November 23, 2014
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A railroad brings changes to Apponaug
Terry D'Amato Spencer

The village we call Apponaug has undergone many changes from its early colonial period to the 21st century. At times, these changes were beneficial and brought about a feeling of pride in the community. At other times, however, the opposite was true, as the village seemed to be in decline. During the late 20th century, thanks to a number of talented architects and a sympathetic city administration, Apponaug was once again being viewed as a place of architectural and historical significance.

Recently, a visitor from Georgia, who was in City Hall viewing the displays in the lobby, commented that Apponaug was a very charming village. Armed with the booklet “The Walking Tour of Historic Apponaug Village,” she was able to enjoy some of the nicest attractions in Warwick as, fortunately, a number of Apponaug’s older houses have been recently restored.

In addition to work done on the Federal Period Warner-Harrison and Remington houses on the southeastern side of Post Road, another major restoration has taken place on what was once known as “Judges Row.” The two-and-a-half story, gable-roofed structure on the north side of the bridge at 3351 Post Road has been restored by architect Robert Stirling Morris. Most villagers are very pleased to see this old building take on a new aspect and they appreciate its owner’s concern for preserving one of the area’s oldest structures.

From the 1940s until 1986, it was known as the Central Cafe and was more indicative of the changes that befell Apponaug in the mid-20th century than a representative of its earlier heritage. Mr. Morris, in his restoration, has uncovered some very interesting facts about the building. He believes it was once a tidal mill, perhaps for snuff manufacturing, before it became a residence circa 1743. An addition to the building was made at about that time and alterations had to be made to allow for a staircase and fireplaces. The old chestnut beams, the mortise and tenon type construction, the unbroken foundation under the original section, and other signs indicate the structure is over 250 years old and may be one of the oldest buildings in Apponaug.

The pride and care taken in the restoration of the house at 3351 Post Road helps to bring Apponaug’s past into perspective with its hope for the future. From its position at the bridge, this house commands a view of what once was the thriving port of Apponaug and indicates that the fine old homes can and do serve a useful purpose in the 21st century.

As do so many other houses in Warwick, the Morris house has a connection with the famous Greene family, especially Jacob, the older brother of General Nathanael Greene, Rhode Island’s most illustrious Revolutionary War hero. Much of the property that the Morris house overlooks along the cove was owned by Jacob Greene & Co.

The five Greene brothers conducted business in Apponaug under various firm names from the 1770s until the early 1800s and the establishment of Jacob Greene & Co. at the cove indicates the importance of Apponaug as a seaport during this period.

In addition to the Greene enterprises, the area along present day Water St. near the Diamond Lumber Company flourished in the late 18th century. There was once a sawmill here, and at the junction of Water Street and Colonial Ave. there was a shipyard and the DeWolfe wharf.

As might be expected, not everyone was prosperous and Warwick had its share of the indigent and the helpless. One visual reminder of that aspect can be seen on Colonial Ave., not far from Post Road. This is the old town workhouse built in 1765. In 1763 the Town of Warwick received a quarter of an acre of land from the Stafford family. It was bounded on the east by a shipyard and to the southwest by a highway. This area would today be 57 Colonial Avenue and it was here the workhouse was built. It has been greatly altered over the centuries and was moved across the street to its present location in 1875.

Colonial Rhode Island followed the example set in England for the care of the poor. Old Elizabethan laws placed the responsibility on local governments and called for towns and parishes to build workhouses to care for the “...lame ...olde, blynde...poor....” This modest, gable-roofed structure, set gable end to the street, was Warwick’s answer for its growing number of indigent citizens. Despite age and other infirmities, the hapless inhabitants of the poorhouse were made to work at whatever tasks they were capable of performing. In the early period, vagrants and beggars were dealt with harshly by physical punishments and those unable to work because of advanced age were often the responsibility of family and friends.

By the mid-18th century, Warwick began to assume more of the responsibility and used tax monies to buy raw materials to give work to the unemployed. All those at the “workhouse” who were physically capable were expected to work, at least by growing as much food as possible and by making their own clothes. By today’s standards, the conditions in the “workhouse” would be considered extremely demeaning and harsh.

During the Revolutionary War, the town enabled the tenants of the workhouse to make bandages and blankets for the Continental Army, providing a necessary service and giving employment to those in need. Difficult times following the war and after 1812 filled the poorhouse to capacity and conditions became even more deplorable. If this old house could talk, it would have a sad tale to relate. By 1841, the small house no longer could handle the increasing number of poor and unfortunates and a new, larger poorhouse and farm was established in Buttonwoods. The house became a private dwelling and after 1875 was divided into two tenements that were rented to mill workers.

