Amos Cook Wood Lot Rent Receipt – 1836

Amos Cook Wood Lot Rent Receipt – 1836

From the archives of the Historical Society of Smithfield.

Click on image to enlarge.

Smithfield R.I. Tax Documents – 1818

Smithfield, Rhode Island, Tax Documents – 1818 

From the archives of the Historical Society of Smithfield.

Click on images to enlarge.

Opening page of the 1818 Smithfield tax record book.

From the 1818 Smithfield Tax Record Book.

From the 1818 Smithfield Tax Record Book.

The Smithfield Meeting House Lottery of 1807

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine- July, 2014

THE SMITHFIELD MEETING HOUSE

LOTTERY OF 1807

By Jim Ignasher

Click on image to enlarge.

All images are from the archives of the Historical Society of Smithfield. See more images below.

     Question: How many lottery tickets survive more than 200 years?

     Answer: Not many.

     That’s why the discovery of an envelope containing dozens of old tickets and paperwork from a long ago Smithfield lottery is so significant, for not only have the documents survived, they are in remarkably good condition considering they date to 1807!

     The tickets were for a lottery held to raise funds for a “Meeting House”, which in the early nineteenth century generally meant a church, and not a town hall as one might imagine today. Such lotteries were common for that era, often used for building projects such as schools, bridges, and roads, and even houses of worship. All such lotteries had to be sanctioned by the state to be considered legal.

     Discovering such a find raises some interesting questions; where was the meeting house built, and is it still standing?  

   The tickets were printed on plain white paper (Now yellowed with age.) using a printing press. The printer had taken the extra time to include fancy scroll work on each ticket which no doubt added to the labor costs, but helped to deter counterfeiting.

     Each ticket reads:

“SMITHFIELD MEETING-HOUSE LOTTERY

THIS Ticket shall entitle the bearer to receive the Prize that may

be drawn against its number, agreeably to an act of the Legislature of

the State of Rhode Island, passed at October Session, 1807. Subject

to a deduction of 12 ½ per cent.”

Each was signed Anamias Mowry, Manager.

     Every ticket is hand numbered and was printed in a series of “classes” from one through six. Evidently quite a few tickets of each class were sold due to the numbers printed on them. For example, one second class ticket was numbered 1495, and one sixth class ticket was numbered 1729.

     In 1807, the Town of Smithfield included the present day towns of North Smithfield, Lincoln, the City of Central Falls, and a portion of Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River. When one considers the fact that at the time of the lottery, the entire town had a population of less than 4,000 people one can surmise that this was a big lottery for the day.

     Included with the tickets was a document titled; “A COPY OF THE ACT FOR THE MEETING HOUSE LOTTERY” which reads as follows:

     State of Rhode Island                                            In General Assembly

   And Providence Plantations                                   October Session AD 1807

      Upon the motion of John Slater and others, praying that they may be enabled to raise the sum of four thousand dollars, by lottery, to be appropriated to build a meeting house in the Town of Smithfield. It is voted and resolved, that the payor of said petition be granted and that Seth Mowry, Robert Harris, Enos Mowry, and Anamias Mowry, of us therein named be appointed managers of said lottery, who are hereby empowered to raise said sum of money in one or more classes, provided they shall first give Bonds to the general treasurer, in the sum of forty thousand dollars conditioned for the faithful discharge of the trust hereby reposed in them –

 A true copy

Witness Samuel Eddy Secry.    

     There was also a piece of paper with accounting costs of managing the lottery submitted by Anamias Mowry.   It reads;

     “The account of Anamias Mowry Jr., one of the managers of the Smithfield Meeting House Lottery. The accountant charges himself with the following number of tickets – viz.”

     In the first class 333 tickets at 2 dollars each.           666

     In the second class500 tickets at 3 dollars each     1500

     In the third class 500 tickets at 3 dollars each         1500

     In the forth class 800 tickets at 3 dollars each        2400

     In the fifth class 700 tickets at 3 dollars each         2100

                                                                                     ——-

                                                                                     $ 8166

     The envelope did not contain any tickets from the fourth class, yet there were tickets from all of the other classes including a sixth class which was not mentioned in the itemized list. On the opposite side of the same piece of paper was an itemized list of expenses incurred by Mr. Mowry in the performance of his duties as manager of the lottery.

