Engineering a City
Part 2 of our tale described the industrial and residential growth of small villages along the Blackstone River in Northern Rhode Island. Woonsocket officially became the state's fourth city in 1888, adopting the city charter during a town meeting. However, not everyone in the infant city agreed with the resolution and the charter passed by a margin of 861 to 765. At the time, some 20,000 residents lived within the borders of Woonsocket.
The first annual election took place on December 3rd of 1888. Republican George Grant, Democrat Daniel Pond, and Prohibitionist Edwin Salley were on the ballot. A sizeable majority of Woonsocket's population turned out at The Woonsocket Patriot on that Monday night, eager to hear results from the city's first election. The crowd effectively blocked Main Street. The newspaper described it as a "close contest", the Republican victor claiming only a five-vote majority.
According to the new charter, Woonsocket operated with five political divisions or districts; each district elected an alderman and three councilmen. With few exceptions, most of these officials (also elected that night) were Republicans, as well.
Alderman is a term from Anglo-Saxon (old English) describing a person of elder age or high rank appointed to govern a small area in the name of a king. As guilds and unions became more prominent, aldermen fulfilled the role of a chief officer within these organizations.
Several hundred voters stayed away from the polls due to the practice of using an "open ballet". Each voter had to display their ballot to election wardens before depositing them in the ballot box, revealing their party affiliation and favored candidates. The Patriot published an article on December 7th, 1888, urging state officials to institute "secret balloting" for all Rhode Island elections.
The First Mayor
George H. Grant was born and raised in Woonsocket. At the time of election, he was fifty-two years of age. Mr. Grant received his diploma at Woonsocket High School and spent several years as an apprentice in the machine shops of Edward Harris.
When the Civil War struck America, George Grant joined the military as a lieutenant, serving in a Rhode Island regiment. Later, when promoted to captain, Mr. Grant returned to Rhode Island and helped to organize another regiment to serve in the war. He participated in the first Battle of Bull Run.
On January 7th, 1889, Mr. Grant and the new city government met in Depot Square, Main Street, for inauguration. After a fervent opening prayer by a local pastor, George Grant was sworn in as the first mayor of Woonsocket. In turn, Mayor Grant administered the oath to elected aldermen and councilmen.
His opening remarks recalled Woonsocket's rapid growth from village to city in a short period of time, reminding the newly elected council of their responsibility not only to present city constituents, but also to future generations. Mayor Grant demonstrated a humble posture by thanking the people of Woonsocket for placing their trust in him.
By 1889, Woonsocket had developed and maintained several efficient systems and personnel: local police and fire were considered effective and well-trained; schools and school property were adequately funded and maintained; water and transportation systems operated without problems; and the city debt (around $ 600,000 at the time) was one of the lowest amounts of any city in America.
Mayor Grant determined to implement a well-planned, well-maintained, and sensible system of roads throughout the city. He sought to avoid a patchwork of paved, unpaved, and roads in disrepair, preferring to consider the needs of the entire city's transportation network.
More than half of Woonsocket's 4,400 children attended public school regularly (a significant proportion at this time in history). One high school and a dozen elementary schools operated within the city, employing nearly one hundred teachers and assistants.
Police and Fire personnel numbered around seventy-five persons, not including those working at the newly instituted Woonsocket Hospital. Mayor Grant recommended implementing an ambulance service as part of the Police, Fire, and hospital services.
Many of Woonsocket's streets glowed with electric lamps: some seventy-five units were in operation throughout the city. Mayor Grant expressed concern regarding the uneven distribution of lighting and the lack of oversight or regulation on wiring and electrical systems installed in the city--some of which snaked across streets, along the sides of buildings, or up and over rooftops.
In prophetic fashion, Woonsocket's first mayor indicated concern about the lack of industrial diversification. Textile manufacturing represented the backbone of Woonsocket's wealth and employment opportunity. He hoped the future of Woonsocket included varied enterprises and occupations to offer residents a chance to learn diverse skills. Mayor Grant advocated for tax breaks and exemptions on new or emerging industries.
By 1889, Woonsocket was considered the commercial hub of Northern Rhode Island, sporting a wide range of businesses such as apothecaries, dry good stores, book stores, clothing stores, grocery stores, hardware dealers, and many more small operations scattered through the growing city.
A point of pride for Woonsocket residents was their Opera House. Opened during the fall of 1889, the building cost $ 80,000 to construct (approximately two million dollars today). The Woonsocket Opera House was a great achievement for the city and a cultural boon for surrounding communities. The architectural style was described as "Romanesque" and provided space for hotel rooms and stores.
A booming industry, efficient government, a new hospital, fresh capital and factories, and increasing recognition contributed to a growing ambition among Woonsocket's governing body. By 1889, most residents of Woonsocket and surrounding communities described the city as "booming".
The Patriot reported that Daniel Pond, the defeated Democrat candidate for mayor, had spearheaded a petition to make Woonsocket the "capital of Northern Rhode Island". Mr. Pond's petition called for several northern communities to fall under the Woonsocket County. Although it never happened, the city discussed preliminary plans for implementing Mr. Pond's petition.
Other plans were developing quickly, such as construction of several bridges to span the Blackstone River and its many tributaries. Infrastructure upgrades abounded and the flush of growth, capital, and recognition drove the council to invest in varied, expansive projects.
Changing of the Guard
Woonsocket's second election approached and The Patriot warned ambitious politicians that "it matters little whether a candidate be Republican or Democrat, so long as he has qualifications and character that better fit him for public service".
Mayor Grant, the incumbent, ran against Daniel Pond--a rematch of the initial election. Mr. Pond's fervent support for the city, and avocation for making Woonsocket "capital of Northern Rhode Island", led him to a sizeable majority of 450 votes. Along with the mayor, Democratic aldermen and councilmen were elected.
Daniel Pond was also a Woonsocket native, born in 1830, son of a local businessman, and a graduate of law school. Mr. Pond had been active politically long before the election, both on a local and state level; the original city charter was largely written by him. He was re-elected three more times, successfully defeating younger Republican contenders.
In his inauguration address, Mayor Pond made several interesting remarks. He noted that electoral victory was merely "new actors upon the boards for the time being" and observed the transient nature of politics in his statement "individuals will come and go, but the city's life will continue to flow on". When addressing the city council, Mayor Pond advised them to "act well your part, there all honor lies".
Join me for Part 4 of "The Story of Woonsocket" as we explore why Mayor Pond presided over a dynamic decade in the city's history.