Warren of Surprises
Rich in history, the Narragansett Bay town of Warren is a unique boating destination that’s worth investigating.
By Nancy Gabriel Cifune • Photography by Andrea Zimmermann
Resilient” is the word that comes to mind once you get to know the town of Warren, Rhode Island. While admittedly less glamorous than its yachtier neighbors to the south, Warren has ridden the changing tides of prosperity to emerge as a boating destination filled with hidden charms.
And a boatload of history.
In colonial times, Warren was known as Sowams, home of the Pokanoke tribe of the Wampanoags and its leader, Massasoit. Today, Massasoit Spring on Baker Street marks the location of the sachem’s home. After Massasoit’s death, relations between the settlers and the Wampanoags deteriorated, eventually leading to King Philip’s War, which devastated Warren and the surrounding communities. Warren experienced more destruction during the Revolutionary War, and it took the town close to a decade to recover economically.
By the mid-1800s, Warren had re-established itself as a whaling and shipbuilding port. Shipbuilders’ and captains’ homes of the 1700s and 1800s, many sporting unique maritime-inspired flourishes, are among the architecturally significant structures sprinkled along the narrow streets of downtown.
Today, boatbuilding is alive and well in Warren. Tad Jones of Dyer Boats still runs the business started by his grandfather, Bill Dyer, who opened a boatshop on the banks of the Warren River back in 1938. The company continues to build the popular Dyer 29 cruiser and the Dyer Dhow sailing dinghy out of its Water Street shop called “The Anchorage.”
At the opposite end of the street, steel-hulled ferries, workboats, fishing trawlers and small cruise ships roll off the ways at Blount Boats, which has built over 300 vessels since its start in the late 1940s. Today it’s owned and operated by the three daughters of founder Luther Blount, and recently completed work on a specialized ferry that will shuttle workers to and from the new Block Island wind farm.
Farther inland, US Watercraft occupies the former home of Pearson Composites, where Pearson sailboats were once built. US Watercraft currently builds the Alerion, True North, North Rip and C&C brands using modern materials and techniques that would have seemed miraculous to Warren shipbuilders of the past.
Textile manufacturing also played a role in Warren’s history, as evidenced by the former cotton mill built by Warren Manufacturing in 1896. The red mill buildings, most recently occupied by the American Tourister luggage company, are now being renovated as apartments and commercial space, with plans for 14 docks to be installed in front of its waterfront location just below the Route 114 bridge.
Another long-standing industry that continues to flourish in Warren is shellfishing. The town is known for its fiercely independent quahog fishermen, who rake clams from the bay bottom in their fleet of weathered skiffs, many sporting homemade plywood shelters. Many of these bivalves are purchased by Blount Fine Foods on Water Street, a major processor and distributor of clam products. The public can purchase fresh clams and chowders at the company’s retail store opposite the processing plant.
While the quahog is king these days, for a time Warren was known as the largest international provider of oysters in the world. However, between increasing pollution in the early 1900s and the Hurricane of 1938, nearly the entire population was decimated.
Luther Blount was not only a shipbuilder, businessman and entrepreneur, but a staunch supporter of the bay’s ecology and its economic impact on the town. In 1976 he launched an initiative to restore the local oyster population that involved creating a manmade salt pond on nearby Prudence Island, where he experimented with growing oysters in a protected area. Professors and students from Roger Williams University began working with him in the early 2000s on the upkeep of the pond, and this eventually led to the creation of the school’s shellfish hatchery, which is named in Blount’s honor.
Blount passed away in 2006, but the oyster-restoration efforts he championed continue. Recently, an upweller from the Roger Williams hatchery was installed at the Warren town dock. The device will be used to grow baby oysters until they are big enough to repopulate parts of the bay for public shellfishing.
Warren’s rich and varied history as working town is echoed in the town’s architecture and no-nonsense vibe. Recent years have seen an influx of independent businesses to the local thoroughfares of Main and Water Streets. Unique boutiques, restaurants and eclectic apparel shops have moved in, along with Rhode Island’s first food-focused small-business incubator, Hope & Main. Warren is also one of the state’s nine tax-free arts districts, which has created a thriving artists community.
“Warren is one of those hidden gems,” states Lee Gorman, owner and captain of East Bay Charters. “One of the biggest attractions is the restaurants, which are equal to those in Bristol and Newport. And most are within easy walking distance of the waterfront.”
Indeed, several of these eateries—among them the Wharf Tavern, Tav Vino and Trafford—are located right on the river, and feature docks where patrons arriving by water can tie up. Short-term dockage for those who want to stroll about town for a few hours may also be available at the town wharf.
Oddly, despite its lengthy waterfront, Warren doesn’t offer much in the way of overnight accommodations, so boaters seeking marina amenities must look to Barrington, on the opposite side of the river. That said, the Warren harbormaster’s office maintains four transient slips at the town wharf, a couple of moorings on the river and a small launch ramp for those with trailers. According to harbormaster Ed Cabral, Jr., the ramp can accommodate boats up to 25 feet at high tide, and is a good spot to launch kayaks and cartop boats at any time. Another small but steep public ramp with limited parking is available behind the sewage-treatment plant, off Water Street.
Kick Back on The Kick
Not all of the aquatic action happens on the Warren River, however. On the east side of town, boaters can explore a quieter setting on the Kickemuit River (Wampanoag for “at the great spring”) and the Warren Reservoir. “It’s a huge destination for boaters because it’s such a pleasant place to be,” says Cabral. “It’s a serene river, good for day trips. People like to go there to relax.”
“The Kick” is also a popular spot for kayaking and paddleboarding, as well as birdwatching, as the surrounding marshland attracts many species of waterfowl, raptors and wading birds.
If you’re looking for another excuse to bring your boat to Warren, plan a trip around one of its many events, which are as unique and quirky as the town itself. The annual Quahog Festival at Burr’s Hill Park, held in mid-July, boasts a variety of tasty local seafood, an arts-and-crafts fair and live music. The Christmas in August event is a new festival in which locals decorate their boats with Christmas lights and sail up the river in the midsummer heat. “It’s just another reason to party down at the dock,” laughs Gorman. The Warren Walkabout in the fall celebrates the town’s numerous shops, art, antiques dealers and eateries before the holiday season.
Quiet, but never boring, Warren is will surely leave you satisfied—and pleasantly surprised.