Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US by area but has a population over 1,000,000, making it more populous than many large, rural western states. The state comprises 39 cities and towns organized in five counties. Providence, the state's capital, is also its largest city.
Rhode Island features the second highest population density in the US, and it contains no counties designated as "rural" by the US Department of Census. Each of the five counties contains a sufficient amount of densely-populated area that the census must designate the county as "urban." The Providence metropolitan area, including Warwick, is a continuous urban landscape that surrounds the top of Narragansett Bay and contains more that half the state's population.
Rhode Island's small physical area contains a diverse geography, dominated by Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. While the state has no mountains and has one of the lowest high points of all 50 states, it has many steep hills of meaningful size. In fact, Rhode Island has a ski area that, amazingly, is located just a few miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
Narragansett Bay is one of the largest bays and estuaries in the northeast US and covers roughly 14% of Rhode Island's total area. Nearly all of Narragansett Bay lies within Rhode Island, with only a small portion at the mouth of the Taunton River contained within nearby Massachusetts.
The majority of Rhode Island's land area sits west of Narragansett Bay, extending to Connecticut state line defined roughly by the Pawcatuck River and an artificial line north. This land is generally hilly, with a large area of flat, arable land in the southeastern quadrant. The East Bay communities comprise a narrow strip of towns that extend south to the Atlantic Ocean at Little Compton. The eastern border with Massachusetts is largely artificial.
Two large islands in Narragansett Bay, connected by bridges to the mainland and to each other, contain substantial communities. Conanicut Island, the smaller in size, contains the small town of Jamestown. Aquidneck Island contains three communities, including the city of Newport and its US Navy installations. According to the legend, early European explorers thought that Aquidneck Island was shaped liked the island of Rhodes in Greece and for this reason named the colony Rhode Island.
The Blackstone River is the largest of Rhode Island's rivers and by far the most important to its history, but the state contains very little of the Blackstone's watershed area. Most of the watershed lies north of Rhode Island in the large valley surrounding Worcester, Massachusetts. In Rhode Island, a steep, narrow river valley contains the Blackstone's waters as they flow south from Woonsocket to Pawtucket, where they enter the Bay.
The Pawtuxet River, the state's second largest, draws water from the west central portion of the state and flows east. The Pawtuxet defines the boundary between Cranston and Warwick--the state's second and third largest cities--and enters the Bay at Pawtuxet Village. In late March, 2010, the Pawtuxet River reached a record flood stage, inundating many communities and closing a portion of the I-95 interstate highway in Warwick.
The waters of Narragansett Bay and the many rivers that feed it supported indigenous populations for many thousands of years before colonization by Europeans. Many place names in Rhode Island are anglicized versions of the indigenous names. Weybosset, for example, was a Narragansett word meaning "small point," indicating the piece of land that jutted into the salt marshes that are now Downcity Providence. It was at Weybosset Point that English settlers built the first bridge across Narragansett Bay.
In 1636, Roger Williams, a radical puritan banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony for heresy, traveled overland to reach the indigenous communities at the top of Narragansett Bay. While legend holds that Williams was the first European to settle in Rhode Island, in fact, William Blackstone had already established a settlement in what is now Cumberland.
Williams negotiated a lease with the Narragansett tribe to settle an area of land he named the Providence, although it included lands in what is now Pawtucket. Rather than simply expropriating lands from the indigenous people as most Europeans did, Williams recognized the Narragansett tribe as a legitimate partner in developing the community and thus negotiated the lease. This belief in the dignity of the indigenous peoples was the primary reason for Williams' banishment from Massachusetts.
Rhode Island was one of the original 13 colonies and was the most rebellious toward England. More than a year before the more-famous Boston Tea Party, a group of Providence residents burned the British tax ship Gaspee, which had grounded just off the mouth of the Pawtuxet River. Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from England May 4, 1776, two months before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.
More Rhode Island History
Like most governments in the US, Rhode Island uses the tripartite form, consisting of three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The basic structure of Rhode Island government--and the dynamics among its various parts--extends to the earliest days of the colony. In particular, the rivalry between the two houses of the legislature has played a role in every era of Rhode Island's history and in every major legislative undertaking.
The Governor leads the executive branch, supported by a Lieutenant Governor. Other elected executive positions include Treasurer, Attorney General and Secretary of State. Executive departments led by appointed officials include Department of Administration, Department of Health, Department of Transportation and Department of Environmental Management. The Governor also chairs the board of directors of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation (aka, Commerce RI, formerly RI Economic Development Corporation).
The legislative branch, known as the General Assembly, comprises two houses of elected officials. The lower House of Representative convenes 75 members while the upper Senate convenes 38 members. The General Assembly is considered a "part time" body, and members receive a relatively modest salary in return for a relatively short session.
The judicial branch includes local circuits, appellate circuits and a Supreme Court.
Recreation and Entertainment
Rhode Island offers more than its fair share of opportunities to have fun. From the thriving arts and culture scene to the many, many beaches, people of all interests and tastes can find something that appeals to them.
Among travel guides, Rhode Island and Providence in particular are highly rated for the number, variety and quality of restaurants we offer. While the best known may those, like Haven Brothers, New York System and Iggy's, that offer simple fare, others, like Al Forno, rank among the best restaurants in the US.
Tourists flock to Rhode Island in the summer to take advantage of our many beaches on the ocean and the Bay. Misquamicut, Scarborough and Narragansett Town Beach are the best known, but Rhode Island's abundant coastline hosts dozens of others, both large and small.
With Narragansett Bay dominating the geography, boating also plays a major role in the state's recreational offerings. In addition to sailing and motor boating, kayaking has grown popular in the many salt ponds and marshes guarded by barrier islands along the ocean shore.
As it does with population, Providence dominates Rhode Island's nightlife scene, hosting the vast majority of bars, pubs and nightclubs. Major venues like the Dunkin Donuts Center and the Providence Performing Arts Center attract the largest, national touring acts. Lupo's presents national, regional and local acts that play the large club circuit. And a large number of smaller venues offer a full range of live music. Most notable among these, the performance space at AS220 sets the standard for the distinct eclecticism that is the hallmark of the Providence music scene.
There are many different ways to get around the State of Rhode Island. Most people drive from place to place, but the state has a robust network of biking trails and a growing range of public transportation options.
- Major highways and roads
- RIPTA (Rhode Island Public Transit Authority) Bus Routes
- MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transity Authority) Commuter Rail
- AMTRAK Northeast Regional, Acela and Acela Express service
- Bicycle routes
- TF Green Airport
Tourism represents a major portion of Rhode Island's economy, accounting for roughly 15% of the state's GDP. While most visitors come in summer to enjoy Rhode Island's many excellent beaches, Providence and Newport draw visitors year round.
The Providence/Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau acts as the state's primary tourism organization. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council focuses on tourism in that region and has a specialty practice in sustainable tourism.