Meshanticut State Park (1910)
Meshanticut Park was given to the Metropolitan Park Commission in 1910 by John M. Dean. He was the president and treasurer of the John M. Dean Company of Providence, founded in 1892. It was an off-shoot of the Cady and Dean Company, started in 1876. Dean’s business activities centered on a successful Providence furniture company and real estate development. He was also very active in Masonic affairs and Cranston politics. His gift occurred the same year Cranston became a city.
Dean’s Cranston home was called Tupelo Farm. It was comprised of the former Cranston Poor Farm and the old King farm property, dating back to colonial times. Its location was just north of the state institutions at Howard and Sockanosset, immediately west of Garden City, along Reservoir Avenue. His farm eventually became Dean estates and was developed by his grandson, beginning in the 1930s. It also included Dean Parkway, new at the time, which was donated along with the Meshanticut Lake to the Metropolitan Park Commission to be part of its system of boulevards and scenic drives which radiated out of Providence and led to a necklace of parks surrounding the city.
The park portion of his gift in 1910 was a twenty acre parcel of lake and parkland on the western slope of the Dean farmlands stretching down to Cranston Street. The lake is reached by Dean Parkway and Dean Street. Meshanticut Drive forms the eastern border of the lake. Housing crowds the western drive. These homes, planned by Dean were originally summer residences. Nearby is the Cranston educational complex of Cranston Vocational Tech, Cranston West High School, and Western Hills Junior High School.
While John M. Dean focused his business activities in Providence and had a home in Fort Myers, Florida, his pride and joy was his Cranston farmstead and his development efforts known as Meshanticut Park. This land, lying astride the Hartford, Providence, and Fishkill Railroad was part of the late 19th century phenomenon in Rhode Island known as Railroad suburbs. The railroad began at the Providence Union Station and had stops at Atwells Avenue, Arlington, West Arlington, Cranston Print Works, Knightsville (also known as Wayland), Meshanticut Park, Oaklawn, and West Pontiac. Then it proceded to a whole litany of stops in industrial villages of West Warwick, country stops in Coventry, and continuing on to Hartford, Danbury, Connecticut, and Fishkill, New York. Perhaps the closest stations to Providence, such as Arlington, Cranston, Meshanticut, and Oaklawn were the most important from the standpoint of development of the suburban hinterland. In addition to the park and lake, Dean’s efforts from 1894 onward included building the railroad station, a community church, and the laying out of Meshanticut Park village houselots. To create the lake as a park center piece, the Meshanticut Brook was dammed. Turning these 20 acres of ‘pond, bridges, landscaped walks,’ and the connecting parkway over to the state as a gift seems to have been a civic gesture, and it certainly helped to give momentum to the new boulevard and parks program of the Metropolitan Park Commision. The Commission installed a cabin-like building with a large stone fireplace suitable for ice skaters to use. The work was probably done as part of the WPA/CCC improvements of the 1930s and 1940s. There were also picnic facilities around the pond.
The name, Meshanticut, derives, according the Indian expert, Sidney Rider, from the Native term, “well-wooded country,” rather than from the name of the stream flowing through the area. It was part of a land transaction attempted by William Arnold, one of the early settlers of Pawtuxet and part of the controversies between Roger Williams and his real estate rival, William Harris. The transaction took place with local Indian chief, Socononco, from which Sockanosset is derived. The earliest settlers were John Harrold, Roger Burlingame, and Thomas Relph or Ralph. Meshanticut as a remote location/destination appears in many early records of the Town of Providence. The King family farm and their famous apple orchards on Sockanosset Hill, purchased by Dean, came later, as did Dean Estates. The apple prominence of the King farm is reflected in local street place names, like Baldwin Orchard Drive, Applegate Road, and Greening Lane.
Today, the Washington Secondary Bikepath follows the former rail line of the Hartford, Providence and Fishkill Railroad, but as the path passes Meshanticut Park it does so through a cut and the unfavorable terrain does not permit a nexus.