Summer Memories

Did you ever spend sweet gleeful hours in the House of Horror, the Penny Arcade, and the Palladium? For many Rhode Islanders, Rocky Point Amusement Park in Warwick is the paragon of nostalgia. Before its closure in 1996, the park was a much-beloved destination in the Ocean State. Every summer weekend, traffic jams of daytrippers stretched for miles from the park gates.

The story of the park dates back to the 1840s, when Captain William Winslow began ferrying hundreds of people to the charming bayside spot for Sunday School picnics. He eventually purchased the land from its original owners, Polly Stafford and Thomas Stafford Jr. In 1865, Winslow sold the property to Byron Sprague, who developed it into an expensive resort. He built a private mansion, a ten-story observation tower, and a hotel of three-hundred rooms.

Later, a new owner, the American Steamboat Co., put the park on its ferry route from Providence, opening it up to all income brackets. This period between the 1870s and the turn of the century was the golden age of Rocky Point.

An August 3rd, 1878 entry in the diary of the engineer George H. Adams (1850-1923) is an excellent illustration of a ferry trip to Rocky Point.

“Came down street about 9,, and attended to some little items, and at 930 Jen + I took boat for New Port. Went directly to Beach and had a nice bath and then on way back to boat stopped to see the Old Mill and walked past Ocean House and after waiting on board a short time started for Rocky Point, where we arrived at 245,, Ate a shore dinner and then saw a performance at Coliseum and a Punch + Judy show and then settled ourselves in a cool spot on veranda of tower where we enjoyed some ice cream. Came up [?] at 5:15 Mr. Keane meeting us and went directly home.”

As a major regional destination, vacationers from across the Northeast would come to enjoy the Rocky Point Park’s shore dinner, swim at the beach, ride the Flying Horses, and admire the captive animals on display.

At the Rocky Point Hotel on June 28th, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first American president to speak on a telephone, when he answered a call from Alexander Graham Bell with the iconic line, “Please speak a little more slowly.”

In the years following, Rocky Point endured hurricanes, floods, fires, and ownership changes. It grew into the local attraction of recent memory, but never regained the recognition which it had enjoyed in the final decades of the 19th century. Perhaps someday the park will reopen. For now, the empty greenswards and ruined rides are a different kind of summer adventure, and one more fit for social distancing too.

Posted by John Shamgochian, an Arts Intern from the Studio Institute (https://studioinstitute.org/) The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the RIHS or its members.

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