Historical Overview of Barrington

I. Founding and Settlement of the Town of Barrington (1620-1770)

The founding of Barrington is tied closely to the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620 and their relationshipswith native Indian tribes. Predating its settlement, what is now called Barrington was then called by its Indian names, Sowams and Pokanoket and was part of the Wampanoag Indian Empire. Massasoit was the Chief Sachem of the Wampanoags. In 1621, two Wampanoag braves visited the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts. A week later, Massasoit visited with his retinue. He agreed to accept the King of England as the sovereign of his lands in return for English protection in the event of attack from the Narragansetts. In 1623, Massasoit fell ill. Pilgrims Edward Winslow and John Hampden traveled to see him at what is believed to be present day Hampden Meadows. After giving him some jelly and water, Massasoit revived. Colonists from Plymouth were welcomed and began to settle in the area. In 1632, they established a trading post at Tyler Point near the present day Barrington Yacht Club.


In 1652, the Land Court in Plymouth decided to distribute the lands then occupied by the Wampanoags; to keep peace Massasoit sold some tribal lands for 35 pounds. Although he chose not to live there, Myles Standish received much of the land in West Barrington (north of present day Rhode Island Country Club). Other proprietors were Thomas Prince (who received present day Prince's Hill), Thomas Willett, Joseph Peck, John Allin, and Thomas Chafee. Thomas Willett lived most of his life north of Bullock's Cove, in Riverside. He was a Baptist, and with others founded a Baptist church at Nockum Hill, north of Hundred Acre Cove. He is considered one of the founders of the town. In 1665, because of his knowledge of Dutch, Willett was selected to be the first English-speaking mayor of New York City; after a second year in New York, he returned to Riverside. Reverend John Myles was the pastor of the Baptist Church, as well as the local school teacher. The church later burned; there is a memorial stone at the location today.


In the 1600's Barrington was known as the "garden of the colony" (Plymouth) because of its fertile soil and scenic location.In 1667, the town of Swansea, MA was incorporated. At the time it included the land we now call Barrington. However, residents of Sowams, being Baptist, had religious differences with the rest of Swansea and petitioned for separation from that town in 1711. Hence, in 1717 Barrington was incorporated. It was probably named after Barrington parish in Somerset County, England, from which most of Barrington's early settlers came.

Relations with the Indians grew tense as more settlers arrived. In 1674, some young Indian braves looted empty homes. Troops arrived from Plymouth to help defend the settlers. The Indians later attacked a group of churchgoers and killed one man. Metacom, also known as King Philip, Massasoit's son and then the Wampanoag leader, fled from Rhode Island and continued looting. In Dec. 1675, Captain Benjamin Church led Massachusetts and Connecticut troops in a battle with the Indians in southern Rhode Island. A number of Wampanoags and Narragansetts were killed there; this became known as the Great Swamp Fight. Sporadic raids continued until King Phillip was slain the following summer in Bristol and the Indians were beaten. As peace returned to Barrington, Pastor Myles also returned and a new church was built at Tyler Point.


In 1710, dissenters from the Baptist Church founded a Congregational church on the present Jennys Lane. In 1737 it moved to the site of the present Congregational Church. This church also served as the town hall until 1856.

When Barrington separated from Swansea, it was still part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It had a town meeting form of government, but only landholders could vote. In 1747 Bristol County, including Barrington, became part of the Rhode Island Colony; however, Barrington was made part of Warren. In 1770 the Rhode Island General Assembly decreed it to be an independent town (separate from Warren). During this period Barrington had a primarily agricultural economy along with some fishing and shipbuilding. In fact, Barrington remained largely agricultural into the early 20th century. In the 1700's the town had several shipyards. Nathaniel Brown had a shipyard on the south side of Bullock's Cove. Nathaniel Martin's shipyard was located at the foot of what is now called Ferry Lane.

Prior to the Revolutionary War there were no bridges between Warren and Barrington, and Colonel Martin maintained a ferry at the foot of Ferry Lane.

