Smithfield’s “Powder Mill” Turnpike

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, February – 2012

By Jim Ignasher

 powdermill1We’ve all been there; stuck in heavy traffic while negotiating Route 44, cursing the malls and those who promised that overdevelopment wouldn’t bring any additional congestion to the area. (Yeah, right.) Those old enough to remember can recall a time when the ride through Apple Valley was rather pleasant, and one didn’t have to stop at a red light every twenty feet. Yet even they might be hard pressed to imagine a time when Smithfield’s busiest roadway was nothing more than a narrow, unnamed, dirt path, traveled on foot by those brave enough to venture into what was then “the outlands” of Providence.

Route 44, aka Putnam Pike, is an old road dating to the earliest days of New England.  It’s also a long one, stretching for 236 miles from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Kerhonkson, New York.  The Rhode Island portion runs for slightly more than 26 miles, about four-and-a-half of which pass through Smithfield.

Many of New England’s early roads like Route 44 began as simple paths that tended to follow the lay of the land, and most remained as such throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Travel along such routes was fraught with hazards, from hostile marauders and highwaymen, to wild animals such as wolves, bears, and even the occasional cougar; not to mention other calamities that could befall a traveler like severe weather and accidents.  If one found themselves in trouble, there was no AAA to call.

In the 1790s private corporations known as turnpike companies began to appear.  These companies were chartered by the state to improve old roads, or in some cases build new ones for the purpose of charging fees and making a profit.  The term “improve” seemed to carry a broad definition, for even the best roads turned to muck during the rainy season, and in winter there were no snow plows to clear the way. Even in fair weather the roads were dusty and rutted, and riding in a coach or wagon could be a teeth-rattling experience.

These toll roads came to be called “turnpikes”, or “pikes” for short. The term seems to have originated after a type of gate or turnstile that was sometimes used which had sharp pointed ends said to resemble ancient weapons known as pikes.  However, in reality, most tollgates were not that elaborate.    Travelers had to stop at a “toll house” which was usually located next to a gate that blocked the roadway, and the toll keeper charged a rate based on the number of persons, oxen, wagons, etc.

In 1810, a petition was granted by the Rhode Island General Assembly to form the Powder Mill Turnpike Corporation, which authorized the construction and improvement of the roadway that ran from Waterman’s Tavern in Greenville, eastward through Johnston and North Providence, ending at the Providence town line.  The corporation was so named after a gunpowder mill that once stood in Centerdale about the time of the American Revolution.  Unfortunately, the mill met with a tragic end when it was destroyed by a devastating explosion.

The number of toll gates along a turnpike was left to the option of the turnpike corporation.  At least one toll gate is said to have existed where Routes 44 and 5 intersect. According to James McVey, a retired Deputy Chief of the Smithfield Police, this intersection was also the first in town to require a traffic light.  Today there are no less than nine traffic lights along the Smithfield stretch of Putnam Pike, with at least nine others scattered throughout the town.

 There were some who discovered ways to by-pass the toll gates and evade the fees by traveling on side paths known as “Shun Pikes”, a name still found on contemporary maps of some communities.

The Powder Mill Turnpike Corporation remained in business for about fifty years.  After its dissolution, the portion of road located in North Providence became known as Smith Street, but in Johnston and Smithfield it retained the name, Powder Mill Turnpike.  Sometime in the early half of the 20th Century, the name was changed to Putnam Turnpike, aka, Putnam Pike, in honor of the famous Revolutionary War hero, General Israel Putnam.  Exactly why the name was chosen is not clear, but perhaps it was because the road leads to Putnam, Connecticut, which is also named for him.

Besides distinguishing himself as a great military leader, Putnam became locally famous earlier in life when he crawled into a cave and shot a large wolf that had been terrorizing the countryside and killing livestock.  The exact location where this incident occurred can be found in Mashamoquet Brook State Park, aka, Wolf Den Park, in Pomfret, Connecticut.

Before the days of motels, gas stations, and restaurants, weary travelers simply camped by the roadside, or stayed at inns and taverns. Smithfield boasted at least two taverns along “the Pike”; Waterman’s Tavern, built in 1730, and the newer Thomas Paine Tavern, built about 1790.  The back ell of the old Waterman Tavern still exists, but the Paine Tavern was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Apple Valley Mall.

Some longtime residents may remember when Brown University kept its mascot, a live brown bear, in a pen behind the old Paine Tavern when it was owned by the Walcott family.  Some parents of today would be shocked to learn that school children sometimes took field trips to feed and pet the bear!

In 1822, Smithfield’s oldest church, (The Greenville Baptist Church.) was built in Greenville. This was a significant development, for at that time a village church meant civilization and stabilization.  Church steeples were often the tallest structures in rural country areas, and travelers would look for them in the distance to let them know a respectable and God fearing settlement lay ahead.

The jurisdiction of the Powder Mill Turnpike Corporation ended at Waterman’s Tavern, with the “unimproved” road continuing west towards Connecticut.  Until the early half of the 19th century, the area presently occupied by Waterman’s Reservoir was a muddy swamp that was nearly impossible to cross at certain times of the year.  As a result, many travelers used an alternate route followed by present-day Austin Avenue to circumvent the wetlands.  In 1838, a dam was built which created the reservoir to supply water for the mills.  At the same time a causeway was created which is still in use today to allow traffic to safely pass over the water.  

As for Austin Avenue, it was formerly known as Killingly Road, and later, Old Killingly Road, until it was re-dedicated in the 1930s to the memory of Private Ernest E. Austin of Greenville, who was killed in France during World War I.   

Early mass transportation along the Pike was in the form of stage coaches, and there were several companies that plied their trade through Smithfield.  Some advertised that their coaches were the fastest, while others emphasized comfort based on “modern” suspension systems that took the bumps out of the unpaved and often rutted roadways.

By 1895, electric trolleys began making runs along the Pike from Providence to Burrillville, undercutting the stage coaches in speed, comfort, and reliability.  Before long, the old horse-drawn coaches became relics of the past.

By the early 1900s, the first automobiles began to appear; a harbinger of what was to come.  Inevitably, with the auto came auto accidents. The first recorded automobile-related fatality in Smithfield occurred November 4, 1911, when a 22 year-old man fell from a moving truck as it passed through Greenville. Unfortunately, many horrible wrecks have occurred along the Pike since then.

As more and more automobiles took to the nation’s roads the trolleys went the way of the stage coach, and by 1935 trolley service in Smithfield was discontinued.  

By the late 1940s Putnam Pike was well on its way to becoming the bustling thoroughfare that it is today.  Before asphalt was laid, old motor oil was recycled by spraying it onto the dirt road to keep the dust down; something that would never be permitted today.

Little by little, the wooded vistas along the Pike disappeared as houses and small business sprang up along the roadside, only to be torn down and replaced by something else later on.  There was the Route 44 Drive-in, located where Interstate 295 is today; Gavitt’s Ice Cream, and the Diary Queen, now a hair salon and a gas station; the Hearthside Bowling Lanes, now a drug store, and the Scuncio Chevrolet dealership that is now a supermarket; just to name a few.  What began as “progress” ultimately became urban sprawl.

Looking towards the future, one might surmise that “progress” will continue, for even today there are those who advocate further development along the old Powder Mill Turnpike. As the old is torn down, replaced by the newer and bigger, one can rest assured as they wait in stalled traffic that those responsible will have promised there would be no additional congestion.

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