One of the most famous Providence events is WaterFire on the three rivers that frame Providence’s landscape – the Moshassuck, Woonasquatucket, and Providence Rivers, of which the first two combine to form the third. WaterFire are on-water sculptures installed by Barnaby Evans in the 1990s to signify a renaissance for the city. The event starts with a large gong strike to signify the setting sun, the lighting of fires, and the beginning of music for the night. The flames are meant to outshine the electrical light of the city both figuratively and literally to “celebrate a contemporary city’s heritage by illuminating its historic architecture with firelight.” As the event has grown in popularity, more bonfires have been added with over 100 now lit each time.
The fire should be observed from multiple vantage points to engage more than just the sense of sight; it should invigorate all five senses through its constant motion and unpredictability. The ancient Greek philosophers and Chinese tradition valued the elements earth, air, fire and water and paired each with a sense: fire with sight, water with taste, earth with smell and air with touch. Throughout the night, firetenders stoke the flames and gondolas glide along the rivers allowing riders to get an up close view of the lights that they usually only observe from afar. The sounds of flickering sparks coming off of the fires engage the ears while the slow flow of the boat creates a sense of harmonious motion. The confluence of the various influences should transform “perceptions of the urban landscape” by forcing participants to slow down and move at the pace of the water and fire. The environment is to emulate that of paseos and passeggiatas of the European tradition. The elements of earth and wood are not forgotten as earth is in the iron of the fires’ braziers and wood in the logs and kindling. The incense smell of pine and cedar from the fires run straight through downtown. The confluence of elements captivates every sense simultaneously.
Since the event runs along the Providence River, it is a convenient walk from most of the downtown hotels and even pleasantly walk-able from College Hill. The lightings are most popular during warm summer nights. It’s a romantic date night and an excellent location to watch 4th of July fireworks. The WaterFire season is March through October with roughly three lightings per month. Look at the organization’s calendar to ensure you don’t miss this breathtaking event while in town. WaterFire asks for a suggested donation of $5 from attendees but cannot rely on this revenue to keep the project going. Each lighting is dependent on sponsorship from various businesses and organizations. They accept contributions online and at the event if you are interested in helping WaterFire stay lit.