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North Providence

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Not until 1874 did North Providence acquire the boundaries it has today. Previously, what is now its eastern third had been part of Pawtucket and its middle third part of Providence. Agriculture long dominated its economic life. Fairly good soils and relatively easy access to Providence made farming profitable even before the coming of turnpikes. Only along its western boundary, made by the Woonasquatucket River, did major mill towns develop: from south to north, Lymansville, Allendale, Centredale, and Greystone, established between 1807 and 1822. Of these, Allendale and Greystone remain the most interesting architecturally, so only they are included here.

Lymansville is important, however, in the history of textile technology. So-called Scotch looms were first employed there, in a long-disappeared stone mill, in 1817, when Daniel Lyman brought together patterns supplied by a Scottish mechanic, William Gilmour, and the practical skills of David Wilkinson of Pawtucket. The “Scotch loom,” with variations, became the standard power loom in the Rhode Island textile industry. Moreover, the Lymansville plant was the first in Rhode Island to process cotton from raw material to finished cloth under one roof. So, if the contribution of Pawtucket to the early textile industry is well known, then the importance of Lymansville in its slightly later development deserves more recognition. Unfortunately, the oldest mill which now exists in the village is a brick building erected in 1885 by a German emigré, Albert Sack. It is of some interest in itself: built to his specifications, it is apparently exceptional among Rhode Island factories for its cross-shaped design. In the socioeconomic history of Rhode Island, moreover, Sack's venture also pioneered as a factory store. Allegedly for the first time in the state, at least as an avowed premise for the business, clothing produced in the factory was primarily sold on the site—making Sack's mill a forerunner of the numerous clothing “mill stores” which now occupy pieces of old factories throughout New England.

As for Centredale—the other important North Providence mill village omitted from consideration here—it centered the row of Woonasquatucket factory villages. It was also a traffic “centre” for its area (the spelling still deferring to the initial predominance of English workers). Modern road widenings and turnabouts have neatly done in the village, and its remaining factory buildings are fairly recent and of no special distinction.

Surprisingly, in view of its closeness to Providence, railroads did not reach North Providence until 1877. Privately financed turnpikes were built in the nineteenth century—in all, five of them, three of which involved Centredale. From the perspective of Providence, one terminated in the village; one passed through it; one originated there. Mineral Spring Turnpike (now Route 15 and an “avenue”), chartered in 1826, runs east–west virtually across the center of the town from Pawtucket to Centredale, and does indeed pass a mineral spring near Orchard Avenue in Pawtucket. The others run generally northwest to north with reference to Providence. Powder Mill Pike (Route 44, now Smith Street, built 1810–1815), which passes through Centredale, was named for the first powder mill in Rhode Island, established in the village during the Revolution. It was the last privately owned turnpike in Rhode Island, becoming public only in 1874. Its closing ended private toll roads in the state. Finally, Farnum Pike (Route 106, known as Waterman Avenue in North Providence, built 1808–1828) took off in a northwesterly direction from Centredale. North-south movement among the four mill villages along Woonasquatucket Avenue also passed through Centredale. Only two of North Providence's old turnpikes avoid Centredale: Old Louisquissett (now roughly Route 246, chartered 1805), which hugs the eastern border in a north-south direction, and Douglas Pike (Route 7, chartered 1806), which cuts across the center of the town on a northeast-southwest diagonal.

Because the bulk of manufacturing in North Providence was at its western edge, paradoxically the area to the east of the Woonasquatucket mill villages and closer to the heart of Providence remained lightly developed longer. Looking at the map of North Providence, one might expect that the easternmost section of the town, closest to the peripheral expansion of Providence, would have become a premier location for suburban houses. Following the Civil War, however, fashionable development, including some sizable “country seats” moved out onto the northwestern hills of Providence, along the axis of Smith Street (which focuses on the capitol dome) in the direction of Fruit Hill at the center of North Providence. Fruit Hill Avenue winds in a long diagonal across the crests of a series of hills with extensive views of the countryside to the west and over Providence to the east. The old farms and their orchards, which once lined it, many owned by the Olney family, were substantially transformed to building lots by Samuel Hedley in the 1880s according to a scheme grandly known as the International Park Plan Plat. By the late nineteenth century the reasonably affluent, in search of country living, together with a sizable contingent of artists and aesthetes, were commuting on the Smith Street trolley (which began operation in 1893) to Fruit Hill Avenue. To the present day these hills retain an attractive enclave of mostly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century houses.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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