Roughly translated from the Narragansett dialect as “the place by the waterfall,” Pawtucket is one of two Rhode Island cities - Woonsocket is the other - to retain its native place name since its settlement -. It is an appropriate honorific as those falls have played the critical part in the city’s growth since that beginning.
Thick stands of timber and rocky hills prevented the Rhode Islanders who followed Roger Williams from spreading out to the north after the 1630s. It was not until 1671 that Joseph Jencks, Jr., a blacksmith, became the first European to move into what would become Pawtucket. He eyed the falls where the Blackstone River narrows before reaching the tidal flow of Narragansett Bay as a source of power for his forge. He crafted plows, scythes and other iron household items and was successful enough that other smiths soon set up shop along the Blackstone.
Pawtucket became a manufacturing center and a favorite stopping place for travelers on the Boston Post Road through the colonies. During the American Revolution the forges churned out ammunition and muskets for the patriot cause. In 1789 Moses Brown, of the influential Providence Brown family, became interested in the machine manufacture of thread and he chose the falls in Pawtucket as the site for his first mill. A power spinning-frame had been invented in England some years before enabling fine English cloth to gain a stranglehold on the world market. Power spinning had been attempted unsuccessfully in New York and the English, desperate to keep the technology looked on its island, passed laws rendering the divulgence of its secret almost on a par with treason.
However, a young farmer newly arrived in America named Samuel Slater had been a master mechanic in Nottingham and just happened to have full knowledge of the spinning frame committed to memory. He contacted Brown and together they commenced the Industrial Revolution in America with the first successful spinning mill just downstream from Pawtucket Falls.
With its fortunes cast as an industrial town Pawtucket now grew rapidly. New streets were built and rapidly filled in with houses, factories and shops. But the jurisdiction under which the town grew was always a bit murky. The Blackstone River was the Rhode Island-Massachusetts boundary line until 1862 and the community grew up as two different units on either side of the river. The west side began as part of Providence and the east side as part of Rehoboth, Massachusetts. Pawtucket, Massachusetts was established in 1828 while on the Rhode Island side the community was part of New Providence that had broken off in 1765. For many years this was the largest community in the United States operating under town government. It was not until 1886 that Pawtucket filed its city charter and not until 1899 that the border dispute with Massachusetts was finally settled and included cession of the Pawtucket area to Rhode Island.
Our walking tour of downtown Pawtucket will take in both sides of the historic Blackstone River and see what remains of this important American industrial city. We’ll start down by the river where there is an unusual city hall and those mills that Samuel Slater carried around in his head...
Pawtucket City Hall
137 Roosevelt Avenue
New Deal funding in the 1930s made possible this mammoth civic building. John O’Malley designed the new city hall in the Art Deco style - unusual for New England - with a soaring central tower that displays the clean lines emblematic of the Art Deco movement. The tower is marked by four splendid concrete eagles. City Hall, now on the National Register of Historic Places, has been restored twice. in the first go-round back in 1974 somehow it was deemed a good idea to cover the 143-foot tower in unsightly yellow brick and strip away the eagles. The most recent restoration put the soaring eagles back in flight and won a preservation award.
FACING CITY HALL, TURN RIGHT (THE RIVER WILL BE ON YOUR LEFT).
Slater Mill Historic Site
67 Roosevelt Avenue
In 1793 Samuel Slater returned from England with the plans for a mechanized cotton mill stored in his head. A 43-foot by 29-foot two-story wooden building suitable for manufacturing cotton yarn by water power was constructed on this site. Slater Mill was soon the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory in America. Industrial America was born. Three buildings remain on the site, which is interpreted as a national historic landmark. Hand-spinning and weaving are demonstrated in the 1758 Sylvanus Brown House. In the original 1793 Slater Mill the transition from hand weaving to mechanical production is interpreted. The architectural style, management procedures and workforce in the yellow clapboard mill were emulated throughout New England. The stone 1810 Wilkinson Mill is powered by a rebuilt eight-ton water wheel, the only one of its kind in America. Also on the 5 1/2 acres are trenches to facilitate water power, a dam anchored in natural rock and bleaching fields where the sun gradually whitened fabric and yarns.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET.
