During the early years of the 20th century, Warwick became a major area of employment for immigrants from central and southern Europe, a summer playground for the middle class workers and a country retreat for the very wealthy. The B.B. & R. Knight Company was the chief employer in Pawtuxet Valley, and they hired many Italian, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants to complement the work force of Irish, French-Canadians and Swedes.
The large influx of Italian immigrants to Rhode Island was amazing. IN 1900 there were nearly 9,000 residents who were born in Italy and, by 1910, the number rose to 27,287. Most of those who took part in the great migration from 1898 to 1932 were from southern Italy and, while they were predominantly farmers, they came to work in the mills. Many of those who settled in Pawtuxet Valley were hired by B.B. & R. Knight mills in Natick and Pawtuxet.
They worked in the mills when the average weekly take-home pay for textile workers was $14. In most mills of the Pawtuxet Valley, the Italian immigrants averaged less, often getting only $10 per week. They lived in company housing where the rent was cheap, approximately $1,25 per week. Even low wages, measured by American standards, were high wages to Italians and to many Polish and Ukrainian immigrants who came to Warwick around the turn of the century.
Many of the new immigrants took in boarders from their homeland. In time, so many took advantage of this type of arrangement that beds were usually cots and “spaces” rather than “rooms” were rented by the newcomers. As space was at a premium, most “boarders” were relatives or came recommended by relatives or friends. The usual charge for “room and board” was 25 cents per week. Women who prepared their own meals and who helped feed the other boarders frequently paid less.
The mill villages were, in effect, divided along ethnic lines physically. In Pontiac, for example, most of the Swedes lived in the vicinity of King, North and Central Streets and owned their own homes. The area was known to many as “mortgage hill.” The section of Pontiac below the tracks, on what was then Railroad Street and is now West Natick Road, was inhabited by Italian and French-Canadian workers, most of whom lived in company houses and paid rent to the B.B. & R. Knight Company. The divisions were obvious not only to the housing and the positions held in the mill but in the choice of churches as well. Religious services in French, Italian and Polish became more common as the large numbers of immigrants entered Warwick.
One significant impetus to the shore resort trade in the early part of the century was the development of the trolley system in Warwick. During the 19th century, public transportation was confined primarily to horse-drawn vehicles of the Union Railroad, which had been established by Amasa and William Sprague in 1865.
When the Sprague textile empire collapsed in 1873, a group of stockholders headed by Jesse Metcalf, prominent Providence businessman and part owner of the Providence Journal, purchased the Sprague horse car trolley enterprise. Metcalf led the way for a drive to electrify the horse car railway and was successful by 1892, when the first electric trolley was operating in Providence. Realizing the potential for immense profits and the necessity for large outlays of money to accomplish electrification of the various steam locomotive lines in the state, a syndicate was formed to purchase the Union Railroad. This syndicate was headed by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, Marsden J. Perry and William C. Roelker.
A large portion of the funds raised by this group came from the American Sugar Refining Company, which had close economic ties with Senator Aldrich. The funds obtained were sued to finance and electrify car service in the suburbs. The Warwick Railroad, which had been chartered in 1872, was sold to the Rhode Island Suburban Railway Company, and in 1902 the Union Railroad was reorganized to form the Rhode Island Company, which connected a large number of local companies. In 1906 J.P. Morgan, director of the New Haven Railroad, purchased the Rhode Island Company and Aldrich, Perry and Roelker made an alleged $15 million profit. Under Morgan, the Rhode Island Company took control of the Rhode Island Suburban Railway and the trolley became a common sight throughout Warwick and Pawtuxet Valley.
The electric trolley captured the imagination and support of Rhode Islanders as the new systems proved faster and quieter than the horse-drawn railroad and it was cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than the steam locomotives. The vast networks of trolley lines were all powered by 600-volt DC current and were all standard gauge. The current was provided to the cars by an overhead wire, hence the name “trolley.”