The sights, the sounds, the smells. Ask any Rhode Islander who visited Rocky Point during their lifetime and that is what they will recall. From its humble beginnings as an amusement park in the 1840s to its untimely end in 1995, Rocky Point was the scene of untold entertainment for multiple generations of Rhode Islanders as well as visitors to the Ocean State, including at least two United States Presidents. The memories of this entertainment still linger today as all who visited Rocky Point Amusement Park continue to remember it fondly.
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The earliest known record regarding the area that would later be known as Rocky Point dates to 1726 when a man by the name of Thomas Stafford (1682-1765), purchased a large tract of land on Warwick Neck which included the Rocky Point area. Despite Stafford’s purchase, the land remained undeveloped for several decades. During the Revolutionary War, the Rhode Island General Assembly decreed “that a number of men not exceeding 50, be stationed at Warwick Neck, including the Artillery Company in Warwick.” This led to the construction of the Warwick Neck Fort which was an important fortification throughout the War until it was abandoned in the 1780s. By 1898, all remnants of the garrison’s existence had disappeared.
After the Revolutionary War, Rocky Point remained largely unused and covered in the wilderness for more than six decades. In the 1840s [accounts differ on whether it was 1840 or 1847], Captain William Winslow, the operator of the steamboat Argo, landed a party of picnickers from Providence’s First Universalist Church at Rocky Point so that his passengers could enjoy the scenery. Winslow immediately saw the potential in the property and purchased it in 1849.
Captain Winslow and his wife, who was known as Mother Winslow, developed Rocky Point into a local attraction. The couple would serve their famed shore dinners on long tables beneath the trees and after just a short time, several attractions were added including a bowling alley, skating rink, ice cream parlor, and a monkey cage. In addition to the permanent fixtures, Winslow also brought in entertainment which drew patrons from all over the country.
During the 1850s, the genesis of what would become Rocky Point Amusement Park could already be seen when Captain Winslow installed a carousel, swings, and the Spanish Fandango, an early form of the Ferris Wheel. By 1860, the park had gained a significant amount of notoriety, so much so that it attracted some of the most prominent men in America who drew massive crowds to the park. It was in August 1860 that was the park was visited by Stephen A. Douglas, the Democrat candidate for President running against Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was invited by the Rhode Island State Democrats to attend a clam bake at Rocky Point, an offer which he graciously accepted. ,
During the day of Douglas’ visit, 30,000 spectators arrived by boat while an additional 20,000 came via the land route. Douglas, whose position on slavery was that states maintained the right to decide if they would allow ownership of slaves, gave several speeches during his visit that were filled with racist rhetoric. Despite the massive turnout for his visit, Douglas received only 7,707 votes in Rhode Island which amounted to 38.6 percent of all votes statewide.
In 1863, the property was purchased by Byron Sprague, brother of Senator and former Governor of Rhode Island William Sprague. Reporting of the purchase price is inconsistent, as sources give the price as $60,000, $70,000, and $75,000. Sprague’s ownership was notable as he constructed several of the park’s most famous buildings at the time including a mansion house and a 75-foot tall octagonal wooden observation tower on the tallest hill.
Despite the significant upgrades that were made under his ownership, Sprague sold off his interest in the land to a steamship company after about five years. While Stephen A. Douglas was the first presidential candidate to visit Rocky Point, Rutherford B. Hayes became the first sitting President to visit the park when he attended an event at the park in June 1877.
While there, the President visited the Rocky Point Hotel where he called Alexander Graham Bell who was 13 miles away at Providence’s City Hotel. This was the first instance of a United States President using a telephone. Much like Douglas, Hayes was greeted by throngs of cheering supporters as he attended a traditional clambake. While Hayes’ attendance was celebrated, the ultimate purpose of this clambake was to celebrate Rhode Island’s Civil War veterans.
Sporting events were also well-received fascinations at Rocky Point. On June 28, 1883, the man acknowledged as the first heavyweight champion in gloved boxing, “the Boston Strong Boy” John L. Sullivan, fought an exhibition bout which also served as the grand opening of Rocky Point’s new coliseum. It is said that 2,000 spectators paid the 50-cent admission to see the world-famous pugilist in action.
At the turn of the century, baseball was settling into its role as America’s pastime, and Rocky Point played a large part in this development in Rhode Island as it hosted games on a regular basis. On September 6, 1903, due to blue laws in Massachusetts which prevented baseball from being played on Sundays, the Boston Beateaters (now known as the Atlanta Braves) found themselves without a home field for their game against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The teams agreed to play the game on the baseball diamond on Rocky Point which became the only field to host a major league game with an outfield surrounded entirely by the ocean. Because of this, home runs would be deposited directly into the Atlantic Ocean. The Eastern League Championship series between Providence and Jersey City was also played at Rocky Point in August 1905.
In 1914, Babe Ruth, as a member of the Providence Grays, was known to have played at Rocky Point. One story of the Great Bambino’s exploits at the park claims that he once hit a ball that all would have agreed was a clear home run, but because of the oddities of the grounds, Ruth was awarded only a three-base hit much to the protest of the Grays and their fans.
In 1888, a man by the name of Colonel R.A. Harrington began leasing the park, ushering in another golden era in Rocky Point’s history. Less than a decade later, in August 1896, it was said that the park between saw between 18,000 and 20,000 visitors each weekend. During the last decade of the 19th-century, Rocky Point Amusement Park was home to a multitude of beloved attractions including the Forest Casino which often hosted vaudeville shows, the Sea Side Music Hall, the “Big Chute” water slide, a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and the ‘Electric Hall.’