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Woonsocket

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Legend has it that Woonsocket means “thundering mist,” in celebration of the largest waterfall on the Blackstone River. But mist hovers as much over the legend as over the falls. The name seems to have been given to nearby Woonsocket Hill (in the adjacent town of North Smithfield) before it was extended to the area around the fall. The architectural pilgrim who nevertheless chooses to embrace the myth and seeks out the Thundering Mist as a spot sacred to the Industrial Revolution will again be frustrated. If Pawtucket's fall is buried beneath a highway bridge, Woonsocket's grander fall has, since an early 1950s flood, been dammed to flow over metal gates which can be lifted when there is danger of flooding.

Woonsocket began as a cluster of six independent mill villages along the southern border of Massachusetts: Bernon, Globe, Hamlet, Jencksville, Social, and, at the falls itself, Woonsocket Falls. The villages depended not only on the water of the Blackstone, but, to a lesser extent, on that from the confluence in the vicinity of three tributaries: the Mill River, Peter's River, and Cherry Brook. Except for Jencksville, located on one of the tributaries, the villages clustered in a rough arc on the Blackstone at and below the fall. They had more riverfront because the Blackstone here interrupts its generally southerly course by making an abrupt eastward shift in a loose, winding W—a sign, perhaps, to those searching for the magic of legend in “Woonsocket,” that, whatever the name for this place, it was fated to begin with this letter.

At least until the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, the six villages were distinguishable as entities. Five took their names from the companies which dominated them, except that the owners of the Woonsocket Manufacturing Company named their village Bernon (formerly Danville, a derivative of the name of a former owner) and the mills there were commonly known as the Bernon Mills. Woonsocket Falls, however, contained a cluster of mills with various owners. Here, the commercial and professional center for the future city developed.

During much of the nineteenth century, what is now Woonsocket belonged to two other towns. East of the Blackstone it was part of Cumberland; west of the river, part of a very much larger Smithfield than the Smithfield of today. Public clamor for independence in what was becoming an urban enclave amidst agricultural surroundings severed Woonsocket first from Cumberland, in 1867, then from Smithfield, in 1871. In 1888 it was incorporated as a city.

Still, the six villages long maintained their identity as sections of the city centered in the grandly grim prominence of their leading mills, which also elicited competitive pride from those who lived around them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, no Rhode Island industrial center better displayed the emergence of the mill city from a cluster of mill villages. Unfortunately, the greatest mills are mostly gone. The old village labels linger on among the city's oldest inhabitants, but disembodied, as though searching for something to identify—and for how much longer?

Mention of a few of the principals in the changing cast of owners among the mills can wait until we reach the buildings they commissioned. But two towering figures among Woonsocket's industrial elite deserve special notice in connection with this tour. By the mid-nineteenth century Edward Harris, a member of the enterprising quarrying family in Lime Rock (see under Lincoln), rose to power as both an industrial and a civic leader. Starting as a clerk in a relative's firm, he soon owned mills in Woonsocket Falls which introduced woolen manufacture into what had been up to then a cotton manufacturing town and, by his example, ultimately made Woonsocket a major center for woolens. After buying up a number of nearby mills, he eventually built a new complex on a nearby site on a tributary of the Blackstone, which he called the Privilege Mill. On the slope above it, he also provided an extensive village of brick housing in the manner pioneered by the Blackstone industrialists downstream (see under Lincoln and Cumberland). From an Italianate mansion, eventually mansarded (and long gone) at the center of an extensive hillside estate in the northwest corner of the city between his two plants, he overlooked his factories, where the bulk of production gradually shifted to the Privilege plant and away from the congestion of the older operations. The site of his estate—roughly bounded by Harris Avenue and Winter, Prospect, Spring, and Blackstone streets—as subdivided after his death became, around the turn of the century, the city's choicest residential district. It maintains this character today. As a philanthropist, Harris sponsored a number of projects in Woonsocket. The most conspicuous, the Harris Institute, served as a combined educational and social institution for mechanics.

