Robert Geake remembers the smell.
"It wasn't exactly like a sewer," he says, "but there were days that you would come in, especially the hot days and at low tide, and . . . all the fetid odors that you could imagine were just coming up, rising up from the banks."
Geake is walking along the river that he chronicles in his new book, A History of the Providence River: With the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket & Seekonk Tributaries. Today, though, the foul-smelling river of his childhood is almost unrecognizable. It has been moved, uncovered, flushed of many of its pollutants, stripped of its wharves, and transformed from one of the city's most glaring embarrassments to one of its marquee attractions. In fact, on summer nights, people actually come to the river to inhale the sweet wood smoke that wafts up from WaterFire's crackling braziers.
Geake's tome is bookended by two men who floated up the river with big ideas: Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, who paddled around Fox Point with visions of establishing a religious haven on its shores in the 1630s, and former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, who buzzed upstream in a motorized dinghy some 360 years later to officially dedicate a new park called "Waterplace," whose design echoed the city's old saltwater cove.
But it is the interim decades where Geake — an events coordinator for the Brown Bookstore, by day — spends most of his time. The Providence River story is a tale of commerce, he says, as we walk south toward the I-Way bridge, the Hurricane Barrier, and Narragansett Electric's South Street Power Station — all of which have a time in the book's spotlight. In the 1700s, the river was the city's gateway to far-flung ports in Russia, China, the Netherlands, and India. It was also the setting of one of the city's darkest chapters — Providence, Geake reminds readers in A History, was a bustling slave trading port that briefly topped Newport as the busiest in Rhode Island.
Hard as it may be to imagine now, the river was also a prime source of food production. Fish markets lined the river's banks up until the early 20th century. And in the previous century, oysters plucked from Narragansett Bay were harvested, packed, and shipped by the tens of thousands here. "At the foot of Washington Bridge, on either side, there were oyster plants," Geake says as we walk. "There was another one at the foot of Gano Street." In his book, he describes an "oyster saloon" in Providence where patrons could enjoy what a guidebook from the time described as "delicious bivalves, served in every style desired."
If there is a hero to Geake's story, it isn't Cianci or Williams or even the sailors and oyster shuckers who went home from their jobs on the river with sore muscles and bleeding hands (if they came home at all; many mariners left for sea on the Providence River and never returned). It is the legendary architect William Warner, who passed away last August. It was Warner, Geake writes, who in response to plans in the 1980s to pave still more of the Providence River, instead sketched a plan for moving the river 100 yards east and re-opening it with small, arched bridges. At the time, citizens and city officials sneered at this "Moses Plan." And yet the man persisted.