From Mark Rock Rowdiness to Sunday School Spirituality

After the initial growth of Conimicut in the late 17th century the village showed little change from its agricultural and sea trading base until the mid-19th century. After King Philip’s War, the Gortonites returned to Conimicut and Warwick Neck and watched the next generation move to the western section of the town to take advantage of the natural resources there. As the western lands were divided and inhabited by the children and grandchildren of the original purchasers, the water power of the Pawtuxet River was put into use by them. In referring to the move of the younger inhabitants from the Conimicut Village to the west, the 19th century historian, Oliver P. Fuller, in his 1875 History of Warwick states, “Farther up in “the woods”…there was ample water power and a larger and better supply of lumber and materials. Hence their interest naturally drew them away from the quietude of Shawomet, and led them to establish saw mills on the banks of the Pawtuxet.”

A decline in prosperity

During the early part of the 18th century, thanks to a growing sea trade, Conimicut and the adjoining area had developed into prosperous farms and trading centers. When the British stopped the ferry from Warwick Neck to the islands in 1775, these farms suffered. The ferry, which went from Providence to Warwick Neck and then to Prudence Island and Newport, was an important trade and mail route that connected Warwick to the key ports along the eastern seaboard. As a result of the blockade, Conimicut and other eastern towns declined in importance and Apponaug, located on the Post Road, became the new center of trade and politics. Conimicut remained primarily farmland, owned in a large part by the descendents of the early settlers. This condition existed well into the 19th century.

A new look for an old village

Early in the 19th century, the western section of the town, now known a West Warwick, developed a textile industry. As this new enterprise prospered, immigrants came to work in the mills and the center of population moved further away from Conimicut. The prosperity of the mills, however, and the increasing population, brought about a new meaning and use for the lands along Warwick’s shore. The newly affluent merchants and mill owners began to look for large landed estates with a view of the Bay. They found that Conimicut, with its declining farms, was an excellent source of inexpensive land and purchased large acreage for very little capital. Soon the old farmhouses were replaced by lovely Victorian mansions and the area changed in its appearance and function.

Mark Rock

During the mid-19th century, steamboats cruising along the Bay were enchanted with Warwick’s shoreline and the desire to establish shore resorts came into vogue. While Rocky Point, established by Capt. William Winslow in 1847, was the most well-known and largest shore attraction in the area, resorts were also founded in and around Conimicut. Mark Rock, north of Conimicut Point, near the present day Rock Avenue, was the most notorious for many years. The Mark Rock Hotel, like the Longmeadow Hotel south of Conimicut Point, catered for the most part to transient visitors in the late 19th century. Unlike Rocky Point, it never attempted to become a “rich man’s resort” or an amusement park, but rather developed into a drinking and gambling mecca.

The Mark Rock Hotel was located near a large, flat rock which archeologists believed bore indications of Indian, or perhaps Scandinavian, hieroglyphics. Steamboats from Providence stopped at the dock near the hotel and unloaded its group of merrymakers. According to newspaper reports of the time, the patrons of the Conimicut resort were “thoroughly disreputable.” The excursion boat from Providence brought its passengers to Mark Rock early on Sunday morning and came back in the evening to gather its patrons after a full day of “carousing.” It was common, we are told, for a detachment of Providence police to meet the returning boat to arrest the “brawling, intoxicated revelers as they disembarked at the wharf.”

The Warwick Railroad and the Trolley

Many of the farmers and older residents of Conimicut cringed at the thought of another Sunday boatload of customers for the Mark Rock Hotel and the problems that would result. It was a number of years before residents, adamant in changing Conimicut’s reputation from being associated with the excesses of Mark Rock to being a respectable community again. It took a number of years for the village to recover from this unsavory reputation and much of this came about with the coming of the Warwick Railroad and the electric trolley. With easy access to Providence and other areas of the state via the trolley lines, Conimicut was being regarded as the ideal suburban setting.

The railroad station at Beach Avenue in Conimicut was the center of the village’s growth from a summer sesort to a year-round suburban area around the turn of the century. The Warwick Railroad became electrified in 1900 which allowed the trolley to make its dramatic impact.
From the Henry A.L. Brown Collection.

