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Stonework and Mill Construction

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Prior to the nineteenth century, very few stone building were constructed in Woonsocket. Stone was used for foundations and chimneys, but the buildings themselves were generally constructed from wood.

The original Slater Mill The original Slater Mill was typical of the wooden buildings that were constructed during the first phase of industrial development in the Blackstone River Valley. A modest 29 foot by 42 foot, 2 ˝ story structure, it looked much like the farmhouses, barns and churches of the day except for its size. Posts were mortised into heavy beams on which plank floors were supported. The long narrow shape facilitated the transfer of power from the water wheel to the machines and made the most of natural light.

This basic design was repeated frequently throughout the Blackstone River Valley. The 1812 Moffett Mill on Great Road in Lincoln is typical of this style. One of the few wooded mills that remain in Woonsocket is the 1870 Narragansett Knitting Mill on Bernon Street. Unfortunately, these early wooden mills were very susceptible to fire – especially since the available protection against fire in many rural mills was limited to the bucket brigade. Sparking machines and highly combustible lint created a constant fire hazard. One of the changes that occurred in the early nineteenth century was the use of stone and brick in the construction of mills.

Bernon Mill #1 - 1828 As stone construction became more commonplace, three distinct styles appeared in Woonsocket in the nineteenth century. All three can be seen in the area around the intersection of Court Street, Front Street and Hamlet Avenue (just over the Court Street Bridge from Main Street) at the old Bernon Mill complex and the old Courthouse. Many early mills were built of long, flat stones layered together with mortar to close the cracks. This simple construction method used large turnbuckles to keep the walls from collapsing outward. A fine example of this style is the #1 mill in the Bernon Mill complex. Built in 1827-28, this building is the earliest known example of a mill built according to "slow burning" specifications (noncombustible walls, heavy timber posts and beams and double plank floors). Another example is the Ballou-Harris-Lippitt Mill on Main Street.

Bernon Mill #2 - 1833 A second style of stone architecture which appeared in the early nineteenth century probably represents the highest degree of craftsmanship that a stonemason can achieve. In this method, individual stones are custom shaped on all six sides to fit in a particular location in the wall. This work was generally done on-site and no two stones are alike. A fine example of this style, also from the Bernon Mill complex, is the #2 mill built in 1833. This beautifully proportioned building, built in the Greek Revival Style, it is the only mill built in Rhode Island in which utility was significantly subordinated to aesthetic considerations. Other examples include the 1822 Jenckes Mill at 96 Mill Street (former Electronic Molding Corporation site) and the 1828 Jenckes Mill at 767 Social Street.

The third stonework style, which developed in the later half of the nineteenth century, utilized stone blocks which were squared off at the quarry. Buildings constructed in this manner did not require the same level of local craftsmanship at the building site since most of the shaping was done at the quarry. Still, these buildings generally have a rugged and handsome appearance. Examples include the 1896 Courthouse on Front Street and the 1889 addition to City Hall.

Cross section of the factory or lantern style roof Even with non-combustible walls, the light joisted floors and roofs of many early mills presented a continuing fire threat. A common roofing system in the early nineteenth century was the lantern or factory roof. In this roof, typified by the #1 mill in the Bernon Mill complex, a row of lantern windows provided light to the attic area. Unfortunately, this attic was of limited use and since it was too small for machines. The area was generally used for storage, providing combustible material to fuel a potential fire. Other examples include the 1822 Jenckes Mill at 97 Mill Street in Woonsocket and the 1828 Jenckes Mill at 767 Social Street in Woonsocket.

Cross section of the pitched style roof A simpler pitched roof system also developed around this time - often with dormers to allow light into the attic space. In some cases, the attic floor supported by the roof rafters which eliminated the need for supporting posts on the top floor. Examples include the 1833 Bernon Mill in Woonsocket and the 1836 Ballou-Harris-Lippitt Mill on Main Street in Woonsocket

Typical mill construction of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries By the late 1800’s,the idea of “slow burning” construction was in wide spread use This construction included non-combustible walls, with thick plank floors and roof with joists massed into larger beams to reduce the risk of fire. This style can be readily seen in many of the later mills built in Woonsocket in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries such as the French Worsted and the LaFayette Worsted Mills in the Hamlet district.

This page utilizes information from:

  • Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
  • Old Woonsocket - erastus & doc written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by Mowbray Company of Providence, RI in 1973.
  • The Factory Mutuals - 1835-1935 published by the Manufacturers Mutual Insurance Company, Providence, RI 1935.
For Woonsocket residents, both books are available at the Woonsocket Harris Public Library.

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