Thousands of years ago, a
glacier left rolling hills and ponds behind, forming what is now known as Block Island.
Narragansett Indians were the first inhabitants of Block Island
as evidenced by remains that date back thousands of years. Their name for the island was “Manisses”
which translates to “Island of the Little
1614, Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer sailed to the island and gave it his
name. He called it Block Island and it
was in 1661 that the Island was settled.
From 1775-1783, during the Revolutionary War,
the Block Islanders kept a lookout on Beacon Hill by lighting fires to warn
that an enemy was in sight. In the
1800’s, an observatory was built as a tourist attraction on Beacon Hill, the Island’s highest point.
Beacon Hill stands 211 feet above sea
level, however, the observatory is now a private home.
1829, the federal government built the Island’s first lighthouse on Sandy Point. Four lighthouses have since been built at
this location. The present lighthouse,
the Northlight, was built in 1867 and is open to the public for tours.
In 1854, the Spring House Hotel was
built. It is the oldest hotel on the Island and is still open to the public. Nicholas Ball built the Oceanview Hotel, the
largest hotel on Block Island, in 1872. He made his fortune in the California Gold
Rush of the 1840’s. President Ulysses S.
Grant stayed at the Oceanview Hotel and held a special session with the U.S.
Supreme Court so its members would not have to interrupt their vacations by
returning to Washington. The Oceanview Hotel burned to the ground in
federal government began building the breakwater in Old Harbor
in 1870. It was completed in 1873, mostly by islanders.
1873, the Southeast Light was built on the cliffs 150 feet above sea
level. It cost $75,000. In 1993, the Southeast Light was moved back
200 feet to escape the eroding bluffs.
At the time it was the largest building to be moved in one piece.
1896, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union erected the statue of Rebecca,
which stands in the center of town. Rebecca of the Well, as noted in Book of Genesis, is carrying water for people and animals.
Block Island State Airport
was open and ready for use in 1950.
Before this time, airplanes landed in the Sheep Meadow and in Minister’s
Lot on Corn Neck Road.
In 1971, the Block Island
Conservancy was formed to preserve open space.
Rodman’s Hollow, a depression left by the glaciers, was one of the first
sites to be preserved. Today about 44%
of the island is preserved open space.
There have been at least
five major shipwrecks off the waters of Block Island. In 1738 the Palantine caught fire and went
down off Sandy Point.
In 1831 the two masted schooner Warrior was wrecked, also off Sandy Point. In 1846 a ship carrying hard coal went
aground in Cow Cove and this coal eventually replaced peat as the Island’s major fuel source. In 1907 the steamer Larchmont collided with a
three masted schooner, the Harry Knowlton.
Island fishermen were awarded gold medals from the Carnegie Foundation
for their efforts in saving the survivors. Finally, in 1939 a 416 foot Texaco
tanker, the Lightburne, went aground in front of the Southeast Lighthouse
carrying 72,00 barrels of kerosene and gasoline. The crew was rescued and the ship was
dynamited to create less of a navigational hazard. The Lightburne is a favorite spot for ocean
divers to this day.
Captain Kidd was known to frequent Block
Island and many speculate that he hid at least some of his buried
treasure on our shores!!
Interested in Block Island's history? Visit the Historical Society located in Bridgegate square on Block Island.
The Block Island Historical Society
houses permanent and special exhibits that chronicle Block Island's
Adults $6, Students and Seniors $4. Members and Children free.
Hours of Operation:
Call for updated hours
Old Town Road, Block Island, RI
Telephone: (401) 466-2481