The Battle to Bring Water to Smithfield

A $1,000 water bond issued by the East Smithfield Water District in 1937.

A $1,000 water bond issued by the East Smithfield Water District in 1937.

First published in Your Smithfield Magazine, November, 2010. 

By Jim Ignasher

In today’s day and age, we take it for granted that when we turn on the tap, clean safe drinking water will come out.  Yet we never stop to think about where the water comes from, or how it gets delivered.  Of course we know the water is supplied through underground pipes, but many would be surprised to learn that not everyone was in favor of installing those pipes – at least not in Smithfield.   This begs the question, why? 

Why, indeed?  For everybody knows that clean water is essential for the health and life-blood of all human beings, but when it was proposed to bring a safe drinking water system to Smithfield in the early 1930s the idea was met with strong resistance.  Apparently there were some who felt their drinking water was clean enough, or at least adequate, even though in some cases their well was in close proximity of their outhouse.  Others drew their water from nearby rivers; the same rivers that mills and manufacturing plants used for dumping chemical waste and dyes. Waterborne diseases were common before modern purification techniques, but like the common cold, they were simply considered to be a part of everyday life; something that everyone had to endure at one time or another.  Why then, many reasoned, would anyone want to pay for water when they were already getting it for free?   This was especially true among mill owners who were already getting all the free water they wanted from the Woonasquatucket River and various reservoirs.

The idea of a water system for Smithfield was nothing new, but until the early 20th Century, Smithfield’s population wasn’t large enough to make such a system commercially viable. Basically, there had to be enough tax payers to keep rates low, and who were willing to assume the additional tax burden of creating and maintaining the system.  

According to a document written by William Demaine, a former Chairman of the Board of Managers of the East Smithfield Water District, the initial proposal was to build a town-wide water system whereby well water would be pumped to a one-million gallon storage tank atop of Wolf Hill, and gravity would create pressure in the pipelines that would allow delivery to homes. The installation of fire hydrants would increase fire protection.  However, the proposal was defeated at a town financial meeting held in the spring of 1933. It seems that voters from Greenville and Spragueville were more opposed to the project than those from Georgiaville and Esmond, the reasons for which were not recorded.

Despite the defeat, the idea remained a topic of conversation, and within a few months, another proposal was put forth at another town financial meeting to construct a water system for Stillwater, Georgiaville, and Esmond, as well as the portion of North Providence known as Greystone.  The incorporated area would be known as the East Smithfield Water District.

Yet this idea also met with opposition, primarily from the operators of the Esmond Mills, who objected to a $50,000 lien that would be placed against their capitol to be used towards funding the project, which they saw as an additional tax burden placed upon them without representation. This was actually a valid argument, for Esmond Mills was reportedly already paying one-third of the total tax assessment of the Town of Smithfield, and didn’t feel that they should incur an additional tax burden to the benefit of those living outside the village of Esmond, and even outside the Town of Smithfield.  Mill manager, Dexter Stevens, pointed out that despite the huge amount the company already paid in taxes, they were not entitled to even one vote at the town financial meeting when it came to voting on the proposed water system – thus, taxation without representation.   

It should also be noted that the Esmond area was already serviced by a water company known as the Smithfield Water Company, incorporated in 1925 as a subsidiary of the Esmond Mills. It presently supplied water to the mill, as well as many of the mill homes in the area.  

When these two points are considered, it’s understandable that the mill operators would raise objections.  

There were at that time about 800 people who relied on the Esmond Mills for their livelihood, but only those who owned property taxed at $133 dollars or higher were qualified to vote at the second financial town meeting. This effectively tilted the scales in favor of the project, and despite any objections, the proposal passed, with 234 in favor, 199 against. 

The East Smithfield Water District was then incorporated by an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly on February 23, 1934, but the battle raged on.

In a Providence Journal article dated March 31, 1935, Mr. Stevens warned that the Esmond Mills might relocate if forced to incur the additional tax burden. This was a scary possibility, not only for those employed by the mill, but for the town itself when it came to collecting taxes.  Esmond, it was inferred, could become a residential community with no income.  

An injunction was filed in Federal Court to block the project, with the Esmond Mills, the Smithfield Water Company, the Esmond Taxpayers Association, the Joseph Benn Corporation of Greystone, and several private citizens all listed as complainants.  The injunction asked that the East Smithfield Water District be prevented from accepting federal loan and grant money to proceed with the project, and to prevent the opening of contractors sealed bids to begin the work. The case was heard by Judge Ira Lloyd Letts, who allowed the bids to be opened after being informed that the government would hold back funding until all litigation was settled. The judge then consolidated all temporary and permanent injunctions so they could be heard together at a future date.

To make a long story short, history reveals that the project was allowed to proceed as agreements between opposing parties were worked out.  

In April of 1936, the East Smithfield Water District purchased land owned by the Joseph Benn Corporation of Greystone which contained a water distribution system that formally supplied the Greystone Mill and homes in that area.  The property was valued at $1,500, but the purchase and sales agreement read in part, “…but desiring to cooperate with the district in making possible said water supply system is willing to sell the property for $250.”

Likewise, the Esmond Mills and the Smithfield Water Company also reached an agreement with the district to sell a right-of-way, and the water company itself for the sum of one dollar! 

History does not record the reasons for the change of heart, but the issuance of water bonds may have had something to do with it.   

As a way to raise further funds to build and maintain the developing water system, a series of water bonds were issued by the district beginning in January of 1937, backed by The First National Bank of Boston.  One-hundred-and-fifty, $1,000 bonds were initially issued. The bonds promised bearers a $6,000 return on their investment, however interest payments would not begin until 1944, and would end in 1966. Subsequent bonds were issued in later years.

The East Smithfield Water District proved to be a successful business venture, and in subsequent years two other water districts were established in Smithfield; the Greenville Water District, and the Smithfield Water Supply Board.   

Today one might ask why Smithfield has three water districts when other towns only have one. The answer is simple, because the citizens wanted it that way.

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