October 22, 2014
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Then and Now
Volunteer fire companies
Don D'Amato
Volunteer firefighting companies played an essential role in the early 20th century.

As a result of these and other fires, communities began to support volunteer fire companies. In addition to the Apponaug, Lakewood and Pawtuxet Fire Companies, which were organized before the end of the 19th century, five volunteer fire companies came into existence. The Norwood Company was organized in 1908 and purchased a chemical truck as its first piece of apparatus. In Conimicut, in 1911, 36 men became charter members of the Conimicut Volunteer Company and purchased a hand-drawn truck. Oakland Beach organized a fire company in 1913 and, in 1917, purchased an American La-France truck with a pumping capacity of 250 gallons per minute. This was the forst motorized pumping engine in the town. Bayside organized a fire company in 1915, and the Greenwood Company came into being in 1924.

The town began to support these companies by voting an appropriation of $100 to each of the four Warwick companies in 1913 and $75 to the Pawtuxet Volunteers. In 1924 the town appropriated $7,000 for the benefit of the various fire departments.

Even with the efforts of the volunteer fire departments, Warwick was severely crippled by fire during the early part of the century. One of the worst was in Apponaug in 1911. This fire destroyed both St. Barnabas Church and the Kentish Artillery Armory. This blaze, it is believed, started in an outbuilding at the rear of the armory. It was a cold night in March, and it seems that a tramp entered the building to keep warm and to find his way he lit matches, which ignited some papers in the building.

A watchman at the Apponaug Print Works spotted the blaze and sent out the alarm that was quickly answered by the Apponaug Volunteers. Unfortunately, there was a very weak water supply and only one line was operable at a time. In addition, it was bitter cold, about 18 degrees, and the water froze as soon as it hit the buildings. Fortunately, the firefighters were able to keep the fire from spreading throughout Apponaug.

The years 1914 and 1915 were especially severe for fires in Warwick. In 1914 Rocky Point was again the scene of a serious blaze, as six buildings were destroyed. The Conimicut Volunteer Company quickly responded and, despite being hampered by falling electric wires, was able to save a number of buildings on the amusement park’s Midway.

In April 1915 fire destroyed the stable, laundry, garage, boiler room and part of the observation tower at Senator Nelson W. Aldrich’s estate. The damage was estimated at $300,000. Lines were connected to a system in the water tower, but the pressure was so weak it did little to help fight the blaze. Even at this late date, only a small section of Warwick had a modern water supply system. Ironically, the question of making provision for the installation of an adequate water service in the town of Warwick was discussed at the financial town meeting during that day, and the taxpayers had voted against the proposition.

The dawning of the 20th century saw the political clamor for more services for the western mill villages in Warwick intensify into a demand for separation. On March 14, 1913, Governor Aram Pothier signed a bill into law that divided Warwick by taking the third, fourth and fifth representative districts to make West Warwick a separate town. The act that accomplished this was introduced and nurtured by Walter G. Hartford after similar bills, introduced by Frank Woodmansee in 1910 and Walter C. Gardner in 1912 had failed to receive favorable action.

While success finally came in 1913, agitation for this division, which took 8.3 square miles from Warwick to make the western section of the town an independent entity, had started at least a half-century earlier.

For many years, talk of separation was quickly stifled by Charles R. Brayton, the “blond boss,” who ruled the state with very little opposition for many years. In much the same manner, Brayton’s counterpart in Warwick, Webster Knight, ruled the town with an iron hand. As the senior partner of the B.B. & R. Knight Co., Webster Knight exerted a tremendous influence on the mill villages and controlled a sizable number of votes. He was elected to the Warwick Town Council and became its president from 1893-98.

At the turn of the century, the abuses of boss rule were challenged on both the state and local levels. In 1907 even Nelson Aldrich, who was the chief benefactor, protested against Brayton’s despotic rule. The feeling that the “old boss,” now going blind, could be ousted from power caused his enemies to attempt to destroy his control. Brayton surprised everyone by fighting back and keeping control over the state senate. This was his power base and he wasn’t going to allow the creation of a new town, which would be Democratic. The fight continued, however, and the “progressive” branch of the Republican Party was beginning to demand sweeping reforms and was willing to challenge the “machine” politics of Brayton and other “bosses.”

In Warwick, the discontent of both Democrats and reform-minded Republicans was directed at Webster “Boss” Knight. The two factions joined to form a Citizens Party. They labeled Knight “the autocrat of the council table” and accused him of using his position to serve his firm rather than the citizens of Warwick.


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