Rhode Island, Explained!

Who's the guy on the State House? Why doesn't Del's come with a straw? Why are we so Catholic? We tracked down answers to all of your burning questions.

As any good Rhode Islander will tell you, life here is awash in head-scratchers and strange historical customs that we’ve been asked to suss out over the years. (Why do we use I-95 as a local road? Because the exits are so close together. What are some of the strangest things left on a RIPTA bus? An urn full of ashes, $26K in a duffel bag and a blow-up doll. Why do we have so many cemeteries? We’re an old place.) But others left us stumped. Why don’t pizza strips have cheese? Why is the Big Blue Bug blue? Who’s that guy on top of the State House? Determined to find answers to these and other only-in-Rhody burning questions, we went to the experts.

Here’s what we discovered…

By Jamie Coelho, Bob Curley, Sarah Francis, Samantha Labrecque, Ellen Liberman, Todd McLeish and Casey Nilsson ✸ Illustration by Daniel Guidera

Why is PVD Airport in Warwick?

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Courtesy Rhode Island Airport Authority.

To solve this mystery we went to the source, the International Air Transport Association, since they create airport codes. Unfortunately, they are as much in the dark as we are. “The answer to this question is lost in the mists of time,” says Perry Flint, head of Corporate Communications North America at IATA. Hmm… what we can tell you is how PVD Airport landed in Warwick.

Businessmen from Providence and Warwick began lobbying for a centralized, state-operated airfield when they recognized the economic potential of air freight and passenger travel in Rhode Island. In 1925, the state legislature authorized a study to investigate appropriate locations for the airfield; Warwick was interested in the potential of an airport to spur commercial development within its city limits.

Then in 1928, the Warwick Town Council passed a resolution asking the governor to establish an airport. In 1929, a $300,000 bond issue was approved for the purchase and construction of a state airport; the State Airport Commission was created and given the responsibility of selecting a site. Based on recommendations from the New York engineering firm, Black and Bigelow, the commission announced the choice of Hillsgrove in Warwick in 1929.

Cost was the primary consideration in selecting Hillsgrove over Gaspee Point in Warwick or What Cheer Airport in Pawtucket, and Hillsgrove also allowed construction to proceed immediately and to fall within the limits of the bond appropriation. Other advantages of the location included the proximity to Providence and New Haven and a lack of surrounding hazards such as high-tension wires. Hillsgrove State Airport (renamed T.F. Green seven years later, after the former governor) unofficially opened in July 1931 and was the first state-owned airport to open for traffic in the U.S. – Samantha Labrecque

Where did those highway murals come from?

Blink and you’ll miss them; those really are elves and gnomes peering from highway overpasses along I-95 and I-195. They were commissioned as part of Governor Lincoln Chafee’s Welcome to Rhode Island campaign in 2012–13, and while one beleaguered mural by David Macaulay was repeatedly defaced and is gone, several others remain.

Here’s where to be on the lookout:


From left: I-195 west at the Mass state line – sailboats on Narragansett Bay by illustrator Anthony Russo. I-95 south in Pawtucket – a historic sawmill by artist Gretchen Dow Simpson. I-95 north in East Greenwich – gnomes and woodland creatures by artist David Macaulay, author of The Way Things Work. I-95 north in Hopkinton – a New England stone wall replete with elves, also by David Macaulay. – Sarah Francis

What’s the deal with room-temp pizza strips?

Angel Tucker

Pizza strips evolved over time at local bakeries. “The pastry and bread shops had extra dough, so they would use it to make pizzas and they’d leave it out on the counter,” says LaSalle Bakery owner, Mike Manni. He says years ago, the health department objected to dairy not being refrigerated and sitting on the counter, so many bakeries ditched the cheese. – Jamie Coelho

Why does Rhode Island have so many shipwrecks?

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By Todd McLeish

From its earliest days, Rhode Island has been dependent on Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound for transportation, commerce and recreation. The state’s waters have also played an important role in military activities during four wars. And with plenty of hidden rocks and other navigation hazards throughout the region, it’s no wonder that Rhode Island has more shipwrecks per square mile than any other state.

“We’ve had considerable ship traffic throughout our history, and where you have a lot of traffic, you have a lot of traffic accidents,” says Charlotte Taylor, an archaeologist with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission and author of Rhode Island Shipwrecks. “The shipping channels of Rhode Island were like the Thurbers Avenue curve of the sea, with lots of ships, lots of rocks, lots of bad weather and lots of incompetent drivers.”

