Cove Basin and its Evolution

also known as Waterplace Park

A mapping project to trace the origins and evolution of the Cove Basin north of Downtown and south of Smith Hill, from 1823 to present day

About this Property

#History of the Cove

The revitalization of Waterplace Park and the uncovering of the river during the nineties was much touted by the Cianci administration and it kick-started the “Providence Renaissance”. But where did they get the idea? History, of course.

Providence was founded largely as a harbor at the top of the bay, and much of what is now called Capital Center was under water. Part of what is now the mall was the “Grand Point”, which jutted out into the Cove. Our 1823 view was very much what Providence looked like since it started to become a settlement. It was incorporated as a City in 1831.

One of the reasons why it became a thriving center were the conglomeration of shipping by ocean and shipping by rail. This was where those goods changed over from one shipping method to another with raw materials moving in from the ports or out from the mills along the Blackstone River. By 1856 some of the land in the Cove started to get filled in and landscaped into a smaller circular body of water surrounded by a raised Promenade, heavily favoring rail travel. The original Union Station was built right up to the Cove and the Promenade was used for the tracks. By 1900 the Cove was completely filled in and the area resembled what remained in Providence until the late 80s, with a shaped body of water and a raised platform of railroad tracks. The redesign of Waterplace Park incorporated a smaller circular design and a rerouted (largely removed) railroad and river.

#Maps of the Cove Lands

A large basin of water at the junction of the Blackstone and Woonasquatucket rivers forms the Cove. Smith Hill and the seat of the future State House is undeveloped, along with Exchange Place and most of the West Side of Providence. The waterfront along South Water Street and into what is now the Jewelry District is well developed as a busy harbor. Downtown Providence is familiar, though some of the street names are different. Weybosset and Westminster are the main thoroughfares with Fountain and Sabin also present as well as a strong, unified Eddy Street leading south parallel to the harbor. Keep an eye on Market Square, one of the few constants in these maps.
Parts of the Cove basin have been filled in with railroad tracks beginning to take precedent in the city. The first Union Station was built in 1847, butting right up against the Cove waterfront. A wide area was infilled to create the first version of Exchange Place. The Arcade was built soon after the previous map. Dyer Street appears along the harbor as well as much more street development.
The Cove shrinks into the circular shape seen in some of the photos. A promenade is added around the perimeter of most of it, along with densely packed train tracks, warehouses, and train service buildings. Smith Hill was platted and planned to contain streets and residential/commercial development before being set aside as the base of the State House. The short-lived State Prison, built 1838, occupied the location of the later State Normal School and then the Providence Place Mall. The State Prison land is reused for the State Normal School, later Rhode Island College, in 1898. City Hall and Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral appear.
A snapshot of the Providence that many people may still remember which only changed again starting in the mid-1980s. Viaducts, railroad tracks, and large swatches of parking lots occupy much of Smith Hill and north of Exchange Place. A second Union Station replaces the earlier Thomas Tefft version lost to fire. Memorial Square, or “Suicide Circle” was north of Market Square along Memorial Boulevard and home to a monument.
1960s & 1970s (not a map)
The highway splits the city in the 1960s and urban redevelopment redefines streetscapes particularly around Saints Peter & Paul Cathedral and the Jewelry District. Exchange Place becomes Kennedy Plaza.
1980s (not a map)
The railroad viaducts are removed to the north of Union Station. The bus ramp under Union Station is redeveloped into what would become the skating rink. Eddy Street is divided by the Outlet fire and redevelopments for Johnson & Wales University as well as the Garrahy Judicial complex in 1985.
Note: A new map circa 1980 would be nice, as it would capture how route 195 divided the Jewelry District, which is missing in this series.
The waterways that were covered by the railroad tracks are uncovered starting in the 1980s and culminate in Waterplace Park, home of Waterfire, starting in the late 90s. The circular Cove returns, but much much smaller.

Other great histories are out there, as the Cove is an interesting piece of Providence history, and might be one the most worked and reworked pieces of real estate in the state.

