Edward Harris was born in 1801 in the village of Limerock in Lincoln, Rhode Island. While his family had been in the the lime business for generations, two of his uncles - William and Samuel - ventured into the textile business in the early nineteenth century. Young Harris became a clerk in his uncles' cotton mills in 1822 and began manufacturing satinets in his own mill at Market Square in 1831. By the 1850's, Harris was producing high quality woolen cashmeres in his mill at Market Square and in three additional mills on Main Street. He also built a large warehouse on Railroad Street near Depot Square. His number 4 mill still stands today on Main Street as does his warehouse on Railroad Street.
In 1856, Harris constructed the Harris Block for use by the community. Built in the Italiante style, it was Woonsocket's first major commercial building and the first public library in Rhode Island. Abraham Lincoln spoke in the building's Harris Hall in 1860. Harris also donated land for the city's first high school and for the the Oak Hill Cemetery. He was active in civic and political affairs, represented Woonsocket in the Rhode Island legislature and ran for governor as an antislavery candidate.
In the 1860's Harris undertook his most ambitious project - construction of the Privilege Mill complex near North Main and Privilege Streets. Power for the mill was provided when Harris built a dam across the Mill River to produce the Harris Pond. The vast complex included eighty tenements and a brick mill considered the largest and finest of the day. It was the capstone of his career.
Harris lived in a beautiful mansion that he built on the corner of Harris Avenue and Blackstone Street in the North End. By the 1870's, his Harris Woolen Company operated six mills in Woonsocket and employed over 1,000 people. He died in 1872 and is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery along with his family.