November 26, 2014
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The Devastating Apponaug Fires
Then and Now
Terry D'Amato Spencer

For nearly four decades, the Apponaug Company continued to be Warwick’s most significant employer. For many of the immigrants who lived in Apponaug and West Warwick, the company was their sole means of support. They considered themselves fortunate to be able to find steady employment at a time when so many were in the ranks of the unemployed.

A series of owners

As might be expected, change had to come. Much of it began when Alfred L. Lustig, the president and general manager of the Apponaug Company, died in 1935. For the next decade, the Lustig family continued to control the enterprise. In 1944, during World War II when shortages were everywhere, the Lustigs sold the mills to George V. Mechan. Within a short time, the mills went to the Aspinools Corporation of Connecticut. In the post-war years, the principal owners of the company were the Lamport Co. of New York City, the Bancroft Company of Wilmington, Del., and Frederick G. Brown, who was also president and spokesman for the Apponaug Company.

The doors are closed

By 1958, the Apponaug Company could no longer compete in the textile field and closed its doors on March 15. Despite the fact that such closings had been common in Rhode Island since the 1920s, many felt it couldn’t happen here. There had been drastic changes in the city in many areas, but the closing of the mill seemed to have the greatest impact on all those who had worked there over the years.

In 1960, the Anchor Realty Co. purchased the property and soon began renting the space to diverse industries. Many small industries, such as the Thompson and Green Machinery Company, the Greenwood Sheet Metal Company and others, recognized the advantages of renting space in the old mill. Far from being obsolete, the Apponaug mills were a boon to those businesses, which needed low-rent facilities.

The terrible fires

In mid-February 1961, however, the first of three spectacular fires occurred and the remaining days of the complex were numbered. Deputy Chief Frank W. White discovered the first fire at approximately 10 p.m. as he was making his regular nightly tour of the fire stations. The fire, which most likely started in the dye house, quickly destroyed one building and badly damaged two others. Firefighters feared that the spectacular tongues of flame, which illuminated the night sky and could be seen two miles away, would consume the entire complex and part of the village of Apponaug as well. The efforts to put out the fire were hampered by the difficulty of access between the buildings and by the piles of snow on the ground. As many spectators gathered to watch, the firefighters were able to contain the blaze by creating several curtains of water. Fortunately, they were able to pump the water from Bridge Brook, a mill trench in a dead end alley. A total of 15 pieces of equipment from Warwick, as well as apparatus from nearby towns, were activated. Over 23,000 feet of 2.5-inch hose was put into operation to control the blaze.

This 1961 fire was the worst in Warwick’s history to that time. It did its greatest damage to three buildings in the center of the mill complex. Most of the seven other buildings escaped with minimal damage, and the Anchor Realty Co. was able to resume its operations in a relatively short time.

Five years later, in November 1966, another fire at the Apponaug complex occurred. This time it came when the 175-foot water tower was struck by lightning and burst into flames. The blaze burned for several hours before it was finally extinguished. Much of the difficulty in fighting this fire came from the belief held by the authorities in charge that the water tower was unsafe and they refused to allow firemen to climb the structure to fight the blaze at close range. The wooden top of the tower collapsed into the tank and high winds, gusting to 35 miles per hour, threatened to spread the fire to the rest of the Apponaug complex.

Fortunately, firemen were able to put up a water screen, and when the weather improved, a state helicopter was used to smother the fire with a water-and-detergent mixture. The fire, which started at 7:30 a.m., was not subdued until late afternoon. The tower as it stands today is the result of this fire of 1966.

The tower was built in 1902 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. and was a fire-protection tank. It is 28 feet in diameter and at one time held 100,000 gallons of water, which supplied the sprinkler system for the Apponaug Co. When the tower was built, it was considered to be one of the most modern and effective water tanks in the area.

The fire of 1969

In September 1969, fire struck again in Apponaug at a time when there were 33 businesses in the complex. This time, the buildings were almost totally destroyed. The blaze was discovered at approximately 1:45 a.m. by Leonard W. Forest Jr., a former fire lieutenant in Cranston. Within a very short time after the discovery, Warwick firefighters were on the scene. The blaze began in the west end of the complex and quickly traveled for several hundred yards. At its most intense period, flames shot well over 100 feet in the air and showered the surrounding area with large sparks. In a very short time, the complex, owned then by the People’s Moving and Storage and the Anchor Realty Company, both headed by Russell Howard, was engulfed in flames.

The main difficulty in controlling this fire was the inadequate water supply. Fire Chief Thomas E. Duckworth explained why the 1969 fire was so much more devastating than the one in 1961. He said that the water in the Mill Trench in 1961 was high and supplied the firemen with thousands of gallons of water, while in September of 1969 it was nearly dry. He went on to say, “I had the equipment, but what could I do? When I put more lines on, I just robbed from one to give to another.”

From a firefighter’s

point of view

Bob Bouthillier, a Warwick fire fighter since 1966, remembered the blaze well. He recalled that it was unsafe to enter the buildings as the roof collapsed and the “cave-in” factor made it impossible to enter. Bob explained that old factories were constructed in such a manner that fire would cause the wooden interior to “cave-in,” or collapse, while leaving the exterior walls standing. This made it possible to re-build many mills in the mid-19th century when it was practically impossible to extinguish the fires with the primitive methods available. While this was considered a necessary feature in the 19th century, it proved detrimental later when firefighting skills had progressed. Without the “cave-in” factor, some of the buildings might have been saved.

In addition to the construction hazards, the 1969 fire was fed by a variety of materials that were stored by 19 of the firms that used the V-shaped complex. These materials caused the fire to burn hotter and were the reason for the great damage to both the inner and outer walls. Cranes had to be used to knock down weakened walls to make it possible to enter the area. Even after the fire was extinguished, a 24-hour watch on the complex was necessary to guard against new flare-ups and water was poured on the smoldering site for a number of days.

This spectacular fire destroyed nearly all the buildings of the once powerful and prosperous Apponaug Co. and removed nearly all visible reminders of the importance of the textile mill in the area. What little remains, however, can help us to recapture the significance of the mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the prosperity of the mills meant the prosperity of Apponaug.

The 21st century

optimism

The future of the Apponaug Mill Complex site is now in the hands of the Sawtooth Associates LLC. In an interview with the Beacon in August 2004, Brandon Bell, president of the company, said, “It’s a work in progress. A lot of people passing by would call it an eyesore as it is now.” He added, “There is potential here, you just need to find it.” All of Apponaug is waiting.

The story of Apponaug will be continued.


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