Smithfield, R. I., First Fire Engine

     In 1829, the present day city of Central Falls, R. I., was still part of the town of Smithfield.  In some ways, it was “downtown” Smithfield.  On January 11, 1829, a fire destroyed a cotton factory belonging to Stephen Jenks & Sons in Central Falls.  Afterwards, some of the local citizens advocated for the purchase of a fire engine, but for reasons unknown, the idea was opposed by others.   It’s unclear if a fire engine for Central Falls was purchased at that time.  

       According to the history section the Central Falls Fire Department website, the Central Falls Fire District wasn’t established until 1847.  

     In June of 1848, two fire engines were purchased, one for Pawtucket, and the other for Central Falls.  Both were made by the L Button Company of Waterford, New York.  Both engines are believed to have been “hand tubs”.  

Smithfield’s first fire engine, the Water Witch. Chief Andrew Whipple in photo.

     The Pawtucket engine  later came to be owned by the Greenville Fire Company in Smithfield in 1876, and was dubbed by Greenville firemen “The Water Witch”.  The Water Witch saw service in Greenville until the early 1920s when a motorized fire engine was purchased by the fire company.   The Water Witch was then kept as a parade piece by the fire company until World War II when it mysteriously disappeared while on loan to the Chepachet Fire Company.  Its whereabouts today is still unknown.   

     To learn more about the Water Witch click here:  Mystery of the Water Witch 

     To learn more about the origin of the Greenville Fire Co., click here: Greenville Fire Company 

Click on images to enlarge.

Pawtucket Chronicle and Rhode Island and Massachusetts Register
January 17, 1829

Pawtucket Chronicle and Rhode Island and Massachusetts Register
January 17, 1829

Herald of the Times & Rhode Islander
January 21, 1847

Pawtucket Gazette and Chronicle
April 7, 1848

Pawtucket Gazette and Rhode Island and Massachusetts Register
June 30, 1848

Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle
August 30, 1861

Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle
September 20, 1861

Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle
May 4, 1866

Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle
November 12, 1869

Pawtucket Gazette & Chronicle
April 21, 1882


The Wionkiege Valley Fire Company

The Wionkiege Valley Volunteer Fire Company


Some of the members of the Wionkhiege Valley Volunteer Fire Department

(In Photo – Left to Right) Rutledge Mollander Jr., David Russell, Tom Fagnant, Walter Goudie, Milton Lizotte, Rutledge “Ray” Mollander Sr., and Frank Maxcy.  


     Many paid fire departments across the country can trace their roots to volunteer fire companies, and Smithfield’s fire department is one such example. Before there was a “Smithfield Fire Department”, the town was protected by two volunteer fire companies; one in Greenville, the other in Georgiaville. Few may realize that there was also a third volunteer fire company that protected the Wionkhiege Hill and Wionkhiege Valley portion of town. Although only in existence a relatively short time, it was a hotly contested aspect of Smithfield’s fire-fighting history.

     In the 1950s, Smithfield was still considered to be a close-knit, New England town. The villages of Greenville, Georgiaville, and Esmond, were well established commercial centers with much of the rest of the town still farmland and apple orchards. During the later part of the decade, the Wionkhiege part of town experienced an increase in growth prompting some who lived in that area to lobby for the creation of a new fire district.

     The proposed Wionkhiege Valley Fire District would service roughly eighty-five homes that were located within a two mile radius of the Latham Farm, which was located near the intersection of Log and Burlingame Roads. Area residents felt that better fire protection was needed due to the distance they lived from the Georgiaville and Greenville fire stations, as well as the narrow, twisting, roads leading to the area that would hinder a fire engine’s response time. The plan wasn’t to eliminate the need for the other fire companies, but to simply shorten response time and slow a fire’s progress until fire engines from Greenville and Georgiaville could arrive.

     The driving force behind the proposal was Mrs. Corielynn Latham, the only woman to ever organize a fire company in Smithfield. She began her project by going door to door asking for monetary donations to start the company. When enough money had been raised, Secretary of State John A. Notte granted a charter for the formation of the fire company, and in the second week of September, 1958, the Wionkhiege Valley Volunteer Fire Company was formally established.

