|Fletcher, Charles, 1839-1907|
Charles Fletcher, like Samuel Slater before him, amassed years of experience in the English textile industry as an operative before immigrating to Rhode Island in the late 1860s. Once here, he soon built a regional empire for the production of woolen cloth and helped consolidate his holdings into an even larger national trust–the American Woolen Company.
Fletcher took a position at the Valley Worsted Mills in Olneyville upon his arrival in the state and quickly rose to the position of superintendent. He started his own worsted enterprise in the same vicinity in 1875. He purchased adjacent factories and built so many of his own that they were designated by number rather than name. By the early 1880s he employed three thousand workers in the nine mills of the National Worsted Company, providing the foundation for the rise of Providence as the greatest producer of woolen products in the country by 1900. Labor problems at his establishments disrupted production throughout the Gilded Age.
Fletcher began new manufacturing endeavors in the nearby village of Thornton. Here he recreated an English factory town complete with British machines, cottages, and immigrants from Nottingham. Although his entrepreneurial pace never slackened in textiles (he constructed plants in Massachusetts and New York as well), Fletcher engaged in other ventures. He owned the magnificent Narragansett Hotel in the capital city, helped initiate New England’s only cable railway over the hill of Providence’s East Side, and became an accomplished yachtsman.
Near the end of his career, when his two sons relieved him of some of his daily chores, he sold much of his empire to the American Woolen Company, a giant textile trust. He served this syndicate in several official capacities. By the time of his death in 1907, he had earned the sobriquet “wool king” of the United States. The cartel remained intact until purchased by the local conglomerate Textron in the 1950s. Some of Fletcher’s original factory buildings now host high tech start up enterprises while the structures on Valley Street in Providence have been transformed into luxury condominiums known as the Rising Sun development.