In 1871, Betsey Williams bequeathed her 102-acre farm to the City of Providence for public use in memory of her illustrious ancestor, Roger Williams, the founder of Providence. At the time, Providence had little open public space, and there was a growing desire to establish places where people could enjoy nature and escape the daily pressures of urban life.
In 1872, a "menagerie" of small animals and birds was brought to a section of the park so visitors could get a closer look at wildlife. Raccoons, guinea pigs, white mice, squirrels, rabbits, hawks, peacocks and anteaters were on display. This led to the official designation of this portion of Roger Williams Park as a "zoo." Roger Williams Park Zoo was the third zoo to open in the United States.
In the beginning, Roger Williams Park included little more than the present zoo grounds and Betsey's Cottage. Providence acquired land from Cranston and in 1878 approved a comprehensive plan designed by renowned landscape architect, Horace Cleveland. In 1883, massive work projects began to develop the Park as we know it today.
The Menagerie building opened in 1890, exhibiting a wide variety of exotic creatures including a tiger, a leopard and a pair of lions. This building, later converted to a bird house, is today the beautifully restored gift shop.
The stable, nicknamed The Barn, was for many years home to the park's workhorses. Renovated and renamed in 1986, the Sophie Danforth Center is home to the zoo's administrative offices, veterinary hospital and the Rhode Island Zoological Society. Both the Menagerie and Danforth Center are on the National Register of Historic Places.
From the Cranston Public Library Collection
An elephant barn was built in 1930, the year that Alice, the Zoo's most famous resident, arrived. A series of "Alices" followed after 1967 when the first Alice died. Today, you can find the current Alice in the Plains of Africa exhibit, with her two companions, Kate and Ginny. The elephant barn, now called the Tropical America building, is the home of Rhode Island's only rain forest.
From its menagerie start, the zoo spread out over the entire park. By the 1960s the zoo consisted of a number of animals exhibited in different areas throughout the Park. Bison, deer, and bears were housed on the hill across from the Dalrymple Boathouse and sea lions swam in the pool below the Casino. As mentioned above the elephants, birds and farm animals were located on the present -- but at that time unenclosed -- zoo grounds. This layout was spacious and beautiful, but it presented care, feeding, and security problems.
The 1960s brought changes to Roger Williams Park and Zoo. In 1962 Sophie Danforth founded the Rhode Island Zoological Society, as a nonprofit organization that provides financial and managerial support to the zoo. In 1965, all the animals were moved inside a newly-fenced compound -- this centralization greatly improved security, maintenance, and husbandry conditions.
In 1978, the zoo closed to embark upon a two-year upgrade project. 1980 marked the rebirth of the zoo; it reopened with a new Nature Center, a Polar bear exhibit, a boardwalk through a native wetlands area and a North American bison exhibit. And as they say, the rest is history. The current, vibrant state of Roger Williams Park Zoo is due to the hard work, persistence, and cooperation of both public and private sector, as well as the general public, for whom this zoo exists.