     A garage that once stood on Log Road at the intersection of Burlingame Rd. was used to house the company’s fire trucks, and the first company meeting was held there at which time company officers were elected. Daniel W. Latham was elected president; William Martineau, vice president; Edward Jacques, secretary; and Harry Gardner, treasurer.

     Mrs. Latham, Mrs. John Mura, Rutledge Mollander, Hugh Brown, Walter Goudie, Ralph Farrar, and Charles Campbell were all elected to serve as a board of directors, with Mrs. Latham and Mrs. Mura also serving in the ladies auxiliary.

     The signers of the charter were Daniel Latham, Edward Jacques, John Mura, Wyit Wright, John McGirr, and Burton Mowry      

This cast aluminum plaque once adorned a volunteer fireman’s vehicle.

The new fire company held a square dance three weeks later to raise funds for equipment. Before long, the W.V.V.F.C. purchased a second-hand Ward LaFrance pumper truck from Richmond, Rhode Island. Members of the company also hand-built a custom Ford tank-truck which carried eight-hundred gallons of water.

     Volunteers also created twenty cisterns throughout the district from which the pumper could draw water in the event of a fire.

     The new firemen received training from Lt. Ronald R. Jones of the Cranston Fire Department, as well as courses in first-aid and lifesaving from the Red Cross.    

     Things seemed to be going well. Wionkhiege residents had the fire protection they were seeking, and the town gained two additional pieces of fire apparatus that could be called into service if needed.   Yet surprisingly, not everyone was in favor of the new fire company as evidenced by newspaper articles of the era. There were those who claimed the added fire protection wasn’t needed, and actively sought to have the W.V.V.F.C. abolished!

     The issue wasn’t personal, but political, and residents and officials from all sides weighed in. In 1961, voters were asked to decide if town funding should be granted to the W.V.V.F.C. to allow it to continue operating. Despite some objections, voters granted funding.

     Yet the debate continued prompting members of the Town Council to request a comprehensive study as to the necessity of having a third fire district in town. The study was conducted by the Smithfield Planning Board, which released its findings in early 1962.

     Their report stated in part, “That the adequacy of fire protection needs in the Wionkhiege Valley area does not warrant the creation of a new fire district but does warrant the establishment of an Engine Company in this area.”

     It went on to state, “That said Engine Company should be completely subject to and made an integral part of, the established Fire Department in Greenville.” Adding that, “Training programs, equipment needs, personnel matters, general administration and finance should be the sole responsibility of the chief of the Greenville Department.”

     The report also recommended a fire engine capable of pumping 500 gallons of water per minute, a suitable fire station in a central location, and the installation of a fire alarm system that would simultaneously ring at both the Engine Company station and the Greenville fire station.

     The report concluded with, “If the above recommendations are approved and carried out, the Rating Assn. has assured the Board that there would be a reduction in the fire insurance rates within this area.”

     While some viewed the report as a victory, others saw it as a contradiction, for there already was a fire station with two fire engines in the area.      

     The Wionkhiege firemen decided to fight back, and on May 10, 1962, two days before the Town Financial Meeting, the following letter appeared in The Observer.

     Dear Editor:

     It has been a year since the people of the Town of Smithfield voted their approval of expending funds for the operation of the Wionkhiege Valley Fire Company. The Volunteers of the Company are extremely grateful for this recognition and have sought to spend their appropriation wisely. As you know, this appropriation was voted by the people in spite of the Town Council’s stand that we did not need fire protection in this area. This year, however, the Council has changed its position in view of reports from the Planning Board and the New England Fire Insurance Rating Association. Having been enlightened by the experts, their position is that we should have a permanent station, a new pumper, and other equipment in accordance with N.E.F.I.R.A. regulations. This is more than we planned to ask for on our own and naturally has great appeal. However, the Council has sought to take away from us our greatest asset. Their recommendation is that we eliminate the Wionkhiege Valley Fire Company and be swallowed up by the Greenville Fire Company. Our finances, personnel matters and general administration would be taken over solely by the Chief of the Greenville Department. In effect, we would lose our identity. This would kill the spirit which has carried us along to where we are; and the one most important asset of a volunteer organization is spirit. Once that is lost the organization slowly falls apart. We are therefore appealing to you, the voter, to continue your faith in our work, and give us our appropriation, or any portion of it you feel is proper, after hearing the discussion at the meeting. But, don’t be a party to our downfall and give our appropriation to the Greenville Company. All we ask is the opportunity to govern ourselves in the American tradition. Give us this opportunity by giving careful consideration to our request from the floor at the Town Financial Meeting on May 12.

