Rhode Island Geography

The Terrain

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the United States with an area of only 1,545 square miles - and 500 square miles of that is water. The state is quite densely populated and shares the high people-to-land ratio with one other state, New Jersey.

It has two neighboring states. Connecticut abuts the western border of Rhode Island and Massachusetts is to the north and east. The Atlantic Ocean laps the southern shore, which is also the lowest point in the state, being at sea level from east to west. Further inland, in the town of Foster, Jerimoth Hill is the highest point in the state. Yet, the hill is only 812 feet above sea level.

Rhode Island geography can be divided into two distinct regions: the south and east Coastal Lowland and the northwestern Eastern New England Upland (ENEU). One major river, the Sakonnet, runs through Rhode Island and the largest lake in the state is the Scituate Reservoir.

The Coastal Lowland includes more than one-half of the land area of Rhode Island and extends to islands in the Narragansett Bay where you can find sandy beaches, salt ponds and natural lagoons. There are also some small mounds/hills with rounded slopes and very few trees.

The limited variation of topography appears to be peculiar to the land forms within the state and does not extend into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Block Island is twelve miles offshore and has a more rugged landscape surrounded by a trickier underwater seascape, which has been responsible for too many shipwrecks off the coast of this Island.

The northwestern third of the Rhode Island geography is known as the Eastern New England Upland (ENEU) and is characterized by rolling hills and a rise in elevation. ENEU has many little lakes and ponds scattered through those rolling hills.

The Islands of Narragansett Bay

The largest island in the bay is Aquidneck, home to the famous and historic city of Newport. Conanicut Island is the site of the resort town of Jamestown. The smallest island is called Prudence Island.

Aquidneck is an Indian word meaning “Isle of Peace.” A group of settlers engaged Roger Williams to negotiate the terms of their purchase of the island from the Native American called Miantonomi. It was a bit tricky because of the fact that this island was the royal seat of Miantonomi. The terms of the sale were a swap: the settlers could have the island in exchange for forty fathoms of white peage, twenty hoes, ten coats for the resident Indians and five more fathoms of wampum for the local sachem.

An island of rocky cliffs and dramatic scenic views of the ocean, its waters are ideal for sailing. Aquidneck is home to the city of Newport, an historic summer resort. The city of Newport has a commercial fishing fleet that is second only to the city of Galilee. It is probably the windiest location in our country and a perfect place to harness the power of this renewable energy and that is exactly what is being done on Aquidneck. Wind turbines are popping up on and around the island and surrounding waters.

Conanicut Island is named after the Indian Chief, Conanicus, who maintained his royal residence on the island. Jamestown is a resort community located on Conanicut Island. This small island is positioned in the center of the entrance to Narragansett Bay. It is linked to historic Newport by the Newport Bridge. Conanicut may be a tiny island in a very small state.

Prudence Island is the third - and smallest - of the larger islands in Narragansett Bay. It is located in the heart of the bay with three nearby islands: Patience, Hope and Dyer. Prudence Island is the home of the Prudence Conservancy which is a charitable land trust founded to preserve 664 acres of island from development and protect the natural character, beauty and diversity of Prudence Island.

The Sandy Point Lighthouse is said to be the oldest lighthouse in Rhode Island. It was built in 1823 on Goat Island near Newport. In 1851, it was taken apart and brought to the east side of Prudence Island at Sandy Point.

Standing 30 feet tall with the shape of an octagon and a granite facade, it was back in service by 1852. This is one of the very few lighthouses in the United States with its “birdcage” lantern intact. It shines a beam of light that can be seen for ten miles.

There are more than twenty working lighthouses in Rhode Island that guide sea traffic through the channels and hidden seascapes of the ocean and bay waterways of The Ocean State.

Block Island

Block Island is 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. The island has a mix of rugged terrain that is different from mainland Rhode Island topography. It was previously known as Manisses, an Indian name meaning “Island of Little God.” The Narragansett Indians were the governing authority over the Manisses tribe.

In 1876, Manisses was renamed Block Island after a Dutch trader who had visited the island in the early 1600s. His name was Adriaen Block. Shortly thereafter, this island was entrusted to four people who then sold it to sixteen men for £40. The families of these sixteen men became the first recognized settlers of Block Island. Its geography and surrounding seascape is responsible for both shipwrecks and the construction of the lighthouse that now guides vessels through this area.

Block Island South East Lighthouse

The South East Lighthouse is an historic landmark on Block Island. The U.S. Light House Board is credited with the building of this landmark which is one of the finest lighthouses of the 19th century. The lighthouse is considered an invaluable aid to navigators traveling along the East Coast of the United States. This station has provided assistance to sea traffic since the first day it was placed in service and lit - and it is still operating dutifully today.