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A Century of Change: Providence Harbor Shorelines

Over the course of the 20th century, about 350 acres of coastal waters along the edges of the Providence River were filled for shipping, roadways, and industry.


The map on the left shows that, by 1894, the shoreline of downtown Providence had largely been filled, but the banks of the lower Providence River were still largely natural, except for the construction of rail lines. Salt marshes and tidal creeks occupied the edges of Watchemoket Cove in East Providence and the nowforgotten Corliss Cove in south Providence. The 1987 map on the right shows that, in less than 100 years, these natural shorelines were completely buried beneath shipyards, oil tanks, the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, A Century of Change: Providence Harbor Shorelinesand a strip joint or two.

The same kinds of changes, on a lesser scale, have transformed shorelines all around Narragansett Bay. From Quonset Point to Fall River, salt marshes, coastal ponds, and shallow waters have been filled to build wharves, naval bases, and highways, to dispose of mud from channel dredging, and to protect houses and roads from storms. The pace of change slowed greatly after 1972, when the Clean Water Act gave federal and state governments the ability to protect wetlands and water by limiting dredge-and-fill operations.

In the 21st century, some of Narragansett Bay’s shorelines may begin moving in the opposite direction, migrating landward as sea level rises. More likely, this trend will lead to increased demand for engineering measures—like seawalls and shoreline fill—to protect coastal property from the rising sea.

—By Tom Ardito, Editor, Narragansett Bay Journal, and Outreach and Policy Coordinator, Narragansett Bay Estuary Program

This article first appeared in the Narragansett Bay Journal, available on-line at www.nbep.org/journal/.