Industrial Heritage Along the Woonasquatucket

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.

Woonasquatucket Reservoir

The Woonasquatucket River (woon-AHS-kwa-tuk-it) has been at the center of Rhode Island’s uniquely layered history of invention, innovation and multiculturalism. The Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes who first settled the region called the river…

Donigian Park and a Legacy of Pollution

In 2009, a group of volunteers stepped into the Woonasquatucket River at Donigian Park wearing waist-high heavy rubber boots and sturdy gloves to protect against the river’s pollution. Donigian Park in the Olneyville neighborhood of Providence had…

American Locomotive Company / ALCO

Home to RI's economic development agency, Commerce RI, along with several other businesses, the ALCO complex once housed a major innovator in the history of transportation. The Rhode Island Locomotive Works constructed this building in 1865,…

US Rubber Company

The US Rubber Company Mill has a complex history of ownership and use that stretches over 80 years. From its inception as the Joseph Banigan Rubber Company (1896-1910), through its acquisition and expansion as a regional plant of the US Rubber…

Brown and Sharpe

This 25-acre parcel and 12-building campus along the Woonasquatucket River was once home to one of Providence’s premier companies, Brown and Sharpe. In 1833 David Brown and his son opened a shop in Providence for the making and repair of watches…

Nicholson File

The modest sign remaining on Kinsley Avenue does not do justice to this former industrial behemoth. The contribution of machines, and the parts and tools needed to run them, can sometimes be lost on the consumer who purchases the end…

Providence Dyeing, Bleaching, and Calendering

The Woonasquatucket River, with its generous drops and fast moving streams, was lined with textile factories in the early 19th century. Once textiles were made, they required dyeing and bleaching to be transformed into usable fabrics. In turn, a…

Rising Sun Mills

In 1764, Thomas Olney established one of the first mill privileges along the Woonasquatucket River. Through the rise and fall of industries and technologies, we now have the Rising Sun Mills . The complex is named for the paper mill Olney’s son…

American Brewing Company & Providence Brewing Company

In 1892, Providence resident and Irish immigrant James Hanley opened the American Brewing Company. Beer was as big a business then as it is now. Hanley teamed up with Philadelphia architect and brewmaster engineer Adam C. Wagner to build a…
This tour was supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Harbor Foundation.