Providence County Savings Bank
216 Main Street
The Providence County Savings Bank organized in 1853; the Beaux Art marble facade dates back to 1901. Hallmarks of the style include the engaged Ionic columns, fan windows and fish-scale glazing. Its assets were absorbed in 1922 by the Hospital Trust Company who stayed at this location until the 1970s.
230 Main Street
James L. Wheaton constructed this brick-and-iron building in 1892 with a distinctive curving facade. William K. Toole bought the property in 1922 and had local architects Monahan & Meikle more or less seamlessly add two more stories to the original three under the ornate cornice.
TURN RIGHT ON MAPLE STREET.
Pawtucket Mutual Insurance Company
25 Maple Street
The Pawtucket Mutual Insurance Company was chartered by the state in 1848 and moved into this headquarters in 1906. The brick building demonstrates several flourishes common to the Beaux Arts movement afire in the country at the time while retaining the overall dignity of an insurance company. Look for the exuberant brick lintels above the first floor windows, limestone decorations that create columns from the brick and urn-like finials on the roof.
AT SUMMER STREET TURN RIGHT AND WALK DOWN THE SHORT HILL TO HIGH STREET.
Old Post Office
1 Summer Street at High Street
This oddly-shaped lot was selected for the new Pawtucket post office in 1896. At the time not many cities yet had their own post office buildings. William Martin Arkin, supervisory architect for the Treasury Department, gave the green light for an early Beaux Arts treatment for the building, most evident in the bulbous copper dome that tops the rounded corner entrance. Seemingly every inch of the building received some decoration - arched windows with keystones, Doric columns, a balustrade at the roofline and a pair of watchful eagles at the entrance. The exuberant building did duty as a post office until the 1940s and was turned over to the City. In the 1980s, after a renovation, it became part of the Pawtucket Public Library.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP SUMMER STREET.
Deborah Cook Sayles Public Library
13 Summer Street
In 1898, Pawtucket’s first Mayor, Frederic Clark Sayles donated this land for the construction of a free public library and then traveled to Europe seeking architectural inspiration from Europe’s most majestic libraries. On October 15, 1902 the library was formally dedicated in memory of his late wife, Deborah Cook Sayles. Sayles’ research led to an expression of Greek Revival architecture by designers Carm, Goodhue and Ferguson, built of the finest-grained white granite quarried at North Jay, Maine. Four massive Ionic columns form a portico at the former entrance. Six marble panels by sculptor Lee Laurie of New York depict scenes from Roman, Grecian, Egyptian, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, and Teutonic civilizations. The Library is not only distinctive in its architecture, but also in its service. It was one of the first libraries in the country to allow users open access to the library book stacks and one of the first to be open on Sundays, accommodating the many Pawtucket mill workers who worked six days a week.
Pawtucket Family YMCA
corner of Summer Street and Maple Street
The Young Men’s Christian Association was founded in London, England, on June 6, 1844, in response to unhealthy social conditions arising in the big cities at the end of the Industrial Revolution. The Pawtucket/Central Falls Young Men’s Christian Association was organized in 1889. After leasing space around town for many years they moved into their own Colonial-Revival styled brick building. Modeled and constructed to become the best possible substitute for a young man’s home, the new facility housed dormitories, a reading room, parlor, game room, swimming pool, gymnasium and a bowling alley.
Feldman’s Furniture (Summer Street Stables)
21-23 Summer Street at corner of North Union Street
Harold F. Arnold commissioned the building of this massive brick structure to house 176 horses with space for carriages, a hay loft, a blacksmith shop and comfortable waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen in 1891. It took 650,000 bricks to complete the livery a year later. The state-of-the-art transportation center sported water-powered elevators, electric arc lights and running water at wash basins indoors and a drinking fountain outdoors. The days of the horse-drawn carriage, of course, were almost at an end, but is remembered through the terra cotta plaque on the North Union Street side that quotes the biblical verse Joel I:18: “How Do The Beasts Groan!”
