It did not take long after Bristol was settled in 1669 for its new inhabitants to take advantage of the unusually deep harbor in the Narragansett Bay with which it was blessed. There would be times in Colonial America when Bristol was among the four busiest ports in the colonies.
Much of that bustle took place in the notorious “Triangle Trade,” centered around the importing of slave labor from West Africa. Slave trade was introduced in Rhode Island around 1700 and the colony soon took the lead in the unsavory industry in the Americas and Bristol led the way in the colony. Rhode Island sloops would carry horses, livestock and finished goods such as rum to Africa where they would be used to purchase human beings who were shipped to the Caribbean and exchanged for sugar and molasses and coffee destined for Bristol.
The prosperous seaport was a natural target for the British during the American Revolution and the first attack came on October 7, 1775. For the better part of four years the town would be plagued by the British. It is no wonder that the harried citizenry got together after the Revolution on July 4, 1785 to stage the first of what is today America’s oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration.
With the war in the past, Bristol shipping picked up almost immediately, reaching greater heights than ever before. When America went to war with England again in 1812, this time Bristol retaliated with privateers looking to menace British shipping. One brigantine, the Yankee, made six forays during the war and captured British property estimated at over a million pounds sterling.
In the 1820s legal slave trade was finally on the decline and many of Bristol’s fleet turned to fishing and whaling. By the end of the 1800s the town’s reputation in the slave trade was receding and its exploits on the high seas were celebrated in a wholly different endeavor - America’s Cup yacht racing. After beginning his career in designing steam-powered vessels, including the nation’s first torpedo boat, Bristol native Nathanael Herreshoff turned his talents to creating the largest, most expensive and most powerful yachts on the water. From 1893 until 1920 Herreshoff produced a succession of undefeated America’s Cup defenders. The tradition of building Cup contenders continues in Bristol to this day and the America’s Cup Hall of Fame is located here.
Our walking tour will begin on the historic waterfront, now revitalized as an entertainment and hospitality center, and fan out along Hope and High streets, where the many finely crafted 18th and 19th century homes and public buildings are testament to the wealth that once flowed across Bristol docks...
251-267 Thames Street
Over the course of 50 years and three generations, the DeWolf family operated America’s largest slave trading operation out of Bristol. It is estimated DeWolf ships brought 10,000 Africans from the west coast of Africa through the slave marts of southern and Caribbean ports as part of the “Triangle Trade.” James and William DeWolf built the stone warehouse at No. 259 in 1818. Ships would dock alongside and goods would roll into both levels of the storehouse. During the Great Hurricane of 1938 the Prudence Island Ferry was slammed against the south side of the warehouse and you can still see the dent today. The DeWolfs also operated a rum distillery on the Bristol waterfront where the Bristol Harbor Inn stands today.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE WATER, WALK A FEW STEPS OVER TO STATE STREET.
1 State Street
Hugh Holmes beat this exuberant Second Empire commercial block in 1884. The ground floor was set aside for retail space, primarily the People’s Market and the upper floors contained hotel rooms. Its glory days were long gone by the Depression days of the 1930s and the building had spent most of its life in disrepair when it was rescued in 1999 and given an award-winning restoration.
WALK IN THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION TO THE NEXT CORNER AT BRADFORD STREET (THE WATER WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT). TURN RIGHT.
Bristol Phoenix Building
1 Bradford Street at Thames Street
William H.S. Hayley put out the first edition of the Bristol Phoenix in 1837; it is now the flagship paper of East Bay Newspapers that publishes nine weeklies in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The clapboard building is a mere youngster by comparison - it was built in 1854.
WALK UP TO HOPE STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Colt Andrews School
570 Hope Street at southeast corner of Bradford Street
Using money donated by the Andrews to honor Robert Shaw Andrews, one-time superintendent of Bristol schools, Colt Andrews is one of three elementary schools in town. Today the campus includes two buildings, a Neoclassical former high school from 1906 and a Colonial Revival brick building from 1938. The building is wrapped in brownstone quoins features a finely detailed cornice and cupola.
610 Hope Street
Colonel Giles Luther, the first recorded marshall of Bristol’s historic Fourth of July Parade, built the Federal-style core of this house in 1809. Two hundred years later the house displays a hodgepodge of Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian features as well. Charles Rockwell, owner of the Cranston Worsted Mills, acquired the house in 1897 and eventually donated it to the Bristol District Nursing Association as the town hospital.
617 Hope Street
Self-taught Russell Warren is considered the architect who brought the Greek Revival style to Rhode Island. He built this formidable conveyor of the style in 1838 with a front gable that reaches towards the street with a pedimented portico supported by four Ionic columns. This lot was purchased in 1833 by Francis M. Dimond, who would be governor of Rhode Island in the 1850s, for $1,050.
Charles Collins House
620 Hope Street
When anti-slave trade laws were passed the powerful DeWolf family was able to circumvent the authorities by having Bristol declared an official port of entry and Charles Collins, the brother-in-law of James DeWolf, named customs inspector. Collins would “miss” slave ships moving in and out of the harbor. In 1820 slave trading was made a hanging offense , bringing the trade to a halt in Bristol. Russell Warren designed this two-story Federal-style brick house topped by a fine cornice and low-hipped roof. The windows are decorated with stone lintels.
