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Cumberland marks the northeast corner of Rhode Island. It was here that William Blackstone arrived in 1635 (before his friend Roger Williams) as the first white settler in what is now Rhode Island. A well-educated minister and among the first settlers of Boston, he left because of religious intolerance and settled in present-day Lonsdale on the east bank of the river that eventually bore his name, bringing with him a library of some two hundred books. He lived there for forty years, in a house he called Study Hill, and, when not immersed in his books, experimented with modern farming practices, all in relative solitude. He died in 1675 on the very brink of King Philip's War, during which Wampanoag Indians totally destroyed Study Hill and its library, together with whatever other houses had been built up to that time by white settlers in present-day Cumberland. An unprepossessing monument commemorates the site of his house on Mendon Road, which parallels the Blackstone as colonial Cumberland's principal highway and still perhaps its most heavily traveled. One of the principal factories of the Lonsdale Mill occupies the site of Blackstone's sylvan retreat.

When Blackstone settled in Cumberland it was part of Massachusetts—the western edge of the town of Plymouth, but so far west that, even as a dissenter, he was permitted to stay. In 1660 the Wampanoag tribe sold a great portion of present-day Cumberland to settlers in the border Massachusetts town of Rehoboth, which, in a redrawing of town boundaries, became a piece of another Massachusetts border town, North Attleboro, in 1694. Not until 1746 was this piece of Massachusetts annexed to Rhode Island. At the time, it took its name from the Duke of Cumberland. It then included a chunk of the present city of Woonsocket as its northwest corner, which it retained until 1867, when Cumberland finally attained the boundaries it has today.

Cumberland's mixture of hilly woodland and pasture with valley farming was much like Lincoln's. It also had a variety of mineral deposits. It was early famous, in fact, among mineralogists as “the mineral pocket of New England.” Among its more usable deposits were iron, coal, copper, and gold, all of which, together with quarrying (limestone, soapstone, and granite), were exploited in its colonial economy, up to and in some cases a little beyond the Revolution. Surprisingly for a town with neither bay nor ocean waterfront, it was also early known for small boat building, there being no less than nineteen such shops in 1815. Partly floated and mostly carted to the sea, they served many purposes, among them boats lowered from whaling ships to make the final kill. In many cases such work, together with that in gristmills and sawmills, provided farmers with winter occupation. Small mills were particularly prevalent along the Abbott Run, a small tributary of the Blackstone, and the streams that fed it.

But in Cumberland, as in Lincoln, it was the Blackstone which provided for big industry. Generally industry began on the west side of the river, in Central Falls and Lincoln. Transportation to and from Providence was easier from this side; the Blackstone Canal also followed this bank. As these early plants expanded, however, their later and larger additions located in Cumberland beginning around 1860. By then more vacant land existed there than on the west side of the river and so, after 1850, did a substantial section of the main line to Worcester off the New York–Boston track, crossing to the Cumberland side of the river at Central Falls through Lonsdale, Berkeley, and Ashton before recrossing to Lincoln south of Albion. So, by the 1860s, the two leading textile firms on the stretch of the Blackstone below Woonsocket—the Chace brothers' Valley Falls Company and Brown and Ives's Lonsdale Company—looked for expansion toward the Cumberland side of the river. The Chaces jumped the river at Central Falls to the opposite bank, as did Brown and Ives at Lonsdale and Ashton, leaving “Old” Ashton to wither while also establishing the new village of Berkeley between their other Cumberland properties.

The fate of the Cumberland mills is familiar. The Chace mill at Valley Falls is a picturesque and informative ruin. Of the Brown and Ives enterprises, both mills and villages fared better. The mill at Lonsdale on the Cumberland side now accommodates a discount store. Those at Berkeley and Ashton continue in manufacturing, leased, after their original operations failed following World War II, to various and changing firms. Together they provide the best preserved and most coherent of all the brick mill villages in Rhode Island, where mill housing is overwhelmingly of wood. As for Cumberland's farms and landscape, they share in Lincoln's suburbanization.

Writing Credits

William H. Jordy et al.

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