The “Pawtuxet,” named by the Native Americans as “the river of many falls,” had numerous cataracts due to the underlying hard crystalline rock of the area producing an average fall of 4.7 feet per mile and it never ran dry! It had everything needed for cotton production. By 1840 textile manufacturers occupied the 17 most suitable waterpower sites along the Pawtuxet River.
The river’s watershed covers 232 sq mi in central Rhode Island. The river has 588 miles of tributaries which flow east to eventually enter Narragansett Bay at Pawtuxet Village on the Cranston/Warwick line. Starting at elevations of 500 to 600 feet in the west and 800 feet in the northwest the river flows as two major branches, the North and South branch which join at “Riverpoint” in West Warwick at about 300 feet above sea level. There they contain enough flow to power large textile mills. The river descends about 250 feet within five miles through Coventry, West Warwick and Warwick. Over 15 very large cotton mills were built on this stretch in the 1800s. Most of the buildings are still present.
From the beginning of occupation many small dams were built to provide water power for grist and sawmills. Virtually all of these dams still exist although the small mills are all gone. The map in the Watershed image shows the 167 dams as black squares on the rivers. The red dots are the mill sites on this tour.
The Mill Tour Route Image shows the shortest route to drive the 12.4 miles of the tour starting at the Pontiac Mill in Warwick. Of course you can drive it in reverse or do any portion of it as desired. More detailed images of the lower river and branches show the relatively large drops in elevation along the way which provided the vast water power needed to run the thousands of textile machines in the large mills.