What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A Quantity of good Cheese, to be sold … ON the West Side of the Great Bridge.”
When Caleb Harris announced that he sold a “Quantity of good Cheese … ON the West Side of the Great Bridge, in Providence,” he invoked a landmark familiar to residents of the town, one that other advertisers in the Providence Gazette frequently used to direct potential customers to their businesses as well. In the same issue, for instance, Thompson and Arnold advertised “their Shop near the Great Bridge, in Providence.” Where was the Great Bridge?
Rhode Island Currency provides a brief history of the Great Bridge, as well as images of Great-Bridge Lottery Tickets printed and distributed in October 1790. The Great Bridge connected the confluence of Westminster and Weybosset Streets to Market Square. (See a map drawn in 1790 by a student at the College of Rhode Island, now Brown University.) A bridge had originally been constructed at that site in 1711. The first span measured only twelve feet wide, but in 1744 the Great Bridge was widened to eighteen feet. In the early 1790s the Great-Bridge Lottery funded a further expansion of the bridge to fifty-six feet. According to Welcome Arnold Greene, the “eastern abutment was extended forty feet into the river to allow room for a proposed ‘Water Street’ to pass over.”
As Providence became an even more prosperous and populated port city in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the crossing at the site of the original Great Bridge continued to expand. Over the years city planners joined together several bridges into a single decking that covered approximately two acres of the Providence River. In the process, the appearance of downtown Providence transformed significantly. What had originally been the modest Great Bridge of the colonial era became the 1147-feet-wide Crawford Bridge, recognized as the “widest bridge in the world” by the Guinness Book of World Records.
The Crawford Bridge no longer exists. In efforts to revitalize the downtown district in the 1990s, Providence removed the Crawford Street Bridge, uncovering the Providence River and its tributaries, the Woonasquatucket and the Moshassuck. (This allowed for creation of the popular WaterFire festival that takes place throughout the year, though mostly in warmer months, in Providence.) Half a dozen or so smaller bridges allow traffic and pedestrians to cross the river and its tributaries.
Although the Great Bridge itself no longer exists, residents and visitors to Providence experience a riverfront that today more closely resembles its appearance during the colonial era than it did throughout most of the twentieth century. Urban renewal actually returned aspects of the city to its eighteenth-century past.