647 Hope Street
This is another example of Russell Warren’s Greek Revival designs, this one executed with a recessed entranceway. It was constructed in 1838 for Joseph Talbot.
TURN RIGHT ON FRANKLIN STREET. TURN RIGHT ON HIGH STREET.
First Congregational Church
300 High Street
The story of First Congregational Church goes as far back as the town itself - both were founded in 1680. The current sanctuary is the congregation’s third, constructed of stone in the Gothic Revival style, dates to 1855. The original meetinghouse built in 1683 was located roughly where the courthouse now stands on the town common. The adjoining DeWolf Memorial Chapel was dedicated in 1870.
First Congregational Church Parsonage
291 High Street
This building shows what a simple stone house can achieve when it puts its mind to it. The Victorian makeover executed by William Henry DeWolf int he 1860s brought a side tower and elaborate Stick Style porch and decorations in the gable. It now does duty as the parsonage for First Congregational Church.
First Baptist Church
250 High Street
Thomas Nelson founded the congregation with 23 members in 1811 and shortly work was begun on a church located here on land granted by the town. Completed in 1814,the meetinghouse was built with granite blocks, with a gable roof supported by post and beam construction held together with wooden pegs. Today it is the oldest extant church in Bristol.
Bristol State House
240 High Street
Bristol was in the original rota of five meeting places for the Rhode Island General Assembly. After the original state house on State Street became dilapidated the General Assembly ordered it sold. Warren jumped into the void in an attempt to wrest the county seat from Bristol but the town held on with the guarantee of this location on the Common. The new State House was ready by 1817. Its architect is unknown but often attributed to the town’s go-to architect of the era, Russell Warren. Two decades later a major redesign and expansion took place that covered the Federal-style bricks with stucco that was scored to resemble large stone blocks in the fashionable Greek Revival style of the day. The General Assembly retreated to only Newport and Providence in 1854 and the building continued in use as a courthouse. Trials continued here until the 1980s. In disuse and decaying the building was purchasedfor a single dollar from the state by the Bristol Statehouse Foundation to restore and reuse the old state house as it approaches its bicentennial.
TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET AND WALK TO HOPE STREET. TURN LEFT AND GO DOWN A HALF-BLOCK.
Four Eagles House
341 Hope Street
John Howe, a recent Brown graduate about to enter the Rhode Island bar, began building this five-bay Federal-style house in 1807. Howe was destined to serve in the General Assembly for nearly two decades, right after he sold the house in 1822. Another politician, whaler and mill president Byron Diman bought the house in 1825. Diman would enter the governor’s office for a term in 1846. Despite that illustrious legacy, the house is noted today for the short tenure of Benjamin Churchill, who owned the house between Howe and Diman. Churchill was captain of the sailing ship Yankee and it is believed his crew carved the quartet of American eagles that grace the corners of the Chinese Chippendale roof balustrade. It is believed Captain Churchill was responding to the challenge of a neighboring privateersman who had capped his dwelling with a pilot house.
TURN TO SEE THE HOUSE ACROSS THE STREET AND TURN LEFT TO WALK BACK NORTH ON HOPE STREET (THE WATER WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT.)
Royal Diman House
344 Hope Street
This survivor from the 18th century was built by Royal Diman, a cooper, around 1792. It has received several modifications over the years, including an impressive pedimented entrance with classical Ionic pilasters.
William H. Bell Block
365 Hope Street
This large commercial block sports a fashionable mansard roof from its construction period of the 1870s. Built of brick with granite trim, the Masons have met behind its shield on that upper floor since it opened in 1879. Of particular note are the original cast iron pilasters at the corners and sides of the doors.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church
399 Hope Street at northwest corner of Church Street
The Anglican Church established four original mission churches in Rhode Island by missionaries sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel based in London. St. Michael’s was one of them, meeting first in 1718. The first church was built two years later but was burned by the British during the Revolutionary War. This is now the fourth church for the parish, a soaring Gothic Revival brownstone edifice designed by Saeltzer & Valk of New York City and George Ricker of Newark. It was constructed in 1861; the clock came along the next decade.
St. Michael’s Chapel
northeast corner of Hope Street and Church Street
Architect Stephen C. Earle added this handsome single-story building of Massachusetts brownstone to the Bristol streetscape in 1876. Earle carried the Gothic style through the arches in the window and door openings, the open-air belfry and the batten-style wooden doors.
