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Central Falls

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Central Falls is a mere knob of a community and the most densely populated of all Rhode Island towns. The Blackstone River curls around the northern and eastern sides of the town, marking these boundaries with three falls along this portion of its course. As in precolonial Pawtucket, good fishing at the falls, fords, and the junction of territories made this a meeting place for Native American tribes. Once the colonists arrived, like Pawtucket, this area was part of Providence's “North Woods.” Like Pawtucket, too, it shared in the final Native American battles of the area and in a particularly bloody way. In one of the first encounters of King Philip's War of 1674–1675, a band of Wampanoag, led by their chief, Canonchet, spied the approach of a group of armed colonists from the abrupt outcrop which is now Jenks Park and ambushed them in a major massacre. Thereafter the area remained sparsely populated until the usual cluster of tiny mills gradually appeared after 1751, especially around the upper and middle falls.

Farther upstream, where the river flows in a narrow channel through high banks, the falls came to be known as Valley Falls. By the late eighteenth century this had been exploited for manufacturing by Oziel Wilkinson, who had begun his extraordinary career as mechanic-industrialist with a forge in Smithfield, then moved to Valley Falls, and moved again around 1780 to the climax of his achievement in Pawtucket. But a family presence remained at Valley Falls, eventually incorporating as I. and A. Wilkinson, which prospered only after one of the partners, Isaac, built a turnpike in 1813 and a bridge over the Blackstone into what is now Lonsdale, roughly along the route of present Broad Street. This permitted the movement of goods north, but especially eased the route south to Pawtucket and on to Providence. Although the opening of the Blackstone Canal from Providence all the way to Woonsocket by 1828 promised another easy connection between Providence and the mills to the north of it, the promise was early frustrated. Not until the Providence and Worcester railroad in 1848, with a spur to Boston the following year, did transport radically improve over what turnpikes and roads provided. The railroad was built mostly by the first wave of Irish immigrants to the area, many of whom stayed on to work in the mills, providing the nucleus for the Irish immigration which followed.

Meanwhile, a more significant early industrial development occurred at the middle falls. As early as 1780, Sylvanus Brown, the same mechanic who assisted Oziel Wilkinson and Samuel Slater in setting up the pioneer mechanized cotton mill in Pawtucket, had built a dam there. But it was not until after 1823, with the improvement of the power canal and the division of the water rights into six privileges controlled by mill owners who incorporated as the Central Falls Mill Owners Association, that the industrial history of the city truly began. By 1825 eight textile factories for cloth weaving and thread manufacture had clustered in the area, which was then still known as Chocolateville or Chocolate Mills because of the popular appeal of a local chocolate plant. Two years later, however, the village became Central Falls. But both this village and Valley Falls upstream remained part of the town of Smithfield, to which they had been assigned when Smithfield was severed from Providence in 1731. As elsewhere in Rhode Island, growing antagonism between urban and rural interests led to prolonged and often bitter demands for separation, which were temporarily assuaged by the creation of the Central Falls Fire District in 1847. This district, which also encompassed the village of Valley Falls, gradually took on more municipal functions, in effect becoming a town government in embryo.

Whereas a cluster of entrepreneurs formed the Central Falls industrial area, at the northern end of town in Valley Falls the Wilkinson Mill, which failed around 1830, and others in its vicinity were eventually all acquired by a single company dominated by the brothers Samuel B. and Harvey Chace. From 1849 onward, as the Valley Falls Company and, later, S. B. and H. Chace, from their headquarters mill in Central Falls they built one of the great Rhode Island textile dynasties of the second half of the nineteenth century. Ultimately they also occupied the opposite bank of the river in Cumberland. Between the two clusters of mills on the river at Valley Falls and Central Falls, the textile machinery firm of Fales and Jenks, which had originally occupied a mill at the middle falls, commissioned a new mill on Foundry Street in 1863. Almost immediately, in 1865, the giant Sprague textile organization in Cranston took it over as the United States Flax Company. Only briefly, however: the collapse of the Sprague empire in 1871 (see Cranston introduction) with its holdings in mills, railroads, and banks, was sufficiently momentous to contribute in a major way to the depression of 1873. Mill building pretty much stopped in the city for nearly two decades thereafter. When prosperity returned in the early 1890s, new entrepreneurs moved into existing factories; and, together with a few twentieth-century buildings (which will not concern us), the same buildings continue to serve manufacturing in Central Falls today.

From the 1870s onward, immigrant nationalities other than Irish began to augment the local labor force, especially French Canadians. In fact, the first French-speaking parish church in Rhode Island was built in what is now Central Falls in 1875. And the town status of the Central Falls Fire District changed yet again when, in 1871, a division of the oversized town of Smithfield occurred and the fire district landed in Lincoln. Indeed, Central Falls was so much a center of population in its new town that the Lincoln Town Hall initially located in what is now Central Falls! But the debate as to whether Central Falls should be independent, remain part of Lincoln, or join Pawtucket continued. Only after a ballot in 1895 did the fire district finally become an independent town—on the brink of its era of greatest prosperity from 1890 to 1920.

Although new types of industry supplemented textiles and textile-related products to a degree, there was no countering the effects of the collapse of the Rhode Island textile industry in the 1920s. The effects remain to this day. Indeed, the state of Central Falls's economy, supported only by a small tax base and a mostly antiquated industrial plant, has revived discussions as to whether the town should be joined to Pawtucket or Lincoln, with little enthusiasm for any alternative on the part of any of the three towns involved.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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