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Rhode Island may be America's smallest state, but it's only 60 miles from Boston and 180 miles from New York City. Factor in the Ocean State's 400 miles of coastline with its 100 miles of sandy beaches, and it's easy to see why Rhode Island was the summer playground for America's wealthiest families at the turn of the century. The historic mansions left behind by these elite vacationers add still more appeal for those who journey to Rhode Island today. But Newport's famous mansions and South County's breathtaking coastline tell only a part of Rhode Island's story. In spite of its compact geography, Rhode Island is home to 20 percent of the country's National Historic Landmarks.
The state's first permanent settlement was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams, a religious dissident who was banished by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans. Williams bought land from the Narragansett Indians to found Providence, which is now Rhode Island's capital city. Williams established a policy of religious and political freedom, and the colony of Rhode Island, which received an official royal charter in 1663, was small but feisty even in pre-Revolutionary days. Rhode Island colonists actually declared their own independence from Great Britain on May 4, 1776, two months ahead of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.
Today, Rhode Island is a densely populated, highly modern state. Providence has recently undergone extensive urban renewal, and the River Walk and Waterplace Park are a permanent monument to the city's rejuvenation. In the summer, visitors flock to see the spectacular "Waterfire" displays on the Providence riverfront, where music plays as crackling bonfires float along the river, casting a comforting glow on the vibrant downtown center.
The diversity of vacation possibilities in Rhode Island is nothing short of astounding. Newport's seaside mansions are a must-see for visitors, as is the natural beauty of Block Island, called by the Nature Conservancy "one of the 12 last great places in the Western Hemisphere." The Blackstone Valley in the northern part of the state was the birthplace of America's Industrial Revolution and the location where Samuel Slater opened his famous cotton mill in 1793. The region remains one of New England's most culturally significant, unspoiled, rural areas. And of course, you can't close the book on Rhode Island until you've basked on the beaches of South County. Ocean lovers have flocked to these shores for more than a century.
These days, your name doesn't have to be Vanderbilt or Astor for you to enjoy all of the pleasures of this seaside paradise, but you'll certainly understand why America's turn-of-the-century rich and famous chose Rhode Island as their summer haven.