Burnside Memorial Building
400 Hope Street
It is probably safe to assume no one born in Indiana ever had as much impact on Rhode Island as Ambrose Burnside. command of Fort Adams in Newport brought Burnside to the Ocean State in 1852 where he found a wife and a permanent reputation as the inventor of a famous rifle that bore his name - the Burnside carbine. That reputation propelled a Civil War career that led Abraham Lincoln to offer him command of the Union Army. Major General Burnside turned him down believing, correctly, that he lacked the appropriate experience. After the war ended Burnside was immediately elected to three one-year terms as Governor of Rhode Island and then mixed a successful business career with his political ambitions. At its inception in 1871, the National Rifle Association chose him as its first president. In 1874 he was elected to the United States Senate and was serving a second term when he died of a heart attack in Bristol in 1881 at the age of 57. The erection of this memorial, now serving use as a town building, was quite a big deal in 1883 when it was planned. A crowd of some 5,000 overwhelmed the streets of Bristol to hear President Chester A. Arthur speak at the laying of the cornerstone. The building itself was designed by Stephen C. Earle of Worcester, Massachusetts and displays many of the hallmarks of the Richardsonian Romanesque style including prominent arches, multi-chromatic materials and pillar groups. Long completely clad in ivy, an award-winning restoration revealed the design details and red mortar between the stones. To the side and rear is the Bristol War Veterans Honor Roll Garden.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK UP COURT STREET.
Bristol Historical and Preservation Society
48 Court Street
The Bristol County Jail was a steps down from the courthouse in this stone building that was constructed in 1828 from the ballast of sea-going ships. It housed not only prisoners but the jail keeper and his family as well. The old jail has seen be re-adapted for use by the The Bristol Historical and Preservation Society, founded in 1936.
RETURN TO HOPE STREET AND TURN RIGHT, CONTINUING YOUR TOUR OF HOPE STREET.
Old Post Office and Customs House
440 Hope Street
The federal government came to Bristol to construct this red brick building in 1857 under the direction of Ammi B. Young, Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury. Much of the Renaissance Revival detailing has been removed but the corbelled brick cornice and finely crafted iron balcony over the arched openings remain. The post office left in the 1960s and although the YMCA next door bought the building it didn’t keep the triad of arched doors from being sealed.
448-452 Hope Street
This fanciful Tudor-style commercial block was actually built as the town YMCA in 1899. The first floor was always used for stores as it continues to be a century later. The upper floors contained a gymnasium, auditorium and a library. Patrons reached the public rooms through the large central archway.
Bradford Dimond-Norris House
474 Hope Street
This was the location of Deputy-Governor William Bradford’s house that was burned by the British in 1778. The family rebuilt their winter home in 1792; they lived at Mount Hope in the summer. Today the off-center Ionic portico indicates an addition to the old Georgian Colonial mansion. The most eye-catching feature of the house are the crested parapets which crown each of the three stories.
500 Hope Street
Much of Bristol’s history has traveled up and down the spiral staircase of this landmark mansion since it was built in 1810 by the town’s dominant architect Russell Warren. The first owner was George DeWolf, a leading merchant and slave trader. Rubber magnate Samuel Colt moved in at the end of the 19th century and during much of the 20th century Ethel Colt Migletta, daughter of acting legend Ethel Barrymore, lived here. Its appearance reflects the seven generations that lived here before it reached its 200th birthday as a museum. Warren’s work can be seen in the stately proportions and wrapping quoins of the Federal period, now existing behind a powerful Neoclassical Corinthian portico.
U.S. Post Office
515 Hope Street
If some of the parts of this single-story post office that was built in 1963 look like they would not be out of place in the days of Jefferson and Madison it is because that’s where they came from. For the better part of 150 years the Wardwell House, designed by Russell Warren, stood here. When it was razed exterior woodwork and windows were salvaged and used in the post office.
Rogers Free Library
525 Hope Street
Maria DeWolf was born in 1795 and married Robert Rogers of Newport, three years her elder, in 1814. Rogers entered business with his new father-in-law. A merchant and head of Bristol’s Eagle Bank, he eventually became the richest man in town; when he died in 1870 his estate was valued at over a million dollars - at a time when a good working wage was about a dollar a day. Part of the money was used by Mrs. Rogers to build this library of rough-faced brownstone in 1877. She filled it with about 4,000 volumes from her late husband’s collection and bought an additional 1,200 with her sister. Maria DeWolf Rogers died in 1890.
Colt Memorial High School
570 Hope Street
Samuel Colt, whose uncle developed the revolver that “Won The West,” was a New Jersey native who spent much time in his mother’s hometown of Bristol growing up. After graduating from Columbia Law School he returned to Bristol to make it his home. In 1887 he organized the Industrial Trust Company bank and later took control of the bankrupt hometown India Rubber Company. he transformed the floundering enterprise into the U.S. Rubber Company, becoming the dominant producer in the industry. In Bristol Colt purchased several old family farms on Poppasquash Neck to create Colt Farm that he conceived as a beauty spot for the public to enjoy. He engraved an open invitation on the marble entrance gate: “Colt Farm. Private property, Public Welcome.” Colt also built buildings for the public and gave them to the town. Here he spent $300,000 for a school as a memorial to his mother in 1906. The main building sports a green-tiled hip roof and is fronted by a pedimented portico with fluted Corinthian columns.
TURN LEFT ON BRADFORD STREET TO RETURN TO THE BRISTOL WATERFRONT AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.