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According to underwater archaeologist and University of Rhode Island maritime historian Rod Mather, at least 517 shipwrecks have been found in the state’s historical records, but he believes the actual number of sunken vessels is much higher. Among them are about thirty-three shipwrecks from the Revolutionary War era, including the ship used by Captain Cook to explore the world before it became a British transport ship that sank in Newport Harbor. Records also indicate several shipwrecks from the War of 1812 and World War I, and a number from World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, though some of the state’s military shipwrecks were connected to training and testing rather than combat.

“Rhode Island was a major player in the development of submarine warfare, beginning just after the Civil War, when an experimental torpedo facility was developed in Newport,” says Mather. At least three undersea warfare technologies were sunk on purpose as part of the testing of new torpedo technologies.

He says, however, that the number of military shipwrecks in Rhode Island waters is dwarfed by the number of ships wrecked while transporting coal to the region, mostly in the late 1800s and early 1900s as the state became increasingly industrialized. “If you were standing on the southern shore of Block Island in 1890, you’d see as many as 200 coal schooners a day going by,” Mather says. “So many vessels of that kind were lost that some mariners called the waters off Block Island the Mariner’s Coal Mine because so much coal was scattered all over the bottom.”

The role Providence played as an industrial maritime hub and destination for ship repairs also contributed to the large number of shipwrecks in the region. Many vessels were simply dumped in coastal waters at the end of their useful lives. The largest ship graveyard in the state is in the Providence River on Green Jacket Shoal off East Providence, where URI marine archaeologist David Robinson has documented twenty-nine vessels, most from the mid-1800s to early 1900s.

“Providence Dry Dock and Marine Railway Company built a long pier out to the shipping channel to work on vessels, and some ships were brought there at the end of their career, stripped of their machinery, and just left in shallow water,” he says. “It was a convenient dumping ground.”
Experts agree that there are probably many undiscovered shipwrecks still hidden in the sediments.

“There is a truism of marine archaeological research that it’s only the famous or tragic vessels that make it into the historic record,” says Robinson. “There are probably many more vessels out there that are not noteworthy for anything other than they’re part of our past.”

Why do we have such crazy liquor laws?

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By Ellen Liberman

In Rhode Island, you can’t sell the wine you produce at your own retail locations — unless you are the founder of Alex and Ani. You can’t stock Tanqueray along with Tylenol in a drug store — unless you were grandfathered in. You can’t buy a six-pack at the local packy past 10 p.m. — unless it’s August.

Rhode Island’s liquor laws are head-scratchers, a crazy quilt of whimsy and contradictions, as much a source of frustration for the newly minted craft brewer as the Ocean Stater trying to place an online order for a case of his favorite California cabernet.

Much may be laid at the feet of the three-tiered system, a vestige of Prohibition. Prior to the Temperance movement’s greatest triumph, the liquor business was perfectly integrated in the form of the workingman’s saloon. Popular after the Civil War, these taverns were actually fronts for the beermakers, and the source of much public drunkenness, domestic abuse and other social ills. After the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1933, state policymakers — now permitted to regulate alcohol — erected walls between producers, distributors and retailers that still stand today in many states. The producers sell to distributors, who collect the state excise taxes and sell to retailers, who sell to the public.

“Rhode Island is very strong about local control at consumption purchase level — much more so than other states,” says Robert Goldberg, a lawyer who lobbies on behalf of the United Independent Retail Liquor Stores. And for good reasons, he says. Liquor store licensees are held to a higher standard than manufacturers. The former must be of good character, trained and certified in the responsible sale and consumption of alcohol. “If we are going to control the product, we have to make sure everyone who is delivering it to the consumer has that type of training.”

The state has another motivation to preserve the current system: “The state makes a lot of money on the excise tax — based on the alcohol content per 100-proof gallon — and they want to hold on to that,” adds Tom Saccoccia, owner of Saks Centredale Liquors, a North Providence fixture for seventy years. Rhode Island’s prohibition against retailers owning more than one outlet keeps the supermarket and big box chains from gobbling up the independent mom-and-pops and keeps the profits in the local community.

That said, there are puzzling exceptions: The odd mix of over-the-counter medications and liquor at outlets like East Side Prescription Center in Providence, which until recently was an artifact of a time when pharmacists used alcohol in compounding. Pharmacy owners exploited this authorization to sell alcohol to the self-medicators. It was once more common, when there were fewer liquor stores. (Now Rhode Island has somewhere near 280.) These licenses have disappeared with those establishments, Saccoccia says. Editors’ note: East Side is no longer selling pharmaceuticals.