TURN RIGHT ON EXCHANGE STREET.
The Pawtucket Times
23 Exchange Street
George O. Willard founded the paper as the non-partisan The Evening Times in 1885. Five years later, David O. Black bought the paper, and became the first of four generations to keep it in his family. The presses were moved into this Romanesque headquarters in 1895. The building, which resides on the National Register of Historic Places, has been up for sale in recent years.
Pawtucket Elks Lodge
27 Exchange Street
This 1926 fraternal lodge is a riot of Spanish Revival affectations from the red tile roof down to its rusticated stone base. Look for the requisite elk’s head, a colonnade of arched windows with engaged Corinthian columns, medallions displaying the Elks’ virtues, and balconets with delicate iron railings supported by stout scroll brackets - just for starters.
CONTINUE ON EXCHANGE STREET DOWN THE HILL AND ACROSS THE BLACKSTONE RIVER.
Geo H. Fuller & Son Co.
151 Exchange Street
George H. Fuller was born in South Attleboro in 1832, and when about 15 years of age he learned the trade of a jeweler. Being of an ingenious turn of mind and gifted with business foresight, he originated what was practically a new industry by the invention of machinery for the manufacture of jewelry supplies. He began in 1858 at South Attleboro, but in 1860 removed to Pawtucket. More than 150 years later the name Fuller is still synonymous with jewelry findings.
Tolman High School
150 Exchange Street
The handsome Neo-colonial four-story school building of red brick and limestone trim was built in 1926 at the cost of $1,500,000. Hometown architects Monahan and Meikle gave the building two large end pavilions with Corinthian pilasters, pediments and ornamental balustrades. The central section is highlighted by a graceful tower approached through a Corinthian portico. The gymnasium is still original, the oldest in the state. The high school has starred on the silver screen, appearing in scenes of the movie “Moonstruck” and the pool was featured in “Mermaids.”
Pawtucket Armory Center for the Arts
172 Exchange Street
Construction on the Pawtucket Armory began in 1894 as the one of the first large-scale armories in Rhode Island. The fortress of red brick on a common stone base was designed by the Providence firm of William R. Walker & Son. William Russell Walker served as a lieutenant colonel in the Pawtucket Light Guard with the Union Army in the Civil War; and eventually reached the rank of major general in the state militia. He began practicing architecture in the 1860s from his base in Pawtucket and eventually drew up plans for civic buildings across the state. After a century of military use the National Guard moved out in the 1990s and the building, added to the National Historic Register in 1983, has since been converted into a center for the arts.
TURN RIGHT ON BROADWAY.
Metcalf Mansion Carriage House
This eye-catching little building is one of the few Victorian-era carriage houses remaining in Pawtucket from the late 1800s, although it has long ceased to serve its original purpose.
Free Will Baptist Church
John Colby organized the first Free Will Baptist Church in the state in Burrillville in 1812. This former meetinghouse was constructed in 1884 in the eclectic Queen Anne style with decorative fish-scale shingles, fine spindlework and an asymmetrical massing.
Pawtucket Congregational Church
Broadway and Walcott Street
The Pawtucket Congregational Society was organized on April 17, 1829 with a membership of eight woman and one man. A small church was erected on this site but burned to the ground in 1864. The congregation had grown enough by that time to warrant the construction of this substantial Romanesque church with a gable roof and three-stage spire.
TURN RIGHT ON MAIN STREET AT THE BOTTOM OF THE HILL AND RE-CROSS THE BLACKSTONE RIVER.
Main Street Bridge
This two-span stone arch bridge was built over the historic Pawtucket Falls in 1858 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. As you cross you can still see the rusted souvenirs of the industrial age at its foot.
TURN RIGHT ON ROOSEVELT AVENUE TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.