A plantation grant Richard Arnold received from the Providence Committee in the 1660s led to the European settling of the area around the serpentine Blackstone River. Unfortunately the grant didn’t come with its own police force and in the early days there were constant spats around the Massachusetts border that included kidnapping and the use of armed forces. The land would not be peaceably settled into well into the 1700s.
Beyond that, there was little reason to take notice of the farming community that took the name Woonsocket Falls, a moniker of unknown derivation but is most accepted as a translation from the Indian tongue of “thunder mist” in describing the spray from the river’s dominant falls.
That all changed in 1829 with the opening of the Worcester-Providence Canal. Suddenly the water power of the Blackstone River shifted from producing local meal and lumber to producing products - mostly textiles - for far-flung markets. By 1850 the area was teeming with factories and welcoming an influx of new workers, first from Ireland and then from French Canada. In 1888, the neighboring factory communities of Woonsocket Falls, Globe, Social, Bernon, Hamlet and Jenksville banded together to form the City of Woonsocket.
Our walking tour will visit four historic squares on both sides of the Blackstone River and we’ll start at the namesake falls where some mills remain and some have been cleared to form a visitor-friendly parking lot...
Main Street and River Street
The Blackstone River twists and turns through Woonsocket and the largest natural drop in the entire riverway occurs right here. Richard Arnold arrived in the 1660s and constructed a grist mill that operated on the natural power of Thundermist Falls. By the mid-1800s the river powered dozens of textile mills that lined up along Market Square and Main Street. Woonsocket’s Thundermist Falls are now flanked with flood control devices after a 1955 flood sent 20 feet of water through the streets of town and destroyed a major portion ofWoonsocket and all but three of its bridges. Today, a small hydroelectric plant here generates more than seven million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, powering the city’s water and sewage treatment plants. The Market Square Pavilion stands on the site of the former George C. Ballou Mill that was torn down in the 1960s. After his original textile mill was destroyed by fire, Ballou constructed a massive stone mill that employed more than 200 workers with over 16,000 spindles humming. The Ballou Mill is the one that appears on the seal of the City of Woonsocket.
WALK OUT OF MARKET SQUARE ON THE WEST SIDE, TOWARDS THE RIVER.
74 Main Street
This gray stone mill was built in the 1830s by the Woonsocket Rubber Company to process rubber for boots and machine rollers. Later it was occupied by the Falls Yarn Mill that produced wool and merino yarns until 1984. It has been restored as a restaurant and entertainment complex.
TURN LEFT TO WALK UP MAIN STREET (THE RIVER IS ON YOUR RIGHT).
Museum of Work and Culture
42 South Main Street
The Rhode Island Historical Society uses a former brick textile mill to tell the story of the French Canadian immigrant experience as Woonsocket transitioned from a sleepy agricultural community into one of America’s busiest industrial hubs. The museum re-creates the sights and sounds of a working mill, a 1920s classroom, a church, and a union hall.
Honora Lippitt Mill Complex
1-15 Main Street
The three-and-one half story, Second-Empire influenced mill office capped with a mansard roof was built in 1865 by the Lippitt Woolen Company. John Lippitt came with Roger Williams in 1636 to found the Rhode Island colony and the family produced a long line of merchants, manufacturers and sea captains. When Henry Lippitt was president of the company, at the time this brick building handsomely trimmed in granite was built, its annual profits exceeded $4 million a year - when a good worker’s wage was about a dollar a day. In 1874 he became governor of the state, an office to which one of his sons and great-grandsons would hold as well. The expansive stone building attached to the Lippitt Mill office is the mill of Dexter Ballou, whose family dominated the early spinning trade in Woonsockett. Dexter bought out his brother Hosea in 1828 and then watched two successive mills burn to the ground. This mill in, designed in the Greek Revival style with a wooden stair tower, was constructed in 1836. In 1982, the mill was converted into residential space; the trench over which the entrance is accessed is the remnant of one dug in 1827 to channel water from the river to the mills.
32-34 Main Street
French-Canadians from the province of Quebec were first recruited to work in the mills of the Blackstone Valley in the 1840s. It is estimated that a third of Quebec’s population relocated to New England mill towns. By 1900, 60% of Woonsocket’s population was French-Canadian; there was a French language newspaper published until World War II and a French-language radio station broadcast until the 1960s. A century later in the 2000 census 46.1% of the population was still identified as being of French or French-Canadian ethnic heritage. Woonsocket likes to refer to itself as “La ville la plus française aux États-Unis” – the most French city in the United States. This four-story brick building is typical of the Italianate-style commercial blocks that were built in the “French Quarter” in the mid-1800s. Built in 1868 the Farrington Block features decorated corner quoins, an ornate cornice and rounded cast iron window hoods.
