A look at the early 20th century Warwick in the 20th century evolved from a town of 21,000 residents, living in loosely connecting mill villages and small farms, to the second largest city in Rhode Island with a population of over 85,000. The transition was not an easy one. The town, after bitter political machinations, was divided in 1913, when the Town of West Warwick was created. Warwick lost 8.3 square miles of territory, one half of the population, and almost all of the town’s industrial base. The only major mills that remained in the 36.26 square miles of Warwick were the Elizabeth Mill in Hillsgrove, the Apponaug Company and the Pontiac Mill. These were, at the time, all thriving and valuable assets for the town.
The division emphasized Warwick’s role as an agricultural community with the needs of poultry and dairy farmers once again occupying much of the town’s business. The trolley line, which was established in 1910, made it much easier to commute to Providence and Cranston. This improved mode of transportation, followed by the increased use of the automobile, saw many transforming their summer residences into year-round homes. With the aid of better transportation, Warwick became the summer playground for the middle class of the state. Oakland Beach, Rocky Point, Mark Rock, Warwick Downs, Buttonwoods, Gaspee Point, Nausauket and Longmeadow all benefited.
As World War I introduced Warwick and Rhode Island into a much larger world, new problems arose that showed the town at a disadvantage. Nineteenth century firefighting methods proved inadequate and slowly but surely improvements were made, but only after a series of devastating and heart-breaking fires. Around that time, the great textile industry began to weaken and totter. Strikes, layoffs and outside agitators plunged the area into an early depression.
Prohibition, long sought after by some elements, proved unenforceable. Warwick’s small town police force could do very little to stop the speakeasies that “grew like Topsy.” The gangster element soon found the town ideal for their operations. Once again, smuggling became a common event as the understaffed police force proved to be inadequate for the task. Now, instead of the molasses and sugar that was smuggled in the 18th century, liquor was finding its way to Warwick’s small coves and harbors.
In 1929 Warwick’s Hillsgrove section was selected as the site for the State Airport, creating the catalyst that would greatly alter the town’s environment. The new facility opened on Sept. 26, 1931, attracting a crowd of over 15,000. Warwick’s population in 1930 had recovered from the loss due to the 1913 separation and, in 1931, Warwick became Rhode Island’s seventh city. Its voters approved a charter for a mayor-council plan of city government. During the next decade, the new city struggled through the poverty of the Great Depression, the devastation of the hurricane of 1938 and the trauma of World War II.
While the city was zoned for residential, farming, business and industrial districts, the increased migration to Warwick and other problems created by the Depression and the hurricane often turned well-intentioned plans into haphazard growth, resulting in the destruction of some of Warwick’s finest attractions. In the five-year period following World War II, Warwick’s population soared form 28,000 to over 40,000. This created a demand for more housing, more adequate schools, police and fire departments and other improvements.