The observatory that wasn’t

“The writer of this sketch has been there when the building was thronged with guests; some of them in the upper story enjoying the breezes, and the delightful views far and near; some below were at the billiard or card table; some in the nine-pin alley; some in the saloon; and some in the refectory. The hill itself has utterly disappeared and the neighboring houses have all been either removed or torn down, and all that now remains of this once noted scene of fashion, amusement, gayety and dissipation is this picture of the observatory and of several other buildings,—a picture that was taken near the close of the first third of this century.”

― “Fox Point Observatory.” Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, April, 1895.

This is not what I was expecting to find when searching for information on the Fox Point Observatory. It was named for the scenic views of Narragansett Bay, rather than for astronomical viewing which is what I was looking for. The only telescope used here appears to be a spyglass for viewing the sailing ships approaching the port by an observer on the deck, as shown below.

Fox Point Observatory.
“The Observatory” as it looked in the early nineteenth century. By Edward Peckham as reproduced in “A Painter of Old Providence.” The Journal of American History, 1912.

This is one of a number of “sketches” made before 1850. They are from “A Painter of Old Providence” named Edward Lewis Peckham (1812 – 1889) and were later published in The Journal of American History.  Peckham’s nephew Stephen Farnum Peckam relates  the history and changes from the time of the sketches, which date from 1829 to 1846, until the time of publication in 1912. Stephen also describes his uncle’s outlook on life.

“Edward Peckham’s perception was so keen that he caught at a glance the ludicrous aspects of every situation, and with pen or pencil transferred them with unerring accuracy to paper. This was to be particularly remarked of the incidents of the Dorr War, in which he took part, many aspects of which were very amusing.”

Portrait of painter Edward Lewis Peckham
Portrait of Edward Peckham, The Painter of Old Providence.

Stephen highlights the rapid growth that was occurring during his lifetime and he uses his uncle’s work along with his own personal anecdotes to illustrate life in Providence then.

“Great changes took place in Providence during this time. It was the time when the buildings of the city began to be constructed for ornament as well as for use. In 1828 the Arcade was built, extending from Westminster to Weybosset Streets, and adorned on each façade with a row of massive granite columns. It was a rather rough attempt at imitating a Greek temple. The massive columns were quarried on one of the hills in Johnston, out beyond Centredale. It required fourteen yoke of oxen to draw them into the city. While one of them was being conveyed along the road a bystander asked to what use such a big stone could be put. He was answered: ‘They are building an archangel in the city.'”

The Fox Point Observatory was located on a prominence south of Wickenden Street and a little to the west of Thompson Street. Below is a view looking north towards Providence from the east bank of the river. The painter was probably near Squantum Point in East Providence. It shows the area as it looked in about 1843-44. The Observatory is the tallest structure on Fox Hill which can be seen just to the upper right of center. The hill was the former location of a revolutionary war era fort.

Painint of Providence, 1843-44
“Providence from a mile and a half down the bay.” By Edward Peckham as reproduced in “A Painter of Old Providence.” The Journal of American History, 1912.

“The sketches tell the story of the transformation which has taken place in that part of Providence far better than it can expressed in words. The Observatory, which was built of wood, three or four stories high, and from which a fine view could be obtained of the city, the harbor, Pomham Rocks, and the head of Narragansett Bay, has disappeared, and even the land on which it stood is no longer there. I remember as a small child, climbing to the topmost story and looking out on the pretty landscape of mingled land and water.”

He concludes by describing the transition in technology for lighting: from home made candles in the country or sperm oil in the city, to a mixture of spirits of turpentine and alcohol, then “coal oil” which was also called kerosene, followed by natural gas and petroleum, and later sill electricity. Electricity became available in the area with the formation of the Rhode Island Electric Lighting Company and the Narragansett Electric Lighting Company in the early 1880s. Regarding electricity: “It would neither explode, nor would it poison the atmosphere which we breathe.”

“Along with the marvelous changes in illumination, others equally marvelous have taken place in relation to almost every article in the use of which our daily lives are concerned. The Providence of today was undreamed of when my uncle drew his sketches, and yet the span of a lifetime has reached from candles to electricity.”

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