The Buell Building
75 Main Street
The Woonsocket Patriot was the first newspaper to appear in town, in 1833. The Patriot was the sole dispenser of news in Woonsocket until 1873 when the Evening Reporter came along; the two papers merged in 1881. After a decade of enduring the Republican politics of the Reporter a group of town Democrats founded the Evening Call. Within three years it was successful enough to acquire its older rival. The paper moved into the Rescue Building on this site in 1914 and after it was destroyed by fire this building was constructed in 1922, named for one of the Call’s original owners.
Woonsocket Institute for Savings
136-148 Main Street
The Woonsocket Institution for Savings was incorporated in 1849 as the first savings bank in town. It moved into this Neoclassical vault constructed of Indiana limestone in 1926. In the 1960s when the bank expanded into the empty Woolworth’s next door the facade was carefully recreated to match this building.
169 Main Street
The oldest section of this building was constructed by Edward Harris in 1856 and was known as the Harris Block. Built in the Italiante style, it was Woonsocket’s first major commercial building and the first public library in Rhode Island. Abraham Lincoln spoke in the building’s Harris Hall in 1860. In 1889, a rugged, granite clad addition in the Richardson Romanesque style was added. The building became Woonsocket’s City Hall in 1902.
Rhode Island Hospital Trust Building
162 Main Street
This six-story Neoclassical low-rise bank headquarters was Woonsocket’s tallest building for many years after it was built in 1930. It is a scaled down version of the Hospital Trust Building in downtown Providence, where the Rhode Island School of Design is now located.
Main Street and Court Street
The Providence & Woonsocket Railroad arrived in town in 1846, a year later a depot was built and the surrounding square evolved into the commercial heart of the town. After the original station went up in flames it was replaced in 1882 with an elaborate Victorian brick depot that was considered the finest on the P&W line. At its peak the railroad ran 26 trains a day through here. It was followed on the square by the Longley Building in 1890, distinguished by its ring of bay windows and the two-story Globe Building that wraps around Globe Street and displays finely patterned wood trim in 1900. All joined the flatiron-styled Hope Building at 237-245 Main Street that was constructed in 1876.
BEAR LEFT AS MAIN STREET TURNS AT THE END OF DEPOT SQUARE.
295 Main Street
The post office moved out of City Hall into this new Beaux Arts building in 1910. After 65 years the postal service moved on and it became a part of the YMCA.
329 Main Street
When the Stadium Theatre was built in 1926 it was acclaimed as one of the finest theaters in New England, constructed under the supervision of R. E. Hall, chief consultant, architect and engineer in the construction of the Paramount Theatre in New York. The Stadium ceased operation in the 1970s but with strong grassroots and business support it was revived in the 1990s, restored to its former glory. Once one of six theaters that operated in Woonsocket, it is the only one that remains.
Civil War Monument
This was the first monument erected in the state to Rhode Island’s Civil War dead, erected in 1870. The granite memorial topped with a soldier at rest is inscribed with the names of the battles in which Woonsocket men fought - 39 were killed during the War Between the States
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO DEPOT SQUARE. TURN LEFT ON COURT STREET AND WALK ACROSS THE BLACKSTONE RIVER.
Veteran’s Memorial Bridge
Court Street across Blackstone River
The first bridge to ford the Blackstone River at this point was erected in 1868. It was a wobbly wooden affair that became wholly inadequate with the increase of traffic from the railroad. When the new Court Street Bridge was dedicate in 1895, more than 15,000 people turned out for the ceremonies. Its centerpiece was an impressive arch that spelled out “City of Woonsocket.” That bridge lasted for 104 years until a $10 million replacement was built in 2000.
Woonsocket District Court
The courthouse, with its prominent tower, has been a Woonsocket landmark since its construction in 1896. It was designed in the Romanesque style by William Walker & R.W. Howard, who contributed many monumental civic buildings to the Rhode Island streetscape.
TURN RIGHT ON FRONT STREET.
Woonsocket Mill Company Complex
waterside along Front Street
Front Street runs through the heart of Bernon Village, one of six villages that comprise Woonsocket. The first mill was constructed in 1827 and is the oldest surviving example of heavy-timbered and rubblestone construction that represented a vast improvement in fire protection. Two other mills from the four-mill complex, regarded as one of Rhode Island’s finest industrial buildings, stand today and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
TURN RIGHT ON BERNON STREET AND FOLLOW IT THROUGH THE REMNANTS OF INDUSTRIAL WOONSOCKET BACK TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT IN MARKET SQUARE.