A River's Decline

by Jane Argodale

published March 18, 2016

The Woonasquatucket River begins in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, running through the Providence neighborhoods of Olneyville and Federal Hill, then below Providence Place Mall, before merging with the Moshassuck River downtown to form the Providence River. The Woonasquatucket played an important role in Providence’s industrial past, which was at its height at the beginning of the 20th century. 

In 1910, Providence was the 20th largest city in the United States, and had over 1,000 manufacturers employing 46,000 workers. Dams and mills along the river, many of which remain today, powered paper and textile factories. At the center of this hub of activity was Olneyville, in the western part of the city. In 1892, Providence’s now-defunct electric streetcar system started running throughout the city. The Number 13 streetcar ran to Olneyville Square, bringing Polish, German, and Italian immigrant workers from other parts of the west side to nearby factories. Commercial railroads transporting the goods produced in these factories linked Olneyville to Springfield, Hartford, and New York.     

That industrial boom is long gone, having left pollution and economic stagnation in its wake. Olneyville is now one of Providence’s lowest-income neighborhoods and decades of property destruction and use of the river to dump garbage and debris have taken their toll. The highways built in the 1950s that cut across the Woonasquatucket river, including Route 6 and I-95, block pedestrian access to much of the river and parks alongside it. Nearby Dyerville State Park and Merino Park are both underused because of the highways that cut them off. A flood in 2010 prompted fears that climate change could eventually wash the neighborhood away. The images here show Olneyville at the peak of its industrial activity. They serve as a reminder that when neighborhoods are abandoned by industry, there is often no one willing or able to clean up afterward.


Olneyville Square in 1913, when the Olneyville neighborhood was at the center of an economic boom in Providence.


A view above the Woonasquatucket River, which powered hundreds of factories in Providence.


A train from a line connecting Providence to New Haven. Goods produced in Providence factories would have been shipped all across the country in trains like this.


A streetcar running through Olneyville. After a sharp drop in revenue beginning with the Great Depression, Providence’s streetcar system began reducing service and was eventually replaced by the current bus system.


JANE ARGODALE B’18 is also a hub of activity.