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Coal Miners' Houses

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c. 1909. 16–18 Brownell Lane, Willow Court, and Elliott St.

Architecturally, all that remains of the coal industry in Portsmouth are a scattering of workers' houses, mostly much altered—now in the shadow of the Kaiser Aluminum and Copper Company plant, a huge modern complex which is visually about as painful a presence as a factory can be. In this group of houses, the most interesting are of a type seen in no other Rhode Island industrial housing. Each two-unit house is a two-story gabled box with the second story and the front slope of the gable subsuming a porch across the front within the austere overall shape; the slope to the rear is extended as a saltbox so that two stories in front become one story behind. A pair of doors at the center of the porch and its three-posted support (at either end and at the center) signal the split of the houses vertically down the middle.

Coal production began in Portsmouth on a small scale in 1809 under the Rhode Island Coal Company and the Aquidneck Coal Company. Although easily mined from veins close to the surface, the coal was of poor quality. So mining was sporadic but hopeful, with a number of openings and closings. At the height of operations, from 1866 until 1883 into the early 1880s, the coal was used by the Taunton Copper Company to fire eight blast furnaces for the processing of South American copper ore. Then there was a hiatus, one last burst of activity in 1909, when these houses must have been built. Mining came to an end in 1913.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.


What's Nearby


William H. Jordy et al., "Coal Miners' Houses", [Portsmouth, Rhode Island], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of Rhode Island, William H. Jordy, with Ronald J. Onorato and William McKenzie Woodward. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 500-500.

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