It is more than tragic that less than four years after I published the following essay as a Providence Journal commentary extolling the virtues of Rhode Island’s industrial landscape, the bungling administration of Governor Donald Carcieri persuaded a supine General Assembly to curtail the state historic tax credit program. Our leaders perpetrated this shortsighted blunder in April 2008 in the depths of the Great Recession, when the state’s unemployment rate climbed to 12 percent. Without the additional incentive of state tax credits, developers declined to undertake costly historic renovation projects, projects that would not be economically feasible without a large tax credit subsidy.
The termination of the state historic tax credit program contributed to Rhode Island’s rapid rise in unemployment, ruined several major developers, crippled the construction trades and their suppliers, further depressed the real estate market, placed vacant mill buildings in jeopardy, made such structures a blight and a hazard rather than an asset, and impeded the expansion of the tax base in our once-industrialized municipalities. Since Carcieri took the credit, he deserves the blame.
Rhode Island’s mills are monuments and memorials. They must be preserved! This thought was inspired by the destruction of Pawtucket’s Greenhalgh Mill complex, which fire recently reduced to ashes before it could be demolished into dust.
The mill buildings that dot our rural landscape and dominate sections of our cities are more than mere brick and mortar; they are reminders of who we were and who we have become.
Our mills are monuments to Rhode Island ingenuity–to technological giants like Samuel Slater, David Wilkinson, Zachariah Allen, Jabez Gorham, Lucien Sharpe, William Nicholson, George Corliss, and Joseph Banigan, to name a few–and to Rhode Island’s preeminence as America’s first urban-industrial state. These distinctions should be a source of local pride.
If America’s current position of world leadership, its technological superiority, and its lofty standard of living are due, in part, to the transformation of its economy in the late nineteenth century from an agricultural to an industrial base, then those who spearheaded that transition merit remembrance. Rhode Island’s surviving mills are silent reminders of our contribution to America’s achievement.
Whereas the mighty merit monuments, all those who engage in worthy endeavor deserve appreciation and remembrance. Certainly the successive waves of immigrants who maned (and womaned) Rhode Island’s mills should not have toiled in perpetual obscurity; the mills are their memorial. Woonsocket’s Museum of Work and Culture, appropriately housed in a recycled mill, is a giant step in the right direction, but one facility does not exert the impact on our memory and imagination as does a landscape and streetscape containing well-preserved, refurbished factories of architectural merit and historical significance.
The mill meant employment to the immigrant generation. Here the newcomers established their contact with America. Here their unremitting labor financed the education of their children and launched their families on an upward journey into the middle class and beyond.
The mill experience in Rhode Island was an ethnic anvil chorus. Providence’s industrially variegated Woonasquatucket Valley offers a notable example of this economic confluence of cultures: typically, Yankee inventors and entrepreneurs furnished the concepts and the capital; Irish laborers, especially the skilled bricklayers, built the structures; and habitants recruited from the small farm villages of Quebec took jobs in textiles at Weybosset Mill, the Monohasset Mill, and the Providence and National Worsted Mills. Later arrivals, like the Polish and Lithuanians, often opted for work in the base-metals and machine-tool industries at Brown and Sharpe, Builders Iron Foundry, Congdon and Carpenter, Rhode Island Locomotive Works, or Nicholson File. Italians showed an affinity for the jewelry industry at factories like Uncas and Ronci, and displaying more entrepreneurial drive than other Catholic ethnic groups, they soon came to dominate the industry of their choice.
On the hills surrounding the Providence portion of the Woonasquatucket Valley, these immigrant workers built their national churches–a few feet closer to Heaven than the sweatshops in which they labored. Saint Mary, Saint Teresa, Saint John, Saint Adalbert, Saint Casimir, Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the Holy Ghost watched over them.
Radical historians have railed against the mill owners, charging them with exploitation of the masses. One zealot even suggested that New England’s mills should be leveled, because they are symbols of capitalist greed. Such an unbalanced view exalts ideological rhetoric over historical reality. The rich are often seen through the green eyes of envy.
Mill owners were human beings, just as policemen, politicians, and priests were. Some were benevolent and socially concerned; others were ruthless and self-absorbed. Among the former were industrialist governor Philip Allen, who bought the bells for Providence’s first two Catholic churches; Edward Harris, who established an educational and cultural institute in Woonsocket for his workers; the Hazards of Peace Dale, who built the school, the library, and the meeting hall in their factory village; and rubber king Samuel P. Colt of Bristol, who built a high school for his town and allowed the general public to enjoy recreational pursuits on his bayfront land, which is now Colt State Park. This list could be extended substantially.
By 1900 economically diverse Providence ranked among the nation’s ten biggest industrial centers, and its board of trade boasted (perhaps without exaggeration) that the city contained the world’s largest tool factory (Brown and Sharpe), file factory (Nicholson File), engine factory (Corliss Steam Engine Company), screw factory (American Screw), and silverware factory (Gorham). These were exuberantly proclaimed as Providence’s Five Industrial Wonders of the World. In addition, the city ranked first nationally in the manufacture of jewelry and in the production of woolen and worsted goods, and third (behind Philadelphia and Cincinnati) in the production of base metals; it also contained the home offices of the famed Knight brothers’ cotton textile empire.
The titans and the toilers combined to make Rhode Island first nationally in per capita wealth and a leader of America’s Industrial Revolution. Our mill buildings are their monument and memorial; they are the structures that best typify our history.
Thus far I have written as a sentimental historian, emphasizing heritage and aesthetics. Now I don my hat as a practical and mercenary real estate developer. There is gold in them-thar mills in the form of state and federal tax credits for certain sums expended in their rehabilitation and conversion to offices, residences, studios, and shops–what preservationists call their “adaptive re-use.”
In March 2002 the city of Providence amended its zoning ordinance, creating the Industrial and Commercial Buildings District to protect nearly all of the city’s surviving industrial sites from indiscriminate demolition. These once vibrant mills and factories, like those in other Rhode Island municipalities, were at risk of succumbing to the insatiable demand for chain stores, with their monotonous, undistinguished box design, and for parking lots.
Those who rehabilitate the designated buildings in this new, ingeniously contrived district are now eligible for a 20 percent federal income tax credit and a 30 percent state income tax credit, plus a ten-year property tax stabilization and valuation freeze. In addition, a November 2003 Internal Revenue Service ruling has concluded that Rhode Island’s historic tax credits can also be deducted from federal income tax, making them as much as 40 percent more valuable. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission provides the information and monitors the process of historic renovation statewide.
If memories fail to move you, perhaps money will. Make a million; save a mill.
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley