Mayor Joseph Henry Gainer

Inducted: 2014
Born: 1878
Died: 1945

Joseph H. Gainer was born in Providence on January 18, 1878, the son of John and Margaret (Keogh) Gainer. His parents, Irish immigrants, settled in the city’s North End and operated a grocery store on the corner of Branch and Charles Streets. Personal tragedy dogged the family in the early years. Gainer lost his father at the age of four, and three of his four brothers and sisters died in infancy. Gainer graduated from LaSalle Academy in 1896. The following September, he entered Holy Cross College, graduating from that institution as a member of the class of 1899 with an A. B Degree. He next entered the Catholic University of America law school in Washington, D. C. Three years later, the degree of L.L. B. was conferred upon him. Immediately following his graduation from law school, Gainer took and successfully passed the Rhode Island bar examination. For a time, he practiced alone, but in 1908 he entered a law partnership with future congressman George F. O’Shaunessy, Edward G. Carr and Charles E. Mulhearn. 

Early in life, Gainer displayed a deep interest in public affairs, and soon after his admission to the bar, he was selected by his neighbors in the Third Ward to represent them on the school committee. Two years in this body convinced his constituency of the value of his efforts, and in the fall of 1904, they elected him to membership in the Common Council, the lower branch of the city government. From the beginning, Gainer aligned himself with the Democratic party and, at about this time, took an active part in rescuing his party organization in Providence from complete disruption due to internal disputes and placing it upon a firm and orderly footing. As a result of his efforts in this direction, he was elected alderman from the Third Ward in November 1908, and he continued to represent the ward for the next three years. While serving as a member of the higher branch of city government, his unusual aptitude for the duties of public life showed so pronouncedly that his party selected him as its candidate for mayor. In November 1912, he lost the mayor’s race against Republican Henry Fletcher by only 95 votes. Running again in 1914, Gainer defeated Fletcher by 400 votes. At 34, Gainer was the youngest mayor in the city’s history. 

His administration was characterized by progressive legislation and had proved so acceptable to voters of all parties that in the fall of 1918, following his renomination by the Democrats, he was endorsed by the Republican convention and ran practically without opposition. During his term as mayor, many material improvements were made for the city’s betterment. His influence with the people increased with each successive administration, and he became known as one of the most popular public officials in Rhode Island. On twelve occasions, he exercised his veto power to defeat unwise legislation.  

Under Mayor Gainer’s leadership, an extended program of constructive legislation was enacted, including:

  • A new city water supply project was developed for $15,000,000.
  • The Situate Reservoir was completed.
  • Expansion of the Port of Providence was completed.
  • Providence City Hall was remodeled and beautified.
  • Exchange Place was redesigned and enlarged. 
  • The school system was modernized, and several schools were built, including Commercial High School, now Central High School.

A real beginning for the development of the port was made through land leases at Field’s Point, which concentrated the government’s attention on the possibilities of Providence Harbor and attracted the interest of outside shipping concerns. The city’s business center was developed by cutting through cross-town streets and widening and building other thoroughfares. The civic center between City Hall and the Federal building was beautified, and the city’s interests were advanced in dozens of different ways. One of his administration’s most essential and extensive undertakings was the development of the city’s water supply. 

During WWI, the city’s war activities centered on the mayor’s office. Mayor Gainer arranged a three-day celebration in honor of and for the benefit of the men of the Three Hundred and First Engineers, the prominent Rhode Island regiment, before they went to France. Later, he appointed Arthur Henius as chairman of the Welcome Home Committee, whose duty was to arrange receptions for returning soldiers after their services abroad. This committee held three celebrations: one on February 12, 1919, in honor of the return of the first foreign units from this State, and another on May 5, 1919, when the Rhode Island units of the Twenty-sixth Division came home. The third event was held on the Fourth of July when the engineers returned.

On April 22, 1915, Mayor Gainer married Christina McPherson, daughter of Andrew and Margaret McPherson, of Quincy, Mass. They had two daughters, Christine and Margaret, and a son, Joseph. They lived on the East Side of Providence at 55 Grotto Street for 30 years.

During the acute coal shortage of the winter of 1917-1918, Mayor Gainer arranged an emergency coal delivery system to benefit the city’s people in dire need of fuel. This system, carried out through his office and under his direction, undoubtedly saved much suffering among the city’s poor. During the war, the mayor also served as chairman of the Providence branches of the National Security League and the Home Service Section of the American Red Cross. In June 1919, he received the honorary degree of L.L. D. from Holy Cross College. 

In 1924, Gainer fought Governor William S. Flynn for nomination to the United States Senate. Flynn defeated Gainer, and city Democrats persuaded Gainer to run for re-election, and he won a seventh term. In 1926, Gainer declined to seek re-election as mayor to accept the Democratic nomination for governor to unseat the popular incumbent Republican Aram Pothier. Although carrying Providence comfortably, Gainer lost by more than 16,000 votes and returned to the private practice of law. He remained active in the community, served on numerous boards and commissions, and was a trustee of several banks. 

Mayor Gainer was a member of the University, Catholic, Metacomet Golf, Pen and Pencil, West Side, Columbus and Rotary clubs, the Town Criers, Knights of Columbus, Elks, Eagles, Owls, and the Royal Arcanum. He was also an honorary member of the Rhode Island Historical Society and Brown University Chapter of the Phi Kappa fraternity. 

Mayor Gainer was ill for several months before he died on December 15, 1945. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2014.

For additional reading:

  1. Conley, Patrick T. “Rhode Island Hall of Fame Honorees: Six Legal Luminaries” Rhode Island Bar Journal. Rhode Island Bar Association, (May/June 2015).
  2. Bicknell, Thomas (1920). The history of the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. New York: The American Historical Society, January 2016.
  3.  Holy Cross College Bulletin. Worcester, Mass: College of the Holy Cross. 1906
  4. “Joseph H. Gainer, Mayor 7 terms, Dies at age of 67”. Providence, RI: The Providence Journal. 16 December 1945. p. 1.
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