Why have an industrial tour of a river? The Woonasquatucket didn’t always look this way, hemmed in by brick buildings, cement sidewalks and asphalt streets on both sides. To see the past, look at the greenery along the water’s edge. There you can still see hints of what first drew people here.
Native Americans found abundant food in and along the Woonasquatucket as it wound its way from its headwaters in the woods of North Smithfield to the salty waters of Narragansett Bay at the eastern end of Providence.
Roger Williams recognized that the conjoining of rivers near the bay, known as “the Cove,” would be a promising site for the growth of his “lively experiment.”
Subsequent waves of newcomers in search of work and wealth shared his assessment. Early Rhode Islanders who farmed the land near the river in the 18th century gave way to 19th century industrialists who built textile mills along the river’s banks, industries that in turn drew immigrants to Providence with the promise of work. Ethnic working-class communities sprung up along the river, forming the neighborhoods of Federal Hill, Olneyville and the West End.
With the shift from water, to steam, to electrical power, industry in Rhode Island scaled up. By the turn of the 20th century, behemoth industrial giants like Brown and Sharpe and American Locomotive Works lined the river. Providence became one of the wealthiest cities in the country, and Rhode Island, the most industrialized state in the nation.