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A Brief Assessment Of The Historical Significance of the Woonasquatucket River Valley

by Richard E. Greenwood

The historical significance of the Woonasquatucket River cannot be accurately gauged by reference to its length or its flow. While it is not a big river, even by Rhode Island standards, it played a powerful role in Rhode Island's progression from pioneer to national leader in the American Industrial Revolution.

At the turn of the 19th century, there was little to suggest that the Woonasquatucket River valley was on the brink of a revolutionary transformation. The river flowed through a rural landscape of forest and farmland from its headwaters all the way to the Great Salt Cove in Providence. The only indication of the changes to come was a scattering of small mills, where waterwheels turned by the river's flow ground grain, sawed timber and powered other small industries for the local farm community.

This is a 19th century photograph of the National and Providence Worsted Mills, on Valley Street, in Providence. The Woonasquatucket River is in the foreground, with the Rising Sun Dam on the right. The edge of what is now Donigian Park is on the left edge of the picture. Photograph courtesy of the Rhode Island Collection, Providence Public Library.

These waterpower sites acquired a new significance after 1790, when Samuel Slater established the country's first successful textile factory on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket. Local entrepreneurs inspired by Slater's achievement were drawn to the Woonasquatucket, which had a narrow width and a swift descent that made it well suited for building the dams and water wheels to power the new factories. Daniel Lyman built the valley's first textile mill in 1809; and, in an astounding burst of activity, aspiring manufacturers built five more cotton mills in 1812-1813. New mills continued to be built in the following decades until nearly every foot of the river's drop was being used to turn a factory water wheel.

To keep their mill wheels turning, the manufacturers formed a company to build reservoirs upstream to store water for use during the dry months of summer, an experiment that was so successful that it was replicated on industrial rivers throughout the world. This innovation in water management was accompanied by many more technological advances made in Woonasquatucket textile mills, including the first power loom in Rhode Island (1817), and the factory mutual system of insurance, originated by Zachariah Allen at his Allendale mill (a fact reflected in the name of the present Allendale Insurance Company).

The Rhode Island Locomotive Works, on Hemlock Street, in Providence, founded in 1866, built 3400 steam engines before closing in 1907. They merged with seven other companies in 1901 to form American Locomotive Works, one of the countries three major builders of steam locomotives.

While waterpower began the industrial boom on the Woonasquatucket, it was steam power that fostered the densest concentration of industry in the valley, the stretch of river from the Providence Cove to Olneyville. By the end of the century, the river in Providence was lined by industrial giants such as: Brown and Sharpe, the country's largest manufacturers of machine tools; Nicholson File, the country's largest manufacturers of files; and nationally renowned manufacturers of woolens and worsted cloth, including the Atlantic DeLaine Mills, the Riverside Mills and the National and Providence Worsted Mills. Other mills produced a wide range of goods sold around the world, including printed cloth, looms and textile machinery, rubber goods, jewelry, steam engines and locomotives.

Although its prominence ebbed in the changing economic tides of the 20th century, the Woonasquatucket River valley retains the distinguishing features of its industrial heyday to a remarkable degree, from the placid ponds and early mill villages upstream, to the red brick complexes with towering chimneys that line its lower banks.

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