From Gristmill to Melting Pot: Christopher Olney & Olneyville

The history of Olneyville, one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Providence, and an area that recently has seen sometimes controversial gentrification, begins in the late 18th century with Christopher Olney.

Encased deep within the historical foundations of Providence is the neighborhood of Olneyville. Originally established as Olneyville Square in the 18th century, the area prospered as a market for both European settlers and nearby Narragansett Indians.

Christopher Olney owned the 95 acres of farmland that now exists as the approximately half square-mile section of Providence called Olneyville. A Revolutionary War captain, Christopher Olney began as a major in the Providence County militia and rose to the rank of colonel prior to the start of the war. He secured the longevity of Olneyville Square through the establishment of Christopher Olney & Company, which operated two paper mills and a gristmill along the Woonasquatucket River. Picking up momentum, the neighborhood continued to expand rapidly during and after the Revolutionary War, and before long, Olneyville was viable. Olney’s large foundries allowed for production in metallurgy and other industries that carried the local economy well into the Industrial Revolution.

In the 19th century, Olneyville’s central railway junction and abundance of millwork attracted aspiring Americans from all over the globe, sewing the multicultural roots that would develop into the pluralistic identity that Providence embodies.

Today, Olneyville continues to stand as a dynamic and vibrant community, known for its rich and diverse heritage, and its pride as a cultural center for artistic expression in the Providence area. Consequently, this influx of young, creative and wealthier residents has given rise to a new issue: gentrification. Its two-faced impact on the local area has been met with both warmth and contempt. On the one hand, the new residents bring economic capital, which aids in local development. On the other hand, the increased economic and cultural activity has driven up the cost of living substantially, forcing longtime residents to find less expensive housing elsewhere.

Situated within the neighborhood is the WaterFire Arts Center on Valley Street. Repurposed from a former 1920s US Rubber factory, the multipurpose facility now serves as a space where artists can seek to express their creativity and interact with the community at large. Among their best-known productions is WaterFire Providence, which features a riverboat lighting, live music, food, and entertainment for the whole family.

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5 Branch Avenue, Providence, RI 02904 ~ Access the grave via North Burial Ground's south gate/main entrance at North Main Street and Branch Avenue during normal business hours, or by the pedestrian gate on North Main Street and Rochambeau Avenue.