Like New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain, the eastern border of Johnston, where it butts against Providence, might, with some imagination, be seen as a profile emergent from a skewed block. The Woonasquatucket River defines the profile. As in North Providence, Johnston's first intensive settlement occurred along the river or its tributaries. The town is still most heavily populated there, on its eastern edge.
Originally part of the “inner woods” west of Providence, Johnston was set off as a separate town in 1759, and named for the current state attorney general, Augustus Johnston, who came from the area. Mills began along the river in the eighteenth century; during the course of the nineteenth century they concentrated at three points, some so dimly defined today that they no longer show on the official state tourist map: in Centerville, in the northeast corner of the town (not to be confused with the similarly named village nearby in North Providence); farther south at Manton and Olneyville (which were mostly absorbed by Providence in a boundary adjustment at the turn of the twentieth century); finally, in the southeast corner in the now merged cluster of Hughesdale, Simmonsville, Morgans Mills, and Thornton. Quarrying, particularly at Graniteville (close to Centerville) and at Snake Den Quarry in the northwest corner of the town, was another major industry of the town into the twentieth century. From Graniteville, oxen dragged the monolithic granite columns for the Providence Arcade ( PR18); from Snake Den, they hauled blocks for the First Unitarian Church in Providence ( PR92). But this industry, too, has perished.
Johnston and Scituate, the next town west, are crossed by more nineteenth-century turnpikes than any Rhode Island towns. Angling from Providence northwest to due west are Putnam Pike (1810), Hartford Pike (originally the Rhode Island and Connecticut Pike, 1803), Central Pike (originally Foster and Scituate, 1822) and, oldest of all, Plainfield Pike (originally Providence and Norwich, 1714), which marks most of the southern boundary of Johnston, and the short Shun Pike in its southwest corner. Agriculture spread with the turnpikes. Although the relative distribution of population in Johnston has remained the same since settlement in the eighteenth century along the river, the visitor will experience its more densely populated eastern part as the westward sprawl of Providence. This suburbanization of old farms intensified following the north–south bisection of the town by Interstate 295, the circumferential of Providence, and the T-junction at its near center for east–west Interstate 195.
Unexpectedly for a town which is part of the metropolitan perimeter of Providence, virtually all nineteenth-century mill buildings of any consequence have disappeared, except for two late-nineteenth-century brick mills still operating in Thornton. Ironically, the destruction of most of Johnston's historic factories and the loss or modification of most of the old fabric around them make scattered remnants from the town's remotest past our principal concern, including one of Rhode Island's most important colonial icons, the Clemence-Irons House. They are pieces of a past spared by some miracle, but mostly wholly out of context or fast losing it. Johnston also contains, in the headquarters built for Allendale Mutual Insurance, Rhode Island's architecturally most important corporate headquarters building.
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