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.  

Seal used by the East Smithfield (R. I.) Water District

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.

     To see documents related to the East Smithfield Water District click here:  East Smithfield Water District $1,000 Bond  and : East Smithfield Water District Documents

A House Divided

By Jim Ignasher

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine, January 2011.

dividedIt was a battle for which there were no clear winners. What began as a labor issue at Esmond Mills developed into a strike, which later escalated to violence in the streets.  When it was over, at least a dozen people had been injured, private property had been destroyed, and one man had taken his own life. This is one of the darker chapters of Smithfield’s past – the story of the Esmond labor strike of 1913.

Labor issues were common in the early 20th Century, for it was a time of union organizers vs. corporate management, and both sides saw themselves as being in the right. It was also a time when the textile industry was booming in Rhode Island, and manufacturers were reaping huge profits.

There were several issues that led to the strike at Esmond Mills, but the most important was money.  Union officials from the Industrial Workers of the World, (I.W.W.) were demanding a twenty percent pay increase for all employees, which mill management saw as outrageous, and counter-offered considerably less.  When no agreement could be reached a strike was declared on January 10, 1913.

Going on strike was a risky proposition, for many workers lived in mill owned housing, and only as long as the mill employed them. They also faced the possibility of being “black balled” from getting employment elsewhere. Striking also meant no paycheck for food and other necessities.  Furthermore, there were always those looking for work that had no qualms about crossing a picket line. Therefore, one could easily find themselves in worse circumstances than before the strike.  

Since the mill was the largest employer in Esmond, local businesses relied on workers willing to spend their paychecks, but since workers now had no money to spend, some merchants suffered. The first casualty of the strike was a financially strapped Georgiaville butcher who reportedly took his own life due to the loss of revenue created by the situation. On the morning of January 20th he was found dead in his shop from a self-inflected gunshot wound.  The unfortunate man left a wife and three children.

On that same day, the mill superintendent announced that the mill would remain closed “ten years or twenty years” rather than give in to the union’s demands.  Despite this prediction, the mill reopened just five days later after hiring new workers.

It was also on that same day that one-hundred workers from the Allendale Mill in nearby Greystone walked out of their jobs in support of those in Esmond.

In the meantime, negotiations were taking place with both sides holding firm. Union meetings were held in the Graystone fire station, where some workers expressed a desire to return to their jobs while they still could, while others opted to remain on strike. Union leaders beseeched members to stand together in solidarity, but many of the men had more than just themselves to consider; they had families to feed.

By February 1, the union opened a soup kitchen at the fire station, but by then many had already returned to their jobs.  In response to this, union officials tried to encourage the remaining strikers by claiming their ranks were growing every day, but the men could see for themselves that such was not the case. The union made the same assertions to the press, but mill management told reporters that some men would return to their jobs in the morning only to walk out again afterward while trying to induce others to follow. The union, they stated, was claiming these same men as new recruits.

Tensions grew, and deputy sheriffs were brought in to assist local police in preventing strikers from harassing those who crossed the picket line.  This led some to change their tactics.  Since many newly hired workers were from outside the village, they would commute via the trolley line that once ran along Waterman Avenue.  On February 5, large stones from a cemetery wall were placed across the trolley tracks, and when the trolley came to a stop it was attacked by thugs who broke the windows and injured some of those aboard.  Others in the group attempted to cut telephone lines, presumably to prevent calls for assistance by police.

The riotous incident had a sobering effect on mill management who agreed to some concessions two days later.  Those concessions included an advance in wages since many were without money, no rent increase in company housing, and time and a quarter for overtime.

The strike was now four weeks old, and both sides were suffering financially, yet despite concessions, both sides stood firm on their position over the proposed twenty percent wage increase.  It now came down to who would blink first. The union boasted that it had plenty of funds to pay strikers while they were out of work, (Although there was evidence to the contrary.) and mill management claimed to be running at two-thirds capacity while union officials put the figure closer to ten percent.   

In spite of the wage obstacle, newspapers reported that the strike was “nearly ended”. The papers had to retract those words four days later when violence once again erupted along Waterman Avenue.  On February 11, several gunshots were fired at a trolley car filled with workers as it made its way from the mill towards North Providence. The shots were followed by a hail of rocks which shattered the car’s windows.  Remarkably, only one person was injured, and fortunately not seriously, but the conveyance suffered considerable damage. 

Problems also arose outside the mill where strikers sparred with police, harassed female employees, and tried using use force in keeping workers out. Four Smithfield men were arrested that day on various charges, including assault.

Mill villages such as Esmond were generally quiet communities consisting of hard-working, God-fearing people, where violent labor disputes such as the one being experienced were unknown.  After the second horrifying attack on a trolley, one striker told a reporter that most of them were ready to return to work if the mill management would make an offer that was fair to both sides.  Wages were still the sticking point, but it was obvious that some compromise had to be reached, for the mill needed workers to make a profit, and workers needed the mill to make a living.  As the saying goes, a house divided cannot stand.

A settlement was reached on February 17th, where it was agreed that workers would receive a pay increase from five to fifteen percent based on the skill level their individual job required.  It was also agreed that the Industrial Workers of the World Union would no longer be recognized as a bargaining agent. 

The Esmond labor strike was only one example of what was taking place all across the country at that time as union men in every industry sought to organize.  In many ways, what happened in Esmond was mild by comparison.

Those employed at Esmond Mills eventually joined another union as unions continued to grow in power and influence, but it was this same power and influence that eventually caused mills throughout New England to close their doors and relocate to the southern states where unions were virtually non-existent.

In 1948, Esmond Mills was sold, and the new owners moved all textile manufacturing operations to Georgia. Afterward, the nearly 1,100 ex-workers applied for severance pay as stipulated under their union contract, but the applications were denied.  The Textile Workers Union of America, which represented the workers at that time, brought the matter before the United States Mediation and Conciliation Service which subsequently ruled against the former employees. This decision cost the ex-workers an estimated $870.000.

Today, the old Esmond Mills stands as a brick monument to a bygone era. The building where hundreds of workers once made their living now serves as a warehouse.


Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