Providence's population grew at an extraordinary rate throughout the 19th Century, from about 50,000 in 1850 to 175,000 in 1900, driven by the region's ever-expanding industrial complex. Providence was at the heart of New England's industrial boom--that boom was started and maintained by the production of cotton and woolen cloth.
No titans sat higher on the apex of industry than Benjamin Brayton Knight and his brother Robert. Irish, Italian, and other immigrants of the 19th Century provided the labor that created the spectacular wealth of these two men. Here on this corner bordering the interstate is where B.B. Knight built his showplace around 1861: a mansion in the French style with a high mansard roof, expansive gardens, and a brick carriage house with greenhouses behind it. The service buildings sat on a narrow alleyway called Angle Street, which was also a center of African-American community in this neighborhood. Just a few yards down Broad was Hoyle Street, one of the most impoverished enclaves of Irish immigrants in the city. These strong contrasts reflected the reality of urban life in 19th Century Providence: wealthy, working class, and poor, living shoulder to shoulder.
Benjamin Knight and his brother Robert grew up on a farm in Cranston; both went into business at a young age. Benjamin in dry goods, while Robert began working in the mills he would later own. Well-connected, the brothers were able to leverage capital and opportunity to expand their business interests. Their partnership B.B. & R. Knight was formed in 1849 with the purchase of the Pontiac Mill. During the Panic of 1873, a catastrophic economic crisis on a scale of the Great Depression, the once-wealthy Sprague family lost their textile mill empire to bankruptcy, and the Knight brothers scooped up more properties, becoming one of the largest mill combines in the world.
At the time of Benjamin's death in 1898, the firm owned 21 cotton mills in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, housing a total of 11,000 looms, 400,000 spindles, and employing close to 7,000 people. They also owned fifteen mill villages where housing and goods for sale were owned and managed by the company. Many of these mills employed the new arrivals to this country, and in Knight's own mansion, young Irish women worked as servants as they struggled to gain their footing in a new and confusing world.
After the turn of the century, New England mills entered a period of decline, and after Robert and Benjamin's deaths, the business was broken up. But, their signature brand "Fruit of the Loom" still exists. Knight's extravagant mansion, a monument to the wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a single person, was demolished in 1915 to make way for a car dealership, which too met the wrecking ball when the neighborhood was bulldozed for the interstate in the late 1950s.