Although West Greenwich shows on the map as a considerable rectangular swatch of west central Rhode Island, it offers less of architectural interest than any town in the state. Historically, it has been the most isolated of all Rhode Island towns. Poor soils discouraged any but the barest subsistence farming, woodcutting, and gravel operations. Railroads completely bypassed it, thereby thwarting industrial development along the Big River and its tributaries in the eastern half of the town or along the tributaries of the Flat River in the west.
Industrial development was further limited by lack of connection with the prosperous eastern shore of the state. Even today, West Greenwich is the only western town from Glocester to Exeter without a major east-west highway; its principal highways slash diagonally across it north and south, as though the town were less a destination than a stretch to get through. Its greatest transportation improvement during the nineteenth century was the New London Turnpike (1821), a toll road to the New London harbor. The turnpike still exists as a gravel road paralleling Interstate 95 and continues south across Exeter and Richmond. The section through West Greenwich, however, which has been only minimally regraded, together with parts of the Central Turnpike in Foster, affords the best sense of the turnpikes when they were much-heralded improvements. Within a decade of its completion, the West Greenwich section of the turnpike, lined with taverns and inns and notorious for prostitution, robberies, and occasional murders, even anticipated the seediest of modern strip development.
The undeveloped quality of the town encouraged the substantial acquisition of acreage in the western portion for state forest preserves. Then, in the late 1960s, an extensive area in the eastern portion of the town was condemned for development of a giant supplement to the existing reservoir in Scituate by damming the Big River. Most of what was of any architectural significance in West Greenwich has been lost to the reservoir project, including Nooseneck, its only village of historic consequence. Population levels confirm its historic isolation. From a high point of 2,054 in 1790, its population declined to a mere 367 in 1920. By then, its unexpensive wooded land had already begun to attract summer colonists and those who preferred to “rough it.” By the 1970s suburban development was well underway, and in the 1990s the population of West Greenwich finally surpassed the level reached two hundred years earlier.
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