Pawtucket takes its name from an Algonquian word meaning “at the falls.” The area below the falls of the Blackstone River—a major ford long before the arrival of white colonists—was a place of good fishing in the aerated pools and a place for informal meetings, sometimes tense, of tribes. Here the river created a boundary for the Narraganset, Wampanoag, and Nipmuc tribes, where the vaguely determined corners of their territories came together and where paths from one territory to another converged. Today one must hunt for the falls, hidden as they are beneath a double width of highway bridge, which conceals both a primeval site of importance and the primal cause for the city's being. It was not just the falls, but the incline of the river bottom and the fast-moving water above it that initially drew industry to Pawtucket. Symbolically, this final drop at the mouth of the Blackstone, while only middling in height, roars with the impressive volume of water that slides over it in a twisting sheet and drops to the tidal calm of the few final miles of its course, inexplicably designated in quick succession as the Pawtucket and Seekonk rivers. It is as though the roar would celebrate, in as grand a finale as Rhode Island topography permits, the importance of the Blackstone and of Pawtucket in the history of nineteenth-century industry. Insofar as the beginnings of the American Industrial Revolution can be pinpointed to a particular place, the honor traditionally goes to Slater Mill (as it has come to be known), beside its own spill of water over a modest dam a few hundred feet above the “fall of the water.”
Here, American textile technology began to evolve as a mechanized factory operation, largely from the knowledge of the secret processes of Arkwright's invention which an ambitious overseer for a British textile manufacturer, Samuel Slater, brought, mostly in his head, as an immigrant to the United States. He teamed with William Almy and Moses Brown, Providence merchants and traders, who were looking for new investment ventures. Brown had gradually gathered at an old fulling mill in Pawtucket examples of all the pioneer machines for the mechanized spinning of cotton that he could locate in and around Rhode Island in order to test and combine their capabilities. It was a pioneering example of systematic industrial research and development. He chose Pawtucket because of its waterpower and because the waterpower had attracted skilled mechanics. In the early eighteenth century the leading mechanic-industrialists in the area were Joseph Jenks and his son, a family destined for continued prominence in the machine tool industry during the nineteenth century. By the late eighteenth century, however, it was Oziel Wilkinson and, in time, his five sons who took the lead. Wilkinson's furnaces and forges produced a variety of products, whatever he was asked to come up with or saw a market for: nails, screws, barrel hoops, oil presses, and, during the Revolution, cannon. But Wilkinson's most important products—as also was the case for other mechanic-industrialists like him at this time—were the machines he devised or adapted for what he made. Wilkinson, together with his mechanic assistant Sylvanus Brown (no relation to Moses) tackled the collection of primitive spinning machines. Recent research gives this native group credit for progressing further toward mechanized textile production than earlier accounts had been given them, and thereby somewhat diminishes the impact of William Slater's arrival on the outcome. Still, his knowledge certainly sped the process and facilitated the coordination of the technology and its organization for production. After his arrival in January 1790, Slater provided the information that Wilkinson and Sylvanus Brown needed. As part of the bargain for sharing it with them, the Providence investors made Slater a partner, and the firm became Almy, Brown and Slater. On December 20, 1790, cotton spinning operations got underway. Three years later the firm moved into its own newly built mill, which, as later enlarged and much rebuilt, exists today at the center of the city as a museum to the beginnings of the American textile industry. In 1799 Slater, who had married one of Wilkinson's daughters, left Almy and Brown to team up with the Wilkinson clan in establishing a second cotton manufactory across the river, Samuel Slater and Company, which started operations in 1801. By 1813, thirteen mills operated in Pawtucket, the only other still standing being another Wilkinson mill, of 1810–1811, which stands beside the original clapboard mill as part of the museum complex.
In 1829 a depression was initiated in Rhode Island by the collapse of what was then known as A. and I. Wilkinson and, in its wake, the ruin of other Pawtucket manufacturers and banks. It took a decade, until the early 1840s, for Pawtucket manufacturing to begin its revival, with textile and machine tool plants predominating. Most of the pre–Civil War factory buildings have disappeared, but no Rhode Island city offers a collection of brick factory buildings of greater range and quality from the end of the 1860s to around 1920. These include the industrial complex which, better than any other in the state, still preserves a sense of the impressive size of the grandest Rhode Island textile operations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It had its beginnings in 1869 when the local Conant Thread Company combined with the British firm of J. and P. Coats in what eventually resulted in the largest thread factory in the world. The plants of other very sizable industrial complexes remain in Pawtucket—that for the Royal Weaving Mill, for example, once among the largest silk manufacturers in the world. None extant, however, makes its size as visibly apparent as the premises of the former Conant-Coats operation, although it is also true that the lesser volumes of water in Rhode Island's rivers prohibited any of its mills from attaining the scale of the brick mills which lined the Merrimac at Lowell and Lawrence in Massachusetts, or those at Manchester in New Hampshire.
Scattered about the city are an interesting collection of houses of mill executives and business leaders. More often they are substantial rather than truly palatial, although several would have been considered mansions in their day. Company-built housing for workers is rare in Rhode Island cities. Wherever private builders provided rental housing, mill operators tended to relieve themselves of this responsibility. The most distinctive worker housing in Pawtucket, as in Providence and Woonsocket, was provided by the triple-decker, eventually despised but more recently viewed with renewed respect. Pawtucket and adjacent Central Falls once boasted many of these dwellings, but they have been so extensively disfigured and destroyed in both cities that they are best seen in Woonsocket.
Aside from its brick mills, Pawtucket also provides the preeminent Rhode Island example of 1960s downtown planning. No other downtown in the state was as badly shattered by an interstate expressway as Pawtucket. No other city more wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity to “improve” itself from the resulting clearance. The best and the worst of urban planning in this period are more evident in Pawtucket than in any other Rhode Island city. The 1960s vision of what tomorrow's city might be has itself become “historic.”
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