The most successful assaults on the three-tiered system are mounted on Smith Hill. In 2013, special legislation allowed Carolyn Rafaelian, owner of Alex and Ani, to sell her Sakonnet Vineyards wines at her separate Teas and Javas retail locations. (“That shouldn’t have happened,” Saccoccia admits.) Other upstart artisanal producers — vintners, brewers and spirits distillers — then clamored for changes that will allow them to sell their wares at the point of manufacture as a marketing strategy.

At one point, there was talk of leveling the regulatory playing field, but it passed.

“There’s such a myriad of liquor laws,” says Saccoccia. “I like to joke that there are fifty states and fifty-one sets of liquor laws.”

For example, Texas prohibits public companies with more than thirty-five shareholders from selling hard liquor. Massachusetts frowns on happy hours and drink specials (so does Rhode Island). Maine got around its law prohibiting Sunday sales with emergency legislation allowing liquor sales to commence at 6 a.m. if the Lord’s day coincided with St. Patrick’s Day. In Utah the bartender must mix cocktails out of the customer’s sight, behind the “Zion curtain,” in restaurants opened after July 2012.

In short, Rhode Island’s liquor laws are no weirder than those of any other state. Cheers!

Why are we the only state to observe Victory Day?

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Rhode Island stands firm as the only state in the nation to commemorate World War II’s end, specifically the surrender of Japan on August 14, 1945. Although there’s been talk of doing away with the holiday altogether, the proposal encountered fierce pushback and some heated debates. In the ’90s, legislation was introduced to rename Victory Day “Peace Day” or “Rhode Island Veterans Day” but, alas, both failed.

Many local World War II veterans appreciate that the state still celebrates the holiday on the second Monday of August; others consider the day divisive or outdated, that it glorifies war and that it’s distasteful for Japanese Americans living in Rhode Island.

The most recent attempt to retire it was in 2013, when state lawmakers considered a measure to allow businesses to designate state holidays like Victory Day as a floating holiday for employees. Labor unions fought it and veterans hated it. It was a failed attempt yet again and Victory Day has been observed in Rhody ever since. – Samantha Labrecque

Why is the Big Blue Bug blue?

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The nine-foot-tall eastern subterranean termite that’s beamed benignly over the I-95 Thurbers Avenue curve since 1980 was originally painted purple (artistic license, considering the living version is more a brownish-black). Its paint job quickly faded to blue, however, but due to its celebrated new hue, the Bug’s eponymous owners have repainted it a royal blue ever since. – Sarah Francis

Why are we called the Ocean State when several other states have much more salt water coastline?

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It is no surprise that with a notable 400-mile shoreline along Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, Rhode Island is coined “the Ocean State.” And it’s true when they say most Rhode Islanders live within a thirty-minute drive of the ocean. But why wasn’t our state’s nickname claimed by others like Alaska or Florida, which surely see the salty ocean waves kissing the shore for as far as the eye can see? According to RI.gov, Rhode Island’s official nickname was formulated in the ’70s to attract tourism to the state. It was around the same time that the term appeared on non-commercial license plates from the corners of Burrillville to Little Compton and everywhere else in between. – Samantha Labrecque

How the heck do you pronounce “quahog”?

Co-hog? Caw-hog? Kwa-hog? Kwahh-hog? Or is it kwo-hog? Loren Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, doesn’t blame us for our linguistic witlessness. “People say things so many different ways; I don’t really stress it,” she says. The state’s foremost expert on indigenous culture tells us “quahog” comes from the Narragansett words for clam: “quaughhaug” or “poquauhock.” And she settles it for us, once and for all: It’s kwa-hog. Clam closed. – Casey Nilsson

Why is Friendship a one-way street?

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Meaghan Susi.

This reader-submitted query left us, and state and local archivists, feeling a little bit sad. As far back as we can tell, Providence’s Friendship Street operated as a one-way thoroughfare; in the ’30s, it changed directions from westerly to easterly, proving Friendship will always be one-directional, no matter how you stack it. But Charles St. Martin, spokesman at the state Department of Transportation, is still hopeful, telling us: “While that street is one-way, the traffic improvements in the area to make a circulation pattern alongside and across I-95 mean that Friendship (Street) is always around the corner!” – Casey Nilsson