When the once lucrative sea trade declined in Apponaug in the 19th century, the village began to take on a new dimension due to the rise of the textile industry and the coming of the Stonington Railroad. While Apponaug Cove continued to be a significant avenue of trade, it was soon overshadowed by the advantages the railroad offered in the shipping of goods to the interior of the country.

During the Revolutionary War, Apponaug had benefited when the British stopped the ferry from Warwick Neck to the islands and forced goods to be shipped overland. Because of its location on the Post Road, the village grew in importance as the flow of goods from Warwick’s agricultural community passed through Apponaug.

During the early 19th century, the Whigs advocated government support of turnpikes, canals, and railroads. As the Pawtuxet River gave Warwick an ample supply of waterpower for the textile mills, and the high protective tariffs gave her a waiting market, all that was lacking was a railroad to ship their manufactured goods to interior markets. The Stonington Railroad developed as a result of the work of a number of Rhode Islanders, many of who had joined the Whig Party in the early 19th century. Apponaug’s businessmen realized that the railroad could offer a greater opportunity for the distribution of goods.

In June of 1835, the first railroad train in Rhode Island ran between Boston and Providence. Within two and a half years, the Stonington railroad, extending south through the state, was open for travel. Passengers from Boston to New York in the 1830s and 1840s traveled on the Boston and Providence railroad to Fox Point. Once in Providence, they took the ferry to the India Point terminus on the west side of the Providence River and then rode along the coast to Stonington, Conn. Here they boarded a steamer to New York. This system continued until 1848 when the railroad was finally extended to New York. At this time, the name was changed from the Stonington Railroad to the New York, Providence, and Boston line. In 1893, this railroad merged with the New York, New Haven and Hartford system.

From the very beginning of its existence, the Stonington Railroad made some significant changes. Its route closely followed the old colonial artery, the Post Road, and it rendered the New London Turnpike, which had become a major artery of trade, practically obsolete. Apponaug, because of its location on the Post Road was given new life and its textile industry became even more prosperous.

In addition to the changes in Apponaug’s textile industry, the railroad brought in a tide of immigration, which was to alter the old fabric of the village and bring in unimaginable changes. Prior to the coming of the railroad, Warwick had been almost totally inhabited by British-Protestant stock. In the 1830s, demand for labor to build the roads witnessed large numbers of Irish Catholics immigrating to Rhode Island.

Old prejudices surfaced and a period of culture shock engulfed Apponaug. The Irish were encamped at Sweet Meadow Brook. adjacent to the railroad tracks in Apponaug. Local archeologist, William S. Fowler, in his report on the site notes that. “...sometime between 1790 and 1875 the land was owned by Capt. Daniel Brown...the historic event which more than any other probably altered somewhat the surface of the site was the laying of the first Boston to New York railroad....” Fowler tells us, “...Here in 1837 the old Stonington & Providence Railroad, commonly known as the Stonington road, opened for travel.” He goes on to say, “For several years prior to this it was under construction by hand-shovel and wheelbarrow labor, and it is likely that the terrace site beside fresh spring water would have been as attractive then for a camp as in earlier days.”

The archeologist found a number of artifacts in the upper six inches of soil in the excavated area that indicate the railroad gangs were here. They found white clay pipe fragments common in the early 19th century, a copper Roman Catholic religious medal dated 1830, an iron spoon, part of a china egg and scattered pieces of coal. Later, they discovered some cut nails, a strap hinge and a copper wire door hook. From this Fowler concludes, “The workmen may have lived in huts; kept a few chickens; and worked small garden patches to help provide them with food...”

When the railroad was completed, some of the Irish remained in Warwick to work in the mills. Many of them went to the western section and by the late 19th century became a dominant force in areas such as Crompton, Centerville, Clyde and Phenix. Later in the century, the railroads carried large numbers French-Canadians to the Pawtuxet Valley and many immigrants from Sweden and Italy to the Pontiac mills.

In 1893, the New York and New England Railroad went bankrupt and Marsden Perry, a master manipulator of businesses, was appointed receiver. He delivered the assets of this railroad to the New Haven Line and this enabled John P. Morgan’s New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad to develop a near monopoly in New England and exert a tremendous influence on the economy of Rhode Island.

The story of Apponaug in the 19th century will be continued.


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