The Gift


Historic treasure honors a father

North Main Street, Providence, in the mid-1930s was a busy commercial area. Stores and office buildings, apartments and rooming houses crowded both sides of the street, except for one bit of green space on the west side of the thoroughfare. The Roger Williams Spring Park stood in sharp contrast to its busy surroundings. The park and the spring were a gift from the Honorable J. Jerome Hahn to honor the memory of his father, pay tribute to Roger Williams and return a historic treasure to the people of Providence.

Judge Hahn’s father, Isaac Hahn, was born in New York. He moved to Providence in about 1870, opened a retail business and later found success in manufacturing and real estate. He was elected to one term in the House of Representatives of the General Assembly – the first Jew elected to public office in this state. Jerome Hahn was appointed Associate Justice of the Superior Court in 1919 and was an Associate Justice of the R.I. Supreme Court from 1931-35.

The park is located where Roger Williams settled in 1636. The friendly Indians he met when he landed at what is now Gano St. directed him to this spot, where a “flashing and sparkling” spring, set in moss and shaded by trees, flowed down to the river. They gave it to him as a gift.

The spring provided water for the new settlement of Providence. After Williams, Gabriel Bernon owned the spring and the land around it. He was instrumental in making certain that the waters of the spring forever be available to the townspeople of Providence in accordance, he said, with Williams’ wish. It was set aside in a deed. Successive owners piped the water to a pump accessible to all, first near North Main St. and, later, Canal St. In 1900, the Commissioner of Public Works ordered the pump removed. The “flashing and sparkling” water was diverted to a sewer.

The spring remained hidden in the cellar of a building on North Main St. until Jerome Hahn purchased both the building and land in 1930 from the descendants of Jacob Seagraves. The structure was torn down; the land and spring were donated to the city. A wall, steps and curb, designed by Norman Isham, now surround and protect the site.

The place where Williams and his followers met to exchange ideas about freedom and “soul liberty” once again became part of the rightful, historic inheritance of the townspeople of Providence, thanks to Judge Hahn.

The late Rabbi William Brauder, Hahn’s friend and rabbi, wrote that the Judge considered the place “one of the truly hallowed spots on this continent.” His gift “… was an act of gratitude and homage – gratitude to the people of Rhode Island who honored him as well as his father with offices of public trust; and homage to the spirit of Roger Williams who, first in this hemisphere, transformed liberty from a private luxury to a commodity available to all …”

In 1984, the Roger Williams Spring Park, known also as the Hahn Memorial, became part of the 4.5 acre Roger Williams National Memorial, Rhode Island’s only national park.

The site serves as a reminder of Williams’ ideas of the separation of church and state, of the right to practice one’s own religion or no religion at all. And the spring: One may well be struck of the symbolism inherent in its history. It speaks to us in our time.

This brief history of this spring and the park is based in part on the remarks of the  late Rabbi William Braude at a ceremony at the site as part of the American Jewish Tercentenary, reprinted from the “Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes,” Vol. 1, No.2, pp 93-96.

Geraldine Foster is a past president of the Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association.

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