      The letter was signed, The Volunteer Firemen of the Wionkhiege Valley Fire Company.    

     Despite their best efforts, the Wionkhiege Valley Fire Company was forced to disband. Following the Planning Board’s recommendations, the town built the Log Road fire station, (Today known as Station 3), which opened in June of 1964.  

















The Great Greenville Conflagration of 1924

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2011

Author’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series of articles.  J.I.  


Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”.  It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

Between 1876 and 1924, Greenville’s best defense against fire was this antique hand-pumper affectionately named the “Water Witch”. It took quite a few men, and a lot of stamina to operate it. (Photo courtesy of Priscilla W. Holt.)

It was an intense blaze that broke out on a cold winter’s night in the very heart of Greenville, at an hour when most citizens were snug in their beds. When it was over, two prominent landmarks had been destroyed, six businesses and the post office were gone, and three families were left homeless. Had it not been for the brave efforts of volunteer firefighters, it could have been much worse.

Try to picture the village of Greenville as it looked in the early years of the 20th Century.  There was the town common, somewhat larger than it is today, crowned by the picturesque Baptist Church, and lined with 19th Century buildings that have since been replaced by parking lots, or newer structures.  A barn once stood where the Greenville fire station is today. The famed Waterman Tavern stood just to the right of it, still looking much as it did the day it was built with its frontal portion still intact. Route 44, known then as the Powder Mill Turnpike, was still an unpaved, two-lane road that was periodically sprayed with oil to keep the dust down.  

The old Smithfield Exchange Bank still stands on Route 44 at the intersection of Smith Avenue.  In 1924, the village fire apparatus, consisting primarily of an ancient hand-pumper, was stored in the basement of this building.

Across the street on the corner of Smith Avenue stood the general store of W. A. Battey & Son, formerly occupied by Oscar Tobey. This building also housed the Greenville Post Office, the village lock-up, an upstairs meeting hall, and three apartments.  (Wood Items & More now occupies this site.) 

Next to Battey’s store stood a large wooden building containing five businesses, one being an automobile repair shop belonging to A. Howard Hopkins. Like most of the structures in Greenville at the time, the building was an old one with dry timbers and oiled floors; perfect fuel to feed the beast. It is there that the fire started. 

Shortly before 4 a.m. on January 23, 1924, William Kelley happened to look from the window of his apartment above the old Smithfield Exchange Bank, and saw flames shooting through a window of Hopkins’ Garage.  He quickly made his way to the basement under the bank and activated the fire siren.  Its lonesome wail droned throughout the village calling volunteers from their warm beds into the frosty night air.  As the men left their homes still groggy from sleep, they could smell the smoky haze that was beginning to hang over the village, and knew their slumber had not been disturbed for nothing.  

Kelley and others pulled the antique fire engine from under the bank and maneuvered it across the street. Greenville had no fire hydrants then, and the most obvious source of water, Hopkins Pond directly behind the burning auto garage, was frozen over.  As men swung axes to break through the ice, others dragged a suction hose to the shore.  While the firemen worked furiously to gain access to water, the flames spread to the Wheelwright shop next door, and then to Thornton’s Ice Cream shop, likely traveling unchecked through the building’s common loft.  By the time water was brought to bear the fire was out of control, and the primitive fire apparatus lacked the capability to halt its progress.   

92-year-old Ralph Battey of Greenville recently recalled his memories of the blaze as he watched from his bedroom window.  “My grandfather (Walter A. Battey) called the Providence fire department for help, but they wouldn’t come unless he promised to give them one-hundred dollars!” 