II. Forging a Community (1770-1840)


In 1774, the first census of Barrington was conducted. The population was 601 and remained so until about 1840.

Travel throughout Rhode Island was largely via stagecoach and Barrington was on the route between Providence and Newport. It became known for its four taverns along the way, which were located in the general area of the Congregational Church.


In 1794, Duncan Kelly was licensed to build a toll bridge between Hampden Meadows and the west side of the Barrington River. In 1802 another toll bridge between Hampden Meadows and Warren was built. These bridges greatly facilitated travel between Providence and Newport and helped develop the town.


As more Episcopalians moved to town, the present St. John's Church was built in 1859; founders include the Martins and the Staples.

The Civil War touched Barrington. 51 Barrington men served, eleven died and some affluent draftees paid for substitutes to go in their stead. The townspeople were split on the issue of slavery; it is said that some homes in Barrington were part of the underground railroad.


The town's centennial anniversary was celebrated on June 17, 1870. It was held about where Chianese Field is today. Local historian Thomas Bicknell gave a long oration on the early days of Barrington and dignitaries from the state and across the nation attended. The then famous poet Hezikiah Butterworth composed a poem for the event, "An Hundred Golden Years!”.

In 1880 the Barrington Public Library was founded, with holdings of over 2000 volumes. The Barrington Water Company was formed in 1886 to supply water to residents of the Nayatt area, later expanding to other parts of town. In the '80's a bridge across the Barrington River was built at Federal Road. In 1884, the town's first high school was started in an existing building on Prince's Hill. In 1914, the present bridges across the Barrington and Palmer Rivers were constructed.


In 1887, $17,000 was appropriated to build the present town hall. It was completed in 1888. It originally contained the high school, library and town offices. It now contains the town offices, the library, the senior center and Tap-In.


In 1890, a new brickyard was built by the New England Steam Brick Company. Three years later, Saint Andrews Industrial School for Boys was founded by the Episcopal Church under the leadership of Reverend Chapin from St. John's.


These were prosperous times in Barrington for industry and agriculture. Between 1820 and 1897, real estate valuation increased by a factor of twenty.


In the 1880's many Italians migrated to the US. A few hundred came to Barrington to work in the brickyard and settled near there along Maple Avenue. By the early 1900's the Italian population was large enough to merit its own church and in 1913 Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church was founded on Maple Avenue. The land for the church was donated by the brick company in hopes that parishioners would purchase house lots near the church (which they did).


Because of the railroad line, several manufacturing facilities were established in the Bay Spring section of West Barrington. Most notable was the Rhode Island Laceworks, founded by Charles Shephard who learned the lace business in France. The facility opened in 1904. It was large enough to have its own fire-fighting apparatus, which was used to fight fires in other parts of town for a fee. In 1897 the Annawamscutt Mill was built. It specialized in coloring and finishing cotton goods. In 1908, Frost Finishing was established. Frost was a dyer, bleacher and finisher of leather goods for the Ford Motor Company. International Rubber also made leather goods for the auto industry. The O'Bannon Corporation bought out both Frost and International Rubber in 1914.

Barrington also developed into an oceanside resort for the Town’s well-to-do. The Barrington Yacht Club was founded on the Barrington River in 1908. In 1911, world renowned golf course designer Donald Ross laid out the present day Rhode Island Country Club on land purchased from the brick company at Nayatt. A riverfront district at Jennys Lane documents the legacy of Allen C. Mathewson, who built two hotels and five Victorian houses from 1862 to 1873 to promote Barrington as an ideal summer colony. Jennys Lane was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008.

IV. Twentieth Century Barrington (1920-2000)


The population of Barrington grew steadily during the 20th century. This growth was caused by a combination of factors including: suburbanization and the rise of the automobile; proximity to Providence, the state capital (10 miles); the construction of the interstate highway system; the baby boom and subsequent development of a highly rated education system; and the perception of Barrington as a good place to raise children and nurture families.