#Map Sources and Authors

  • 1823
    • Line cut of a map of Providence, 1823, from actual survey conducted by Daniel Anthony. Collection of the Providence Public Library
    • Daniel Anthony (1740-1824)
      An American professional surveyor for the town of Providence. In 1795 or 1796 Anthony was engaged by the State to lay out the main road from the Massachusetts border to North Providence. Some time in the early 1820s the town of Providence engaged him to survey the streets of the town and produce a plat of same, the result of which was a manuscript atlas of 16 sheets, each 19” x 23”, delivered by Anthony in 1823. Anthony was also a member of the Society of Friends, and in 1790 became a charter member of The Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
  • 1849
    • A map of the city of Providence from actual survey by Cushing & Walling. Sourced from Harvard University
    • Cushing & Walling Samuel Barrett Cushing (1811-1873) was an engineer and longtime Providence surveyor and served as City Surveyor. Henry Francis Walling (1825-1888) began working with Cushing in the mid-1840s. Cushing and Walling combined to create this newly revised and updated map of Providence based upon the work of Daniel Anthony. This would also appear to be Cushing’s second map of Providence, which preceded the Map of the City of Providence and Town of North Providence from actual survey by B. Lockwood & S.B. Cushing 1835. Cushing & Walling’s map shows the significant expansion of Providence between 1823 and 1849. The map would be significantly revised and re-issued in 1851.
  • 1889
    • Various sources as reference materials. Mostly based on 1889 Sanborn Maps from the Brown University Library, with cross-checking and references from John Hutchins Cady and other insurance maps of the period.
    • John Hutchins Cady (1881-1967)
      An architect, architectural historian, preservationist, and urban planner. He graduated from Brown University in 1903 and from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1906. He worked for the Providence architectural firm of Stone, Carpenter, & Willson before opening his own architectural firm in 1910. He served as the Rhode Island Preservation Officer from 1955-1960 and was the author of seven books on history of architecture and urban development. Some of his works include “Highroads and Byroads of Providence” (1943) and “Civic and Architectural Development of Providence” (1957) which is still highly regarded.
    • Sanborn Map & Publishing Co.
      The Sanborn Map Company was a publisher of detailed maps of U.S. cities and towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. The maps were originally created to allow fire insurance companies to assess their total liability in urbanized areas of the United States. Since they contain detailed information about properties and individual buildings in approximately 12,000 U.S. cities and towns, Sanborn maps are invaluable for documenting changes in the built environment of American cities over many decades
  • 1937
    • Directly drawn from a series a cadastral maps by G. M. Hopkins, 1937.
    • G. M. Hopkins Company
      An American civil engineering and surveying firm based in Philadelphia. Founded in 1865 by brothers G.M. and Henry Hopkins, the firm focused on real estate plat maps of the Eastern seaboard. The firm published 175 plat maps atlases depicting cities, counties, and townships in eighteen states and the District of Columbia, and were among the first to create a cadastral atlas.
  • 2020
    • While Google maps were traced to produce the present view, the street Waterplace Park layout has been unchanged since the late 90s. While new buildings have been erected in the area, major changes to the streets have not occurred.


  • “Anthony, Map of Providence. 1823, Providence”, John Hutchins Cady Research Scrapbooks Collection, captured August 28, 2020.
  • ”A map of the city of Providence: from actual survey, by Cushing Walling“, Harvard Map Collection, Harvard College Library, captured September 6, 2020.
  • “Map of Central Part of Providence (1856), Drawn in 1945 for C&D, Providence” John Hutchins Cady Research Scrapbooks Collection, captured August 28, 2020.
  • “v.1 pl.A Ward 1. (1875)” Griffith Morgan Hopkins, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, captured September 6, 2020.
  • “Insurance maps of Providence, Rhode Island (1889) V. 1 & V. 2” Sanborn Map & Publishing Co, Brown University Library, Brown Digital Repository, captured September 16–19, 2020.
  • “Plat Book of the City of Providence, Rhode Island (1937)” Griffith Morgan Hopkins, Historic Map Works, captured September 15, 2020.