two soldiers looking off toward the water. From there you will walk along a brick walkway featuring the names of donators to the memorial as well as incredible granite stones with names of some wars and local veterans on them. The highlight for me was the wall at the back of the memorial which featured the names of all of the local casualties of all of the wars up to and including the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The stone has such a brilliant reflection to it that it was possible for me to see the Burnside Memorial Building in great detail while staring at the names listed. It was hard not to get a greater scope of the horrors of war by looking at all of the names listed and realizing that it was only for the town of Bristol.
The Burnside Memorial Building is just one of a seemingly unlimited number of historic places in this hidden gem of a town. There are thirteen officially recognized places included in the National Register of Historic Places in Bristol to be exact. The final spot I visited in Bristol is a great way to capture the maritime feel: Independence Park. Located along Thames Street and sitting on Bristol Harbor this park is the starting point for the East Bay Bike Path. There is a rocky pier for fishing and a beach used more for launching boats than swimming. There is a monument to Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic on the southern side of the park as well as a World War II era artillery gun facing out into the harbor. It is a great spot to watch the boats come in, watch the people and cars pass by along historic Thames Street, or to grab a bite to eat at Quito’s seafood restaurant.
A true hidden gem of a town, Bristol is so filled with history that I feel I have most certainly missed a great deal of sites despite having seen so much. I believe that any visitor needs to take in the scope of the Mount Hope Bridge, walk the historic Hope and Thames streets, and visit Independence Park or the nearby Colt State Park. Get out and enjoy Bristol. Have fun and happy traveling!
Directions: Bristol Ferry Light/Mount Hope Bridge: From Rt. 114 heading north cross over Mt. Hope Bridge. Take first right turn onto Old Ferry Road. Follow it to the water, there is a small area to park and look upon the bridge and water. The lighthouse is located on the right.
Independence Park: From Rt. 114 heading north, cross over Mt. Hope Bridge. Follow Ferry Road and take a left at Hope Street to stay on Rt. 114. Follow Rt. 114/Hope Street to Franklin St., turn left and the park is in front of you.
Historic District: From Rt. 114 heading north, cross over Mt. Hope Bridge. Follow Ferry Road and take a left at Hope St. to stay on Rt. 114. From there it is a matter of where to start. There is parking on the street and Thames Street is the next street to the west along the water.
References: Discover Bristol.com