During the latter nineteenth century and into the twentieth, Joseph Banigan was Woonsocket's leading industrialist. Beginning as an Irish immigrant, he enjoyed a Horatio Alger rise to wealth and prominence even more substantial than Harris's. From a small rubber operation which he established with other partners to provide rollers for a clothes wringer manufacturer in the city, he reportedly became the leading manufacturer of rubber footwear in the world. Eventually, he was among the founding members of the consortium which organized U.S. Rubber, of which his Woonsocket Rubber Company was a major component. He also celebrated his success by building the first “skyscraper” in Providence (see PR023).

As elsewhere in industrial Rhode Island, Woonsocket shared in the successive waves of immigration beginning with the Irish, who came to work on the Blackstone Canal and stayed to work in the factories. But French Canadians, who began to arrive in substantial numbers beginning in the late 1860s, have played a particularly conspicuous role in Woonsocket's history. By 1930 those of French Canadian descent made up 70 percent of Woonsocket's population. As the city with the largest French-speaking population in the state by 1880, it long supported the only French-language newspaper in Rhode Island. By 1900 French predominated as the language of the city. The Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste, founded in 1900 and eventually located in a well-designed Neo-Renaissance commercial and club block (1926), was organized primarily to provide vigorous support for French language and culture and for Catholicism. Designed by an important local architect of French Canadian descent, Walter Fontaine, the building still stands (with a 1975 entrance and front on what had been its rear elevation in order to orient it to the new downtown). In 1924–1929 the Sentinelle movement (abetted by the Crusaders, a secret society organized in 1920) came close to violence in upholding French Canadian interests. It was not surprising, then, that earlier, Aram J. Pothier, banker, manufacturer, staunch Republican, the first French Canadian mayor of Woonsocket in the 1890s, and later governor of the state, also became the United States commissioner to the Paris expositions of 1889 and 1915. In this capacity, he convinced French and Belgian manufacturers to build worsted mills in his “French” city, which resulted in several French-influenced mill designs, as well as two very French-inspired mill office buildings that are unique to the state. The French hegemony in Woonsocket did not abate until the 1950s, although French language and culture remain substantial but dwindling forces in the city.

Because it began as a cluster of self-contained and self-aware villages in a fairly isolated location, Woonsocket probably had more company-built housing than either Providence or Pawtucket during the early decades of textile manufacturing. What remains of consequence are fragments of housing erected by two companies only, the Globe Mills and Harris's Privilege Mill, the latter especially well preserved. As in other areas which became urbanized, Woonsocket manufacturers increasingly left their workers to fend for themselves in the free rental market. Two-family houses were the rule until the appearance of the triple-decker around 1885. This Massachusetts import appeared in all northern Rhode Island industrial towns, but seems to have been most prevalent, in terms of total residential building, in Woonsocket and Central Falls, followed by Pawtucket and Providence. Most have been painfully modified, especially their difficult-to-maintain stacks of spindly porches, which, of course, are their preeminent mark of distinction. Even so, Woonsocket, where they were built through 1930, is still the best place in the state to see the type in all its variations, and especially its extra-large versions designed for more than the typical three-family capacity.

Although many of the old commercial buildings along Main Street dating from around 1870 through the 1930s survive, with some gaps, the street had already become moribund before the displacement of the city's downtown. This occurred with the demolition of a run-down area of what was once the village of Social (including two blocks of fine mill housing shown in Henry-Russell Hitchcock's Rhode Island Architecture) to set up a listless mall type of commercial district which is neither downtown nor mall. Too bad, because Woonsocket's Main Street was enlivened by a dogleg angle with public squares at either end and another at the angled joint. Each celebrated a community function: Monument Square with its memorial of 1870 to the Civil War dead (the first such monument erected in Rhode Island) at one end; Market Square, with its backdrop of mills, at the other; Depot Square, with its Victorian station and the nearby Harris Institute, at the hinge. Just a shade too late, there is revived interest in the old Main Street as a possible tourist attraction and as a visible center to the city.

With the demolition of the majority of Woonsocket's most interesting nineteenth-century mills and the substantial loss of its commercial buildings, the largest Roman Catholic churches assume exceptional visibility as monuments in the city. They are threatened, too, by their grand size and declining congregations, and their adjunct complexes of rectories, convents, schools, and community centers are, in many cases, already substantially devoted to other uses. New waves of immigrants may replenish them.

Our tour circles first through what remains of the village clusters, then some of the big houses up on “the hill,” and concludes downtown near the tamed fall.

Writing Credits

Author: 
William H. Jordy et al.

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