Cat Swamp Exhibit At The Hay

Gardeners, fans of local history, and anyone living in or around the Freeman Parkway area, will want to check out “Entwined: Botany, Art and the Lost Cat Swamp Habitat” at the John Hay Library, up now through April 30. Together for the first time: maps and original paintings of Cat Swamp plants by Edward Peckham from the Rhode Island Historical Society, and corresponding specimens from the Brown University Herbarium, collected by William Bailey and others. Bailey referred to Cat Swamp as “the Mecca of botanists.”

Throughout the 19th century, the marshy swamps of the East Side of Providence remained a rural hinterland, even as the slopes on either side of downtown Providence were being developed. The wetland area known as Cat Swamp, bounded today by Freeman Parkway, Everett Street, Elmgrove Avenue and Arlington Street, was considered too expensive to develop until 1915 when civil engineer John Freeman filled and began building in this area.

Looking down Barberry Hill Road or Freeman Parkway from up on Arlington, it’s hard to picture this area as ever having been swampy; it’s a fairly steep slope down to Elmgrove Avenue. And it is impossible to reconcile the scene in the 1896 Whitaker oil painting with today’s topography. (We are sure that it doesn’t show the so-called great swamp down on Blackstone Boulevard? Sure looks like a river in the background.)

Area gardeners might consult the panel, “The Lost Species of Cat Swamp” (seen below), and add/restore some native plants to their yard this year. (Easy on the nettles and pokeweed.)

The exhibit is on the first floor to the right of the reception desk. The library is closed on Saturdays.

‘Cat Swamp’ runs through April 30, John Hay Library, 20 Prospect Street, (directions)

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