Cranston, located on the west side of Narragansett Bay, has only a short coastline. Topographically the town has two principal sections, a flat outwash plain to the east and rolling uplands to the west; the two are divided in the middle of town by a granite scarp.
Cranston's development followed a slow, steady pace from the seventeenth through the nineteenth century. Occupying land purchased by English colonists in 1638 and 1662, Cranston was set off from Providence as a separate town in 1754. As was the case elsewhere in the state, its earliest buildings were destroyed during King Philip's War of 1675–1676, but the Thomas Fenner House (1677), built immediately after the war, remains as one of the state's earliest dwellings. Pawtuxet, on the Post Road, grew into a trading center, where the most notable early remaining house is the George L. Tucker House (c. 1790). Population has traditionally centered in the eastern part of the town. Farms spread across the rest of the area. Although these have virtually disappeared in suburban development, scattered farmhouses remain, like the Christopher and William Lippitt houses (c. 1735 and 1805).
Small textile mills began in scattered villages throughout Cranston in the early nineteenth century. Earlier, during the colonial period, a considerable iron founding industry was established at the center of the town along Furnace Brook. But most of this industry died away during the nineteenth century. Although the lower portion of the Pawtuxet River comprises a substantial portion of the southern boundary of Cranston, its slow-moving waters failed to attract the factories which made the Pawtuxet farther upstream (especially in West Warwick) Rhode Island's second industrial river, after the Blackstone. The one exception to the lack of sizable industry in Cranston during the nineteenth century was the Cranston Print Works on the Pocasset River in the northwest corner of the town. The Spragues, during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century this town's wealthiest and most influential family, began textile production here in 1807. The large mill village around the Cranston Print Works, developed between 1807 and 1873, became the hub of the vast A. and W. Sprague Company manufacturing empire, which eventually stretched from Maine to North Carolina. No leading industrial family in Rhode Island experienced a decline which was both so dramatic and so precipitous. Overextended by holdings in mills, banks, transportation, and speculative ventures of various sorts, the Sprague fortunes collapsed in 1873; so spectacularly, in fact, that the family's misfortune became a major precipitant of the Panic of 1873. Two other brothers picked up most of the textile pieces, and their firm, B. B. and R. Knight, became, in its turn, one of the textile giants in the state. Around the turn of the twentieth century, several new industries spilled over from Providence along Cranston Street, most conspicuously, the Narragansett Brewery (now defunct), which located near the clear waters of Tongue Pond. The completion of the Providence & Stonington Railroad in 1837 and of the Hartford, Providence & Fishkill Railroad in 1852 linked Cranston with regional centers to the south and west.
Toward the heart of town, on the Howard Reservation, in what was then open country, a state institutional complex developed beginning in 1870 with the construction of the first buildings of the State Asylum for the Insane (now the Institute for Mental Health). Howard grew to include the state prison (the Adult Correctional Institution) from 1873, the Oak Lawn Girls School from 1880, and the Sockanosset School for Boys from 1881. The development of this complex documents changing attitudes toward facilities for the treatment and incarceration of the mentally ill and the criminal, although we shall be concerned only with early buildings for the prison and the boys' school.
The growth after 1865 of streetcar routes made the town more accessible to Providence as a suburban residential community. Edgewood, located between Roger Williams Park and Narragansett Bay, throve because of the street railway from Providence to Pawtuxet, just south of Edgewood. This accessibility and its location close to a park, as well as to the bay and three yacht clubs, made it attractive for middle- and upper-middle-income suburbanites who built ample, stylish dwellings there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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