Tin-top Hill

“PROVIDENCE – The Hon. Jonathon Chace, former United States senator from this state, is to remove his domicile from Valley Falls, in the Blackstone valley, to “Tin Tops” hill this city, where he is preparing to build a brick mansion.”

– Christian Science Monitor. Mar 21, 1910

Ladd Observatory is on the second highest point in Providence, a site that was once referred to as Tin-top (or sometimes Tin Tops Hill.) Anecdotes describing the origin of this name are frequently given. For example, an article in the Providence Journal states that “Before the observatory was built in 1891, this land was known as Tin Top Hill because it was a dumping ground for tin cans.” However, the name may have more to do with a carefully placed, but misunderstood and then forgotten, surveying aid.

Connecticut shore, 1837.
Connecticut shore, 1837. NOAA John Farley collection.

The elevation of this hilltop has attracted the attention of surveyors for many years. On the Observatory lawn there is a marker that is used as a surveying reference, or control point. It consists of a small metal disk embedded in concrete. The marker is designated OBSERVER 1968 and it was installed by the Coast and Geodetic Survey. The latitude and longitude of this marker are known to a high degree of precision. Markers such as this are used by surveyors to establish the coordinates of other nearby points using triangulation. The detailed description and history of this marker can be found in the National Geodetic Survey Data Sheet for OBSERVER 1968.

National Geodetic Survey marker
National Geodetic Survey station marker.

There are records of an earlier marker nearby designated COLLEGE HILL 1835. There was an attempt to recover the position of this marker in 1935 by the Rhode Island Geodetic Survey. A task made more difficult by the fact that “Neither the location nor the marking of this station is given…” The surveyors documented the area where the marker was thought to be located. They also interviewed people who lived nearby. The results of this investigation were included in their report:

“The geographic position is that of the more northeasterly of two summits of the hill lying between the Providence and Seekonk rivers. This summit is near the intersection of Hope Street and Doyle Avenue. If in existence in 1835, Hope Street was a rough country road known as East Pawtucket Turnpike. Doyle Avenue was not laid out until many years later. On this summit stands Ladd Astronomical Observatory of Brown University erected in 1891.”

Map of Tin-top Hill, 1835
The Pawtucket East Turnpike from Tin-top Hill (labeled 204 feet above high water) north. Barringtons Lane is now called Rochambeau Avenue. Map of Providence, 1835.

“This summit is locally known as Tin-top. Four independent sources agree that this name came from a bright piece of tin, conical in shape, hung in a very high oak tree and used as a sight by navigators and surveyors. Two ladies state that they remember a platform in this tree. John E. Canning states that the tree was cut down in 1907 at the time that his residence was built at 205 Doyle Avenue. Neither he nor the contractor who built his house can recall finding a buried marker, nor can they remember what became of the tin cone.”

The most probable position of the missing marker was eventually established. However, “Digging a hole 3 feet deep at this point failed to reveal any clue.” They concluded that “The station is lost and probably destroyed.”

The aproximate location of the tin cone is shown at the bottom  in bright green. Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1895.

Although the station marker was never located the information learned about the tin cone provides an interesting glimpse into the techniques used during the 19th century by surveyors working in this area. It also reveals that there is more to the origin of the hill’s name than the anecdotes suggest. A hint to this origin can be seen in a descriptive detail found in the Ladd Observatory entry in Encyclopedia Brunoniana:

“The site chosen was an elevation about a mile from the University known as Tin-top Hill for its use as a depository for old tin cans which, reflected in the sunlight, could be seen from a distance.”

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