Skip to content

Along the Great Road

ABOVE The 1693 Arnold House is a rare survivor of a Rhode Island building type known as a “stone ender.” With its massive chimney and somber, two-story façade, it surely deserved the title “Eleazer’s Splendid Mansion” given to it by local residents long ago, and it remains impressive today.

The Blackstone River Valley, running through both Massachusetts and Rhode Island, forms a natural corridor, first used by Indians moving between their shoreline encampments and forest hunting grounds. In the 1660s, English settlers in Providence, Rhode Island, followed Indian trails as they started to build "the Great Road," one of the earliest roads in America. Completed in 1683, it thrust northwest to Mendon, Massachusetts, the earliest English settlement in the southeastern part of the state. By 1737, the road reached as far as Worcester, Massachusetts, facilitating the transport and exchange of materials and goods between the port and the mostly agricultural communities in the interior.

In 1693, Eleazer Arnold built an imposing house on the Great Road in Lincoln, which at that time was still part of the city of Providence. The two-story structure, which originally featured a central gable, is remarkable for its massive stone end and elaborate pilastered chimney. The stone work reflects not only the local availability of stone and lime mortar but also the origins and masonry skills of the settlers, who emigrated from the West Country of England, where stone buildings were common. Abbott Lowell Cummings, former director of SPNEA (now Historic New England) and authority on First-Period houses, points out another regional characteristic, "in the positioning of the front door, which opens directly into the principal room…Settlers from the more densely populated parts of England seem to have preferred an enclosed entry, which checked the visitor's progress into…the house. In the more remote counties of western England, where neighbors saw each other less often and had to go farther for visits, social contacts had a very special meaning. Therefore, entry directly into the hall or main living room was entirely logical." (The Magazine Antiques, March, 1986.)

The house conveys Arnold's prominence as a large landowner and office holder. Most of the other houses in Lincoln would have been modest one-story dwellings in what was primarily an agricultural community. In 1693, the location was considered so remote that it was nicknamed "World's End." But, as interior settlement expanded, traffic along the road increased, leading Arnold to apply for a license to operate a "Publik House" in 1710. Very likely the building would have provided space for both the tavern and his large family.

Over the next century, farms along the Great Road started to give way to commercial enterprise, beginning in the 1750s with the extraction and production of lime in a section of Lincoln called Lime Rock. More significantly, the Blackstone River was ideally suited for water-powered mills, due to a sharp drop in elevation—438 feet over forty-six miles. After the first cotton mill began operation in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790, the industry rapidly spread along the valley, spurring dramatic population growth. Further change came in the 1820s with the building of the Blackstone Canal, a means of transporting raw material and manufactured goods that was far more efficient than carts and wagons. Rail lines built in the 1830s and '40s rendered the canal obsolete, but significant relics of the river's industrial history—dams, locks, mill buildings—remain as evidence of a once-thriving economy.

ABOVE This view of the Great Road looking west past Hearthside, taken in 1926 before the road was modernized, documents a quieter time. Photograph by Mrs. Otis Mowry, courtesy Lincoln (R.I.) Public Library.

Economic shifts caused by the decline of the textile industry and the railways have allowed the Great Road to preserve much of its historic character. Today, no fewer than six historic sites, including the Arnold House, are open to the public, and there are plentiful recreational opportunities in the vicinity as well. It is possible to take in three centuries of history in a leisurely three-mile drive through Lincoln.

In its three-hundred-year lifetime, the Arnold House has undergone many alterations. In the eighteenth century Eleazer's descendants raised the rear roof, removed the front gable, replaced the casement diamond-pane windows with double-hung sash windows, added partitions, and plastered over the wood-paneled walls and exposed joists. Since acquiring the house in 1919, SPNEA has reversed many of these alterations to give a stronger feel for the building's original appearance. Most recently, the stone end was covered with a lime wash, in a process known as galleting and sneck harling (see article in fall 2002 issue of Historic New England). This treatment, which portrays the house as it would have looked in 1693, helps protect the stone wall and chimney from the elements and reduces moisture within the house.

Recently, Historic New England has begun collaborating with the other historic sites in town, the National Park Service, and the Blackstone River Valley Tourism Council, to coordinate open hours and offer educational programming for local residents and tourists alike. We hope to develop a pilot program for schools like the highly successful example at Historic New England's Pierce House in Dorchester, Massachusetts, with the goal of making Eleazer's "Grand Mansion" a community focal point once more.

—George Christie
Education Program Coordinator

If you plan to visit

Here is a list of some of the other historic sites in Lincoln. Visit for more information.

The Hannaway Blacksmith Shop (1850), 669 Great Road, has been fully renovated as a working blacksmith shop. Demonstrations.

The Wilber Kelly House (1835), Lower River Road, interprets the history of the turnpikes, canal, and railroad that provided transportation to and from the mills.

The Moffett Mill (1812), Great Road, beside the Moshassuck River, is believed to be the first machine shop constructed in Rhode Island.

The Quaker Meeting House (1704), 374 Great Road, the first house of worship in Lincoln, was built on land donated by Eleazer Arnold. Quakers were numerous in the area, as Rhode Island was the only New England colony to permit them to live and worship openly.

The Valentine Whitman House (c.1694), 1147 Great Road, is one of the few surviving examples of a Rhode Island stone ender.

The Hearthside (1810), 677 Great Road, is a handsome two-story house built in an unsuccessful attempt by the owner to woo a sweetheart.

Along the Great Road