A great deal changed as Conimicut, already a fashionable summer resort, was attracting many of Providence’s more affluent citizens as well as many who preferred to work in Providence but live in the more spacious Conimicut area. By the late 19th century, the railroad station at the intersection of Beach and Transit Streets, long since demolished, was one of the busiest on the Warwick-Oakland Beach line.

During the early 20th century, a fine suburban community developed in Conimicut, made possible by the easy access to Providence. Substantial homes, such as those on Beach Avenue in Conimicut, grew in number during the 20th century as Providence’s affluent merchants, doctors and lawyers found it fashionable to have a summer home along the Warwick shore. So too did the number of more modest dwellings grow, as thanks to the electrification of the line and the increase in the number of trolley cars, it was possible to work in Providence and live in Conimicut. The first two decades of the 20th century witnessed Conimicut changing from a rural farm area to a well established summer colony. The change was gradual as the old and the new mingled. The main streets in the village were West Shore Road and Beach Avenue and they were still unpaved.

For much of that period, West Shore Road was still commonly called “Apponaug Road,” and the slaughter house, located just south of Mark Rock, was known for its old-fashioned “shindigs” in the fall. The late Lewis Taft, well-known local historian, remembers the occasions well. As a boy he chased the “greased pig” with all the other kids. “A pig,” according to Lew, “was greased so it would be good and slippery and the boys would chase it and try to catch and hang-on to the squealing animal.” The family of the boy who caught the pig would be given the animal after it had been butchered. Rural events such as these gradually gave way to different types of entertainments, and Conimicut gradually became more in accordance with a suburban life style.

Woodbury Union Church

Much of the credit for the change can be traced to the beginnings of the Woodbury Union Church. This church began with a small gathering in the Conimicut School in 1906. Many residents, led by Mr. Frank Sainsbury, wanted to counteract what they felt were the temptations of the shore resorts and the hotels. They saw a need for religious instruction for the children. Mr. Sainsbury obtained permission from the Warwick School Department to use the Conimicut School for that purpose. The first meeting took place on a very stormy Sunday on Sept. 30, 1906. As weather reports and forecasts were in their infancy at the time, it is possible that Warwick may have caught the tail end of a hurricane or tropical storm. In any event, only six people attended the meeting because of the weather. Of the six, four were members of the Sainsbury family. They were joined by Elsie Coleman and James R. Moore. Despite this poor start, the word spread through the community and on the following Sunday, 33 persons, children and adults, attended and five classes were formed. By December of that year, the number had grown to an enrollment of fifty-five.

The early Woodbury Church ca. 1907. A fire in 1933 destroyed much of this church and it was rebuilt within a few years.

The growth and success of the Sunday School prompted discussions among Conimicut residents in relation to establishing a church in the village. At first this seemed impossible as there was no established religion in the area and the residents were divided among Baptists, Episcopalians and a scattering of nearly every other religious persuasion found at the time. Undaunted by the great variety of religious beliefs, Mr. William Jamiesen, a well respected resident, called for a meeting to discuss the building of a church for all people of all religious persuasion and of all ages. He asked for a meeting on spiritual rather than established religious grounds.

The meeting took place at the home of Mrs. Beulah S. Parker on Beach Avenue. It was an immediate success, and a church corporation was formed and plans were made to erect a suitable building. Mrs. Ida Wright donated the land for the building as a memorial to Mr. Woodbury, her father. The church corporation soon after selected the name “Woodbury Union Church of Conimicut.” It was so named in honor of Mr. Woodbury and also to indicate that it was inter-denominational.

The Church’s cornerstone was laid on Nov. 9, 1907 and Clarence Leighton of Conimicut was the contractor . A bell was donated by David Wilmot and a Ladies Aid Society and a Men’s Club were quickly organized to help with the upkeep of the church. The Woodbury Union Church not only provided religious instruction, but also prepared parishioners for life’s happenings. The development of the church and the village closely parallel each other as for many years the Woodbury Union Church was the center of community life.

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