Main Street (1915)
Credit: Woonsocket Harris Public Library

Industrial Beginnings

As we pick up the story from Part 1, Woonsocket is an area around the Blackstone River in Northern Rhode Island, settled by some enterprising folks interested in using the waterway for manufacturing and farming.   During this time, the settled lands belonged to two neighboring towns: Cumberland and Smithfield.

Several industry-friendly things happened on a national level during the 1790's and early 1800's: machines like the cotton gin came into use, multiplying the efforts of laborers; tariffs increased the price of foreign goods, making U.S. products more competitive at home; the first banks appeared, providing funds to a burgeoning national industry.

When Samuel Slater set up the first mill in Pawtucket, which is right around the corner, Woonsocket was poised to follow suit.  The first textile mill, Social Manufacturing Company, opened in 1810 not far from the Mill River of the Arnold family.  A local man later noted that this first mill was the start of "cotton mania" in the region.

Slater's Mill (Pawtucket, RI)
Credit: Woonsocket Harris Public Library

Those villages we discussed earlier proved to be a key ingredient in Woonsocket's early success.  As mills popped up along the river, these villages provided workers and places for the workers to spend their money.  Settlement expanded as manufacturing jobs increased.

In 1828, the newly built Blackstone Canal linked the port of Providence with Massachusetts, a route that brought commercial traffic through the Woonsocket area.  By 1847 the canal had closed, replaced by the Providence-Worcester railroad line--these arteries of transportation, coupled with the established villages in the Woonsocket area, resulted in explosive growth.

Market Square, the area surrounding around Woonsocket Falls, became the focus of growth and activity.  Large shops, medical and legal professionals, hotels, banks, a post office and a newspaper all set up shop in and around Market Square. 

The modern view of Market Square readily displays the influence of textile mills and mill villages that once dominated the area.

Market Square
Credit: Woonsocket Harris Public Library

Investing Forward

Building toward something bigger

Woonsocket was home to some 6,000 souls by 1850, and the continued industrial growth ensured the area would continue to grow for some time.  Some of this success depended on key figures, captains of industry who also recognized the importance of investing in infrastructure and services as the city grew.

Let us meet Edward Harris, generally regarded as the prime mover in Woonsocket industry.  Mr. Harris arrived on the scene in 1831, dropping $ 3,500 to build a manufacturing powerhouse; by 1850, he had four mills in the Market Square area.  

Edward Harris
Credit: Woonsocket Harris Public Library

A Woonsocket Mogul?

$ 3,500 represents about $ 98,000 in today's terms, but it's even more staggering when you consider that possessing that much money in 1831 is the equivalent to someone having two or three million dollars today.

Mr. Harris built other mills in the Woonsocket area, including Privilege Mill--a facility other industrialists considered to be one of the more impressive mills of its time.  He added dozens of projects to his legacy, including apartment buildings and stores. 

Of personal note, Mr. Harris appeared to have a genuine dislike for slavery, eventually putting his name on an election ballot as part of the Liberty Party, an outspoken abolitionist movement.  Harris's private residence, locally called "Oakley", hosted a visit by Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  

Fortunately, he didn't forget the people that aided his rise to prominence.  Mr. Harris funded a public water system, paid for the paving of local roads, and donated land for schools and cemeteries.  The public library, today called the "Harris Library", owes its existence to land and construction provided by Edward Harris.

Woonsocket Harris Library
Credit: Woonsocket Harris Public Library

The Next Step

Woonsocket grew rapidly; the economic and social impact of the rising population and wealth started the process towards political separation.  Depending on where one lived in the city, they might pay residential taxes to one local government and commercial taxes to another; and if the property intersected more than one border, the unlucky owner might have paid multiple claimants.    

In 1867, this patchwork political map grew more crowded when several villages officially established the Town of Woonsocket, leaving other areas still under the jurisdiction of neighboring communities.  The Woonsocket Patriot, a local newspaper, ran a series of articles about the situation; one piece featured a summary of the awkward political situation:

"The people residing in these villages own property and pay taxes on both sides of the river, work in the same shops and manufacturing establishments, draw their supplies of food and clothing from the same stores, and worship in the same churches as do the residents of the Town of Woonsocket."

With the ongoing discussion in the paper, local figures agitated for a change and, in 1871, the remaining villages joined the Town of Woonsocket, establishing the present city limits.  The town grew to 16,000 residents by 1880 and local officials struggled to keep pace.  It became obvious the town needed to reorganize into a larger system.

The General Assembly of Rhode Island approved an "Act to Establish the City of Woonsocket" on June 13th, 1888.  A few months later, city inhabitants officially adopted the city charter, sealing the creation of Woonsocket as Rhode Island's fourth city.

The Official Seal of Woonsocket

Official Seal of Woonsocket
Credit: City of Woonsocket (Website)

Next Up: The Story of Woonsocket, Part 3

Politics abound in the new city.  We'll take a look at some of the first elections, officials, and the process of getting the city rolling along.