His grandfather agreed to pay, for what choice did he have?  It was clear the fire was going to spread unless more help arrived.  One engine from Johnston came on the scene and took up a position beside the Greenville men. Shortly afterwards, the heat of the flames broke the overhead power lines causing them to fall across Route 44 near the intersection of Pleasant View Avenue.  According to Mr. Battey, when volunteers from Centerdale arrived they refused to go any further due to the downed power lines.  An engine from Providence arrived a short time later, but stopped when they encountered the Centerdale crew.  Radio communications for fire departments were non-existent in that era, and when the telephone lines went down any more calls for assistance became impossible. 

Newspaper accounts relate that firemen did their best to attack the flames and stem their progress, but fire breathes and consumes like a living being, and despite their best efforts the flames broke past all barriers.  Before long the entire building was ablaze, with flames now consuming C. E. Walcott’s blacksmith shop and Keach’s paint shop.  

The flames then jumped to Battey’s general store, igniting the clapboards, and racing across the wood-shingled roof. Before long it too was beyond saving. Those who had been evacuated from the apartments above the store took refuge in St. Thomas Church across the street, but the wind pushed flames and embers towards the church’s roof and bell tower threatening to destroy that building too.

About a thousand feet away on Austin Avenue stood a woolen mill now occupied by Cortland Place assisted living.  The mill had its own fire hydrants, and steam-pressure fire-fighting system.  Hose was laid from the mill to the fire scene where volunteers took up a defensive position on Smith Avenue between the church and general store spraying down the church roof and that of the parsonage behind it to halt the fire’s progress.  Meanwhile, other firefighters continued to attack the flames in what was now a “surround and drown” operation. The fire burned so hot that the icy pond water turned to steam as it hit the flames, sending out tiny water droplets that hung in the air and formed icicles on the firemen’s leather helmets and mustaches. 

 The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)

The aftermath of the Greenville fire of January 23, 1924.(Smithfield Fire Dept. Photo)

It took two more hours to bring the conflagration under control.  When it was over, both buildings were a total loss, but fortunately nobody had been hurt, and St. Thomas Church, although scorched, remained intact. The cause of the fire was never determined.

Fortunately much of the loss was covered by insurance, and new buildings were constructed on the old sites.  Had the fire taken place just two months earlier, Smithfield would have lost more than just buildings, it would have lost a good portion of its history, for up until November of 1923, all of the town’s records, including land deeds, birth, marriage, and death records, had been stored in the general store.

The devastating fire also proved to the citizens of Greenville that it was time to establish a modern fire department.  The old “Water Witch” fire engine dated to the 1860s, and was obsolete even when it was purchased from the City of Pawtucket in 1876.  The following year, a 1924 Reo fire engine was obtained, giving Greenville its first motorized fire apparatus.


Next in the trilogy: The Rift That Nearly Divided the Town – Again 

Long Lost Local Lore about Lightning

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2010

Long Lost Local Lore about LightningIt was May 3, 1878, and Daniel Aldrich was tending to his farm on Log Road when he heard the rumble of thunder in the distance, but thought nothing of it.  It was after all, mid-spring, generally not the time to worry about severe electrical storms. The next time he heard it the sound was closer, and he noticed the sky was now visibly darker.  The storm was getting closer, and even before the first drops began to fall, Daniel noted that the air now “smelled” like rain.  Just to be on the safe side, he went into the barn to feed the livestock until the storm passed.

He was hardly inside when the skies opened up and the rain began pelting the roof, but what came next was an experience he would always remember.  There was a blinding flash of light followed by a tremendous clap of thunder that seemed to erupt almost directly overhead, the sound of which seemed to shake the solid oak timbers of the barn.  That was startling enough, but what happened next was even more remarkable.  Almost immediately, several orbs of glowing light came bounding through the door and began dancing about the barn!  Before Daniel could even comprehend and react to what was happening, the orbs abruptly vanished leaving behind the distinctive smell of sulfur, often referred to in the 19th Century as “brimstone”, a sure omen of evil.

The whole ordeal was over in a few seconds, but Daniel and his livestock were left understandably shaken.  Emerging from the barn he could see that the only real casualty of the incident was an ancient Ash tree fifty feet away that had been split into three parts, its bark completely blown away by the bolt of lightning.  Even more intriguing were the three darkened pathways leading away from the tree; one directly to the door of the barn, where the lightning had evidently traveled underground.  

The incident was so unusual that it was reported in the Woonsocket Patriot where the event was described as one of “considerable excitement”. 

