The end of an era
Then and Now
The devastating multi-million dollar fire that broke out in Apponaug on September 6, 1969 destroyed nearly all the buildings of the once powerful and prosperous Apponaug Company and marked an end to the site that once housed the village’s mills. From 1696, when John Micarter received permission to build a “fulling mill on Kekamewit brook,” until the fall of 1969 mills had played an important role in the history of Warwick. During the 18th century the Greene family controlled a three-story cotton mill. In 1859, Albert D. Greene settled his father’s estate and sold the property to Josiah Baker and Catharine Abbott. The Oriental Print Works purchased the interests in the mills from Abbott and Baker and began a new era in the history of Apponaug.
In time the Oriental Print Works became the Apponaug Company and, until 1958, employed over 500 people in their large complex. The fires of February 1961 and November 1966 took their toll of three buildings and the water tower, but the fire of 1969 was the most serious. 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, Warwick fire-fighters were on the scene. The blaze began in the west end of the complex and traveled for several hundred yards. At the 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 now by 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.
Bob Bouthillier, a Warwick fire-fighter since 1966, remembers 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 rebuild 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 had progressed and, 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 caused 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 century, when the prosperity of the mills meant the prosperity of Apponaug.
While the mills were of the utmost importance in creating the village of Apponaug, the growing significance of the area as Warwick’s municipal center in the 19th century had a profound impact as well. An important phase in the development of the town began when the administrative center of Warwick moved westward from the original settlement at Old Warwick. This came about during the Revolutionary War when the British stopped the ferry that ran from Warwick Neck to Providence and Newport, thereby interrupting the old mail and primary trade routes. With this main artery blocked, the old Pequot Trail (Post Road), which ran through Apponaug, became the most important route. Apponaug, which had been of some significance as a colonial port and as the site of a fulling mill and a gristmill, became even more important.
As the town grew in the early 19th century from 2,532 in 1800 to 5,529 in 1830, the western section witnessed the greatest growth and, in 1834, Apponaug was the natural selection for the permanent town house and town clerk’s office. The old buildings, built in 1834-35, were on the site now occupied by City Hall. They included the town house, clerk’s office and outbuildings used to shelter horses and wagons. They remained there until the new Town Hall was built in 1892. Their construction during the early 19th century marked an important phase in the development of the town.
The story of Apponaug’s growth during the 19th century and the building of the Town Hall will be continued.