Population growth was accompanied by an increase in home building, new commercial establishments, new schools, and increased town services. There was a particularly significant residential building boom in the '50's and '60's. Areas affected included Rumstick Road near Ferry Lane, Primrose Hill, and the northern section of Hampden Meadows.

The Bay Spring section of West Barrington continued to be the manufacturing hub in the town. The O'Bannon Corporation went bankrupt in 1930 but was bought out by Cranston Worsted Mills. A company named Pilling Chain, a manufacturer of imitation leather and zippers, occupied its facility in 1974. The building was vacated some years later and is presently senior citizen housing. The Rhode Island Laceworks expanded in 1920 and again in the '30's. It employed up to three hundred persons, mostly of Italian and English descent. Toward the latter half of the century a significant number of employees were of Portuguese extraction, commuting from Warren and Bristol. The Laceworks continued operating closed in 1991. Its forty-two lace-making machines were then sold off and dispersed around the world. The mill was razed in 1997 to allow for the development of an assisted living center. In the '30's, the Neweth Rubber Company, makers of retread tires, built a facility at the site of the present Barrington Shopping Center. The building burned to the ground in the '40's and was not rebuilt because its emissions were an environmental hazard. The clay deposits at the brickyard began to run out in 1900, and by 1930 operations there had essentially ceased. The clay pits gradually filled with water to form Brickyard Pond. In 1940 the town purchased the brickyard's land and demolished all remaining buildings. Presently there are no large-scale manufacturing establishments in Barrington.


Barrington endured two major hurricanes in this century. On the afternoon of Sept. 21, 1938, Rhode Island experienced its worst hurricane in recorded history. Three lives were lost in Barrington due to the storm. Damage to the trolley line was extensive, and as a result it ceased operation. The storm also caused catastrophic damage to shoreline homes and pleasure boats.

In August 1954, Hurricane Carol struck Rhode Island. It was not as severe as the '38 hurricane although shoreline damage was still extensive; no lives were lost in Barrington although there were 19 fatalities statewide.


In the early '40's, local merchants set up shop in Barrington. Chellel's Market, a gas station, and a general store were located on County Road (near the present Barrington Shopping Center). Many Barrington people then shopped in Warren, which had two groceries, two 5&10 cent stores, a bank, and numerous other stores. In 1948 the Barrington Shopping Center was built. It included a supermarket (Almacs), a new pharmacy, a women's wear store (Cherry and Webb), a men's wear store, and a bank. In later years two smaller shopping centers were built further north on County Road.


The growth of the school system was substantial. In 1951 a new high school was constructed on Lincoln Avenue, adjacent to Victory Field. The Peck school became a Junior High. Four new elementary schools were built: a new Nayatt school and the Primrose Hill school in 1954, a new Hampton Meadows school in 1956, and the Sowams school in 1964. In 1959 a new middle school was built on Middle Highway; it was enlarged in 1969.


Town services also grew dramatically during this period. In 1934 a full-time police force was initiated and was housed in the former trolley car electric station at Barrington Bridge. In 1939 an addition was made to the town hall to accommodate a larger library collection; another addition was made in 1964. A full-time fire department was implemented in 1953. In 1960, in response to its rapid growth, the town adopted a council-manager form of government.


Barrington men were called and fought in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts of the 20th century. Some lost their lives. Their names are listed in the Honor Roll Memorial in front of Town Hall.


Several new churches were built during this period. They include St. Luke's Roman Catholic in 1942, Barrington Baptist in 1952, St. James Lutheran in 1954, Barrington United Methodist, and Barrington Presbyterian in 1964 and Temple Habonim in 1964.  A new Holy Angels Roman Catholic Church was constructed in 1963.


The Providence-Barrington Bible Institute was originally founded in 1900 in Spencer, Mass. In the mid-1950s the Institute moved its campus from Providence to the former Peck estate on Middle Highway and became a four-year coeducational Christian college of the liberal arts and sciences. The name was subsequently changed to Barrington College. The College campus grew to accommodate 600 undergraduate students. In 1985 the board of trustees decided to merge the College with Gordon College in Wenham, Mass because of declining enrollments. The campus was acquired by the Zion Bible Institute. However, in recent years, declining enrollment forced the school to close. The 40 acre property includes Belton Court, an estate building that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The site was privately purchased in October 2011 and plans for it are currently undetermined.


