The Good Old Days

A new book about 19th century Rhode Island chronicles the state’s most famous influencers

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Did Rhode Island have a Golden Age? If so, when was it? If you ask Dr. Patrick T. Conley, those halcyon days lasted nearly half a century, from 1861 to 1900, when Ocean State soldiers, reformers, architects, and industrialists helped leave a permanent mark on the national character. These are the very people he profiles in his new book, The Leaders of Rhode Island’s Golden Age, released in May from The History Press under Arcadia Publishing.

“Rhode Island played a leadership role in America’s Industrial Revolution,” Dr. Conley posits in the book’s preface. “The state’s prosperity was revealed in its 1880 federal census when it ranked first in the nation in the valuation of its assessed real and personal property holdings, with a figure nearly triple the national average.”

Yet, Leaders is more than a rote economics lesson. Sponsored by the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, the book chronicles the achievements of 123 influential Rhodies from the latter half of the 19th century. The book starts with Civil War veterans – or “Defenders of the Union” – and proceeds with business leaders, statesmen, artists, and athletes, among other categories. The pages are rich in dates and achievements, as well as archival portraits; if Arcadia Publishing sounds familiar, they are best known for publishing the sepia-toned “Images of America” series.

The book is a follow-up to Conley’s previous books, Rhode Island’s Founders and The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, which document movers and shakers from the state’s earliest years – in many cases, before we were technically a state.

A Bristol resident, Dr. Conley holds a PhD from Notre Dame and a JD from Suffolk University Law School, and he’s served as a professor at Providence College, practiced law, and owned a real estate development business. His first book, about Catholicism in Rhode Island, was published in 1976, and he’s churned out 28 additional titles since. He’s chaired a range of organizations, including the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, which he also founded.

Not surprisingly, in 1995, Dr. Conley himself was inducted into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame, where he now serves as president. All this begs the question: If he continues to write such exhaustive local histories, will he one day face the task of writing about himself? We can only hope so, if only to see what he says.