What Daniel had apparently witnessed was an extremely rare phenomenon known today as “ball lightning”.  It’s so unusual that some scientists dispute its existence, but it’s likely that if Daniel were around today he would argue the point.

A lightning storm can be fascinating to watch.  We see a flash of light, followed by a tremendous boom, and count off the seconds between the two to roughly determine how far off the storm is.  The spectacular light shows provided courtesy of Mother Nature can be beautiful, yet destructive and deadly, so we observe with reverent care.  Few spectators ever consider how lighting has played a role in the course of history.  

It is believed that early man got his first fire from lightning strikes.  Ancient civilizations thought of thunder and lightning as a sign that the gods were angry, and planned their politics and wars accordingly. 

Benjamin Franklin attempted to scientifically understand the properties of lightning, and the image of him flying a kite in the middle of an electrical storm comes to mind, although experts and historians are divided as to whether that actually happened.  What Franklin did invent was the lightning rod, no doubt responsible for saving many buildings (Some even in Smithfield.) that might otherwise have been destroyed.   

Lightning has even played a role in shaping local history, for it could be said that lightning was responsible for Smithfield obtaining its first fire engine which ultimately led to the formation of the Greenville Fire Company. On the night of June 20, 1870, as a thunderstorm passed over Greenville, lightning struck Whipple & Co. Wheelwright Shop located in the heart of the village on Putnam Pike where a florist shop stands today.  As shouts of “fire” sounded, a bucket brigade was hastily formed, but the flames had gotten a good start and before long a neighboring building was also in flames.  By morning, all that was left were piles of smoldering ruins.

The incident proved the need for better fire protection so a horse drawn hand-pumper, dubbed “The Water Witch”, was purchased shortly afterwards.  The apparatus arrived in Greenville in time for the July 4th celebration that year, and saw continuous service into the early 20th Century no doubt saving lives, livelihoods, and property that otherwise would have been lost.  

It could be argued that Smithfield’s landscape in the 1800s made for a greater potential for lighting strikes to buildings and people.  By the second half of the 19th Century, the land had been cleared of many trees, leaving large tracts of open vistas as wood was harvested for everything from lumber, to heating and cooking.  Although there are instances where buildings were set afire by lightning strikes, a search of town death records reveals that lightning strikes on people were just as rare then as they are today.  Unfortunately, when they did occur, it was with tragic results.

On May 27, 1878, just four weeks after Mr. Aldrich’s hair raising affair, four men arrived at Waterman’s Lake for a day of canoeing and fishing.   It was a beautiful day and the fishing was good.  After awhile, the men rowed ashore to an island in the middle of the lake where they cleaned their catch and built a small fire.  As they were preparing their meal a fast moving storm came over and rain started to fall.  The men weren’t overly concerned, and stayed relatively dry under the pines while waiting for the return of the sun.  Suddenly a bolt of lightning hit the very tree they were sitting under, blasting it apart and tossing the men several feet.  A newspaper account described the men as “mangled” by the strike.  Killed instantly were Daniel Norton, of Smithfield, and William Colvin, of Scituate.  The other two men, Jeremiah Angel, and Daniel’s brother Eugene, were severely injured.  

Even large and sturdy buildings such as textile mills were not immune from the destructive forces of lightning.  On March 21, 1940, Smithfield’s fire and police departments were summoned to the Lister Mill in Stillwater after a bolt of lightning had struck the 180 foot tall smoke stack and completely blasted away the upper two-thirds of the solid brick structure.  Tons of debris came crashing down through the roof smashing equipment, damaging machinery, and injuring three workers.  To make matters worse, the bolt had also set fire to the roof, and the whole structure could have been destroyed had it not been for the quick actions of both workers and firemen in dousing the flames.  Damage was estimated at fifty-thousand dollars, a substantial sum even today, and a remarkable sum for 1940.    

It has been said that lightning never strikes twice in the same place, yet the very same chimney had also been hit by lightning two years earlier causing eight-thousand dollars in damage.   

Smithfield has seen its share of lightning strikes, and will no doubt see more in the future.  In recent times lightning has been responsible for the disruption of power and phone service.  A small inconvenience when one considers what else can happen.


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