Conimicut: A Modern Village

During the first decades of the twentieth century a number of very significant changes took place in Conimicut Village. Much of the growth and popularity of the village was due to the electrification of the old Warwick Railroad and the creation of the trolley. The trolley meant inexpensive fares and access to other parts of Warwick and Rhode Island. Conimicut historian, Dorothy Andrews, noted in a Warwick Beacon interview with Jennette Barnes in 1985, “I loved to ride on the open cars in the summer. We used to go to Rocky Point and to Providence. It was a thrill, stopping at every station. I couldn’t wait for the open cars in the summer.”

One of the many attractions for both year round residents and many “day-trippers” was the Conimicut Casino. In 1906, it was a thriving enterprise enjoyed by young and old. The nostalgia surrounding the casino has lived on long after the building was demolished. For many, the memories of bowling and taking part in other activities at this facility recapture the fun of rainy summer days.

Conimicut during the early 20th century was, however, much more than a place for summer pleasure. It was also beginning to develop as a desirable place to work, worship and raise a family. Thanks to the trolley, Conimicut now could be home to those who worked in mills and offices as well as the more affluent members of society.

St. Benedict’s Church
As the trolley brought more and more Roman Catholics to the area, the need for a Catholic Church became apparent. As a result, St. Benedict’s Church was established by 1908. When the number of parishioners grew, the church attained a significant role in the growth of the village as the twentieth century progressed.
The early St. Benedict’s Church was housed in a small building on Beach Avenue, not far from the railroad station and the post office. At first, the congregation was small, patronized mainly by summer visitors. The ability to work in Providence or elsewhere soon saw more working families enjoying Conimicut as a suburban community. Irish, Italian and French immigrants, once confined to living in the mill villages, now found Conimicut more to their liking and the number of Catholics attending St. Benedict’s Church increased rapidly, creating a need for expansion and eventually a new church. In the manner of the Woodbury Union Church, St. Benedicts’ became a vital part of community life and the center of activity for many.

Conimicut Grammar School
Along with the influx of new residents came the necessity for schools. The old Conimicut Grammar School which was where those who organized the Woodbury Union Church met in 1906, soon became too small to meet the new demands. Conimicut’s wood-framed schoolhouse at 820 West Shore Road was Colonial Revival in style to keep in accordance of the village’s heritage. The new residents of the village were very pleased to find a well-built, functioning schoolhouse in the center of the village but soon, that too was inadequate to meet their needs. In 1925, according to the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission Report K-W-1 (1981) Gothic style wings were added to the Conimicut school.

During the 1920s it seemed that all children in Conimicut and the surrounding area went to the same school, had the same teachers, read the same books, engaged in the same activities and enjoyed a common culture which carried them through the difficult times of the Great Depression and World War II.

After World War II, Warwick’s population expanded once more and Warwick embarked on a new style of building based on the concepts of S. Wesley MacConnell, These were low-lying structures which were functional and relatively inexpensive to build and maintain. MacDonnell , and his associate, James Walker, built all the schools erected from 1947 until 1958. With the coming of the automobile and school busses, the old wooden building in Conimicut gave way to the more modern schools and was no longer used for educating youngsters. The building continued to function well into the late twentieth century in another significant capacity. For many years, the building served as a health center, dedicated to Dr. John Ferris, a much beloved Warwick physician.

Elizabeth Buffum Chace HouseThe former Conimicut School at 821 West Shore Road in the heart of the village as it looks today after remodeling and renovations is now part of the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center.
Photo by Don D’Amato 2004

Today the building at 821 West Shore Road continues in education and help of a different sort. It is now part of the Elizabeth Buffum Chace Center, which will provide outreach services and education for community residences and for victims of domestic violence. The center was started by the Warwick Junior Women’s Club in 1979 as a domestic abuse crisis hotline and opened a shelter at the old Conimicut School in 1981. The organization is named in honor of Elizabeth Buffum Chace, a 19th century crusader for human rights and the abolition of slavery. Mrs. Chace (1806-1899) spoke out against the political and social subjugation of women at a time when those issues were extremely controversial. In March 2002, Rhode Island recognized Elizabeth B.Chace’s contribution and erected a statue in her honor at the State House.

Recently, the City of Warwick has donated the old Conimicut School buildings to be utilized as a new center which will provide elder services, support groups, court advocacy and individual and group counseling. At the opening of the center, Mayor Scot Avedisian commented that, “These issues and societal problems will not be swept under the rug in our city. Our people look to one another with care and concern.” These words mirror the feelings the Conimicut School has inspired for many decades. Although it is used for a different purpose, long time residents can continue to see the school and indulge in a little nostalgia now and then.