Until the late fifties Barrington shared its newspaper with Warren (the Warren and Barrington Gazette). Then the East Bay Newspapers came to Bristol County. It bought out the Gazette and started the Barrington Times, the Warren Gazette and the Bristol Phoenix.


As 1970 approached, residents formed the Barrington 200th Anniversary Committee, under the chairmanship of Robert H. Hurst. The stated goals of the committee were to honor the town's heritage, to create new civic awareness, and to focus attention on the Barrington of tomorrow. Activities during the year included a bicentennial ball, a bicentennial parade, and the publication of a bicentennial booklet that contained the history of Barrington through 1970.


Throughout its existence Barrington has been a safe and pleasant place to live. However, it has had moments of controversy that have received statewide attention.  In the early 1990’s a suit was brought against the town for displaying a crèche at Christmas on Town Hall grounds. In 1996, the ACLU sued over the town’s practice of plowing church parking lots at no cost. Real estate tax rates, zoning, free space and alcohol sales (Barrington was a dry town until 2011) remain important topics.

V. Barrington in the 21st Century


As the 21st Century proceeds into an ever-progressive technological era, Barrington has remained at the forefront of this phenomenon. Because of its commitment to education excellence, the school system is one of the most advanced and effective in the state. The Barrington Library is also an integral part of the system, wholly committed to functioning as a complete and thoroughly modern resource. Town government has also embraced those forms of communication (including streaming video, the internet, social media and other media) that make connecting with the citizenry convenient and complete.


The Town (both government and residents) continues to strive for balance across a spectrum of 21st century issues: budget management, taxes, commercial growth, land development, conservation, pollution and other challenges. This mutual involvement has always helped to keep the Town’s purpose singularly focused on what decisions and policies (however difficult) are best for all and is a significant reason for the Town’s success.


Most of all, it is the people of Barrington who have and will continue to lead the town as they practice the values of the American citizen: community pride and involvement, respect and courtesy for others, and responsible freedom throughout the course of its future.

The people of Barrington took interest in the spirit of rebellion shown at Lexington and Concord in 1775. Because sentiment was mostly anti–British a few Tory families fled to England. Captain Thomas Allin led the Barrington militia, which saw service at the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. Barrington men, including a regiment led by Col. Nathaniel Martin, participated in the battle of Rhode Island in 1777. Among the Barrington families then represented in the militia were Heath, Viall, Peck, Horton, and Martin. It is estimated that over 180 Barrington men served in the Revolutionary Army, a number of whom lost their lives. To repel possible British invasion Barrington maintained a standing militia until 1779. The Hessians invaded Bristol and Warren, but were turned back by troops sent from Providence before they reached Barrington.

The state government in 1803 mandated free schooling. Barrington built a little red schoolhouse near Nayatt Road in 1840.

III. Years of Growth and Prosperity (1840-1920)


The population of Barrington increased significantly during this period, increasing from 800 in 1850 to 3,697 in 1920. In 1848, Nathaniel Potter of Providence and others founded the Nayatt Brick Company. There were extensive clay deposits in the area and clay pits were dug at what is now Brickyard Pond. The company converted Mouscochock Creek into a canal for ease in transporting the bricks. The company was re-incorporated as the Narragansett Brick Company in 1864. This activity was a stimulant for road building, steamship visits and other signs of prosperity in the town. Early employees at the brickyard were of French Canadian extraction.

Steady but manageable growth throughout the 1800’s in both its population and economy, and light manufacturing limited to the Bay Spring section of town helped Barrington escape the destructive effects of the Industrial Revolution. The laying of the railroad to Providence in 1855 made commuting to work in Providence practical, and Barrington began to take on a suburban character. In 1898, electric trolley service was started between Providence and Bristol, with stops in Barrington.