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Growth of an Industrial City

The Blackstone River below the falls (Statewide Historic Preservation Report)

Early History

The first inhabitants of what is today the city of Woonsocket were eastland woodland Indians - mainly Nipmucs, Wampanoaags and Narragansetts. It was Richard Arnold, Sr., an associate of Roger Williams, who showed the first European interest in the area. He laid claims to land in the late 1660's on which the family built a sawmill powered by the Blackstone River below the Woonsocket Falls in the area now known as Market Square.

Richard Aronld's sister, Elizabeth Comstock, and his sons Richard Jr. and John were the first family members to settle in the area. Elizabeth Comstock and Richard Jr. settled in the Union Village area of what is now North Smithfield. Union Village, a way stop for travelers on the way to Boston, became a commercial center and the hub of the entire area up till the 1820's. John Arnold settled in the Providence Street area of Woonsocket and become a successful farmer and miller. His house still stands on Providence Street.

Unfortunately, little survives of eighteenth century Woonsocket. A basic highway system including Great Road and Mendon Road, millstones, cemeteries and a few houses are all that remain of Woonsocket's preindustrial heritage.

Origins of an Industrial City

Woonsocket at the falls in the late 19th century from a Providence & Worcester Railroad brochure, Summer Excursions, 1882 In the early nineteenth century, the United States became an industrialized nation, and Rhode Island its most industrialized state. Woonsocket's abundant water power made it and ideal place to locate industry in the era before steam turned machinery. It became a city of factories and a great majority of these were textile mills.

The first Woonsocket textile mill was the Social Manufacturing Company formed in 1810 on a site on the Mill River. By 1842 there were twenty mills in Woonsocket, most producing cotton fabric. Eventually, six separate and distinct mill villages developed. Five - Social, Jenckesville, Hamlet, Bernon and Globe - clustered around the mills of one company. The sixth and largest, Woonsocket Falls, contained the mills of several companies huddled together.

The Woonsocket Falls Village occupied most of what is now downtown Woonsocket. Market Square was a dense warren of factories from the 1820's to the middle of the present century. Industrial buildings Mills at the Woonsocket Falls (photo by Joseph McCarthy, 1940) extended along the east side of Main Street as far as City Hall. Below, in the area of the Main Street Bypass, stood more mills.

Water to power the mills around Market Square, on Main Street and below on the bypass was provided by a system of canal like trenches fed from the dam at the falls. Control of the water through the trenches determined how much machinery could be operated and when it could run. These trenches, now neglected, were vital to the economy of Woonsocket and remain a significant feature of its industrial heritage.

Rathbun's Block, Main Street from and ad in the Woonsocket Parriot, 1843 The Woonsocket Falls Village, located on the main road and centrally located to the other villages, became the downtown hub and central business district. Banks, stores, hotels, theaters and churches coexisted with textile mills making Main Street the social and commercial center of the city.

Industrial Expansion

Providence & Worcester Depot (photo, 1900) By the mid-nineteenth century, Woonsocket had grown to become one of the largest textile manufacturing centers in the United States. That growth would continue thanks to improved transportation capabilities in the 1840's. Prior to that time, freight was transported by wagon or the Blackstone Canal. In 1847, the Providence & Worcester Railroad opened for business expanding transportation capacity and making it more reliable. The present railroad route through Woonsocket is unchanged since 1847 and the elaborately finished Providence & Worcester Depot on Main Street was described at the time as the finest local station in New England.

The Harris Block (magazine illustration, c. 1860) Another visible symbol of Woonsocket's coming of age was the Harris Block, now Woonsocket City Hall. Built in 1858 by Edward Harris, the city's leading industrialist, it was considered to be a very large, very expensive and very up to date building. The design for the building combined economic pragmatism with social idealism. Street level stores generated income to maintain the building. The second floor contained a school and later the first free public library in Rhode Island. The third floor contained a vast hall capable of seating 1,000 people. Abraham Lincoln delivered a campaign address in Harris Hall on the night of March 8, 1860.

As a result of the area's economic, social and political growth, the six mill villages began to agitate for political independence from the towns that controlled them - Smithfield and Cumberland. In 1867, the Cumberland villages, including Woonsocket Falls, Social and Jenckesville, officially became the town of Woonsocket. In 1871, the three Smithfield villages, Hamlet, Bernon and Globe, were added to the town establishing Woonsocket's present boundaries. The town of Woonsocket became the city of Woonsocket in 1888. Main Street in 1896 (photo from Art Work of Rhode Island)

The heart of Woonsocket in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the line of commercial buildings lining Main Street. Development of this urban core began in the 1820's and culminated in the 1920's when Woonsocket's street railroad system provided convenient and inexpensive transportation that allowed for the continued growth of the city as a retail and industrial center. Before street cars and trolleys, most city residents lived near the mills or near the city center so they could be within walking distance to their work. The street railroad enable the average worker to live in one section of the city and work or shop in another.

The Boom Ends

Street car in front of the 1874 Social Mill at the turn of the century (Woonsocket Harris Public Library) Transition marked the social, economic and political affairs of Woonsocket in the 1920's. While woolen goods, rubber and machinery firms prospered, the cotton goods industry collapsed. Competition from southern mills, conflicts between labor and management and antiquated facilities all contributed to the collapse of cotton manufacture, a decline repeated throughout New England. Woonsocket's largest producer, the Social Mill, closed in 1927.

The Stadium  Theater in 1927 Despite these problems, the nation as a whole was enjoying a period of unparalleled prosperity and Woonsocket could not help but take part in the seemingly carefree materialism of the day. One of the city's most notable landmarks, the Stadium Theatre, was completed in 1927. The theater was but one element in a complex structure which including a shopping arcade and an office building

In the Great Depression of the 1930's, the Woonsocket's economy collapsed. Only 50% of the city's textile workers were unemployed during the worst of the depression. Several factories, including the Social and Globe Mills were torn down. World War II brought back prosperity as local firms produced thousands of yards of fabric for the war effort. After the the war, Woonsocket, like the rest of New England sank into economic decline. Today, Woonsocket is still the major urban center in northern Rhode Island. While manufacturing continues to be a major part of the local economy, high tech, finance and retail have become equally important.

This page utilizes excerpts taken in whole or in part from:

  • Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
  • Woonsocket, Rhode Island - A Centennial History 1888 - 1988 published by the Woonsocket Centennial Committee in 1988.
For Woonsocket residents, both books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.

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