Conimicut Point Park & Lighthouse
The Point at Conimicut , which is now the site of one of Warwick’s loveliest parks, has always been an important part of Conimicut’s history. It is believed that it was just south of the Point where, in 1642/3 Samuel Gorton and his followers met with the Narragansett sachem, Miantonomi, to purchase the area we today call Warwick, West Warwick and Coventry. It was then called Shawomet and near here was the first settlement. For much of the early Colonial Period, the settlers kept their animals here to protest them from danger.

Conimicut LightThe Conimicut Shoals Lighthouse, built in 1869 to help aid boats in the dangerous waters between Rocky Point and Bristol, continues to be a visual delight for those viewing it from the park

By 1858, the Conimicut Shoal was considered so dangerous that a beacon was erected there to warn vessels of the sunken rocks near the center of the bay between Rocky Point and Bristol. According to A Brief History of Lifesaving Stations by Mildred Santille Longo, this early warning device was washed away in 1860 and it was decided in Congress that a more substantial beacon should be erected. In 1868 a beacon or lighthouse built of granite was erected and in November of that year it was lighted. In the following year, Mrs. Longo’s history tells us that Ferdinand Healey was appointed lightkeeper. As there was no dwelling at the light, it seems that Healey had to make a dangerous one-mile rowboat trip to tend the light. To take care of this problem, a five-room house was built on the pier at the light. Unfortunately, this dwelling had a very short life as it was destroyed by heavy ice. The keeper at the time, Horace Arnold, and his son barely escaped with their lives. For a number of years, until 1890, the lighthouse keepers resided at Nyatt Point and rowed out to the lighthouse.

In 1882, the old granite tower was torn down and the present day, 3 story, cast-iron lighthouse was built with a 58 foot tower and rooms for a lighthouse keeper and his family. Until 1960, when the Conimicut Light became the last house in the United States to be electrified, the light was powered by kerosene. By 1966, the lighthouse was fully automated and has continued to be an active U.S. Coast Guard aid to navigation.
On September 29, 2004, the lighthouse was turned over to the City of Warwick. The Coast Guard will still maintain the lighthouse, but the City will have the opportunity to make it part of the Conimicut Point Park attraction. As it will be difficult for all to get to and view the lighthouse at the site, plans are being made to erect a number of kiosks in the park to enable all to view the history of the light and its interior via pictures.

This addition to the already beautiful park will make the 14 acre site even more popular and will attract visitors all year round. Ever since Conimicut Point was certified by the State of Rhode Island as a public site, constant changes and improvements have been made. In 1965, the state deeded the land to the city, which began work in the late 1960s to extend the beach area. In the 1980s, a roadway was added and the park was made easily accessible to all who want to enjoy the bay whether it be for bathing, fishing or just relaxing and enjoying the fresh sea breezes. Conimicut Point Park is one of Warwick’s most treasured summertime recreation areas. Residents and visitors from eight to eighty and beyond can and do come and enjoy this beautiful seaside facility.

The Conimicut Improvement Association
Thanks to many inspired Conimicut residents and sympathetic city administrations over the years, Conimicut has been one of the areas that has undergone a great renaissance since the 1980s. Much of this has been due to the hard work of members of the Conimicut Improvement Association. Led by the Rev. William G. Lover of the Woodbury Union Church, the Association was formed in December 1984 with the goal to improve the social, economic and environmental qualities of life in the village. Many of its goals have been met in partnership with the City of Warwick’s Office of Community Development. The village has seen new sidewalks, tree plantings, 19th century street lighting, logo street signs and many other positive accomplishments.

Today, Conimicut still retains the features that attracted many to ride the trolley line in the early 20th century and has other newer attractions as well.

lighthouse transferOne of the major attractions in the City of Warwick is the Conimicut Park and lighthouse. The lovely park has been a source of pride for Conimicut residents. On September 29, 2004, the ownership of the lighthouse was conveyed to the City of Warwick. T. Daniel Smith, of the Department of the Interior, and Stephen A. Perry, GSA administrator officially conveyed the lighthouse to Mayor Scott Avedisian and Council President Joseph Solomon. Now that the city owns the lighthouse, more attractions, such as kiosks telling the story of the lighthouse, will be added for historical interest.
Photo by Don D’Amato 2004


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