     “The accountant prays allowance of the following charges and payments – viz”

      1807 Nov. 13 to my going to Providence to give bank cash

     to the treasurer and other expenses                                                             $ 2.00

     Dec. 3 to my going to Providence to send a copy of the Act

     authorizing the lottery to the general treasurer                                            $2.00

     To cash paid for copying and postage                                                             .50

     To tickets unsold in the first class fifty one at two dollars each             $102.00

     To cash paid for prize tickets in the first class                                         $565.50

     To tickets in the hands of Seth Mowry that were in

     a policy of his and mine.                                                                         $58.00

     To cash paid for prizes in the second class                                             $1850.63

     Add to this sum                                                                                           $3.50

     To cash paid for tickets in the third class                                              $1366.75

       Add to this sum recd. of Arnold Mowry                                               $10.50

       Add to this sum                                                                                    $24.50

                                                                                                                     —————

                                                                                                                      $3927.88

                                                                                                                       $4031.95

                                                                                                                      —————-

                                                                                                                       $7959.83                

     One interesting thing about this document is that the math is wrong. When the figures are added up it should come out to $3985.88 and not $3927.88, a difference of $58. This was most likely an oversight, but the actual final total should have been $8017.83.   Where the additional $4031 came from is not indicated.

    So, what was the Smithfield Meeting House and where was it located?

     A book by Thomas Steere titled, “History of the Town of Smithfield from its Organization in 1730-1, to its Division in 1871”, published in 1881, makes a small notation about the 1807 lottery on page 62 that reads;

     “1807. October. John Slater having petitioned therefore, Seth Mowry, Robert Harris, Enos Mowry, and Anamias Mowry were empowered to raise four thousand dollars by lottery, to be appropriated to building a meeting house in the town of Smithfield.”

     John Slater was born in England in 1776, and came to America in 1803. In 1807 he built a mill along the Branch River in what is today known as the village of Slatersville in the town of North Smithfield. That same year he obtained permission to hold the Smithfield Meeting House Lottery to erect the first church or “meeting house” in the village.

     Houses of worship were important to village development in early America, for they represented civilization, propriety, and community stability. As a point of fact, the old Smithfield Meeting House has survived, and according to the Town of North Smithfield website, it still stands at 55-57 Green Street, however it was originally located a little farther down the road where the Congregational Church stands today. After serving as a meeting house, it became a school, and is today a private residence.            

     Lotteries such as the one to build the Smithfield Meeting House are no longer used to for building projects, but one has to marvel at the fact both Meeting House and the lottery tickets sold to build it are still in existence. Will anyone today think to save useless lottery tickets? And how many modern public buildings can we expect to still be standing in two hundred years?  

All images are from the archives of the Historical Society of Smithfield.

Click on images to enlarge.

Image used in book, Remembering Smithfield, Sketches of Apple Valley, by Jim Ignasher – 2009

A rare example of three connected tickets.

Obverse side of ticket #1154

Reverse side of ticket 1154.

 

 

 

 

Smithfield, R.I. Tax Receipt – 1825

Smithfield, Rhode Island, Tax Receipt – 1825 

From the archives of the Historical Society of Smithfield.

Click on image to enlarge.

 

19th Century Map of the Enfield (Esmond) Mill

19th Century Map of the Enfield Mill Property, which is today occupied by the Esmond Mill complex

 

Click on image to enlarge.

The “Death Moon” of March and Other Historical Curiosities

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – March, 2013

By Jim Ignasher

 

There’s a reason as to why two dates appear on the Smithfield Town Seal, and it has to do with the month of March.

There’s a reason as to why two dates appear on the Smithfield Town Seal, and it has to do with the month of March.

Happy New Year!

What!?

That’s right, happy New Year!  

For those of us living in the 21st Century the greeting might seem to be about two months late, but if one were living in colonial America it would be just about right, for there was a time in this country when New Year’s Day was celebrated on March 1st, and not January 1st.  It is forgotten facts such as this that keep us historians in business.

We have the ancient Romans to thank for the confusion, for it was their calendar that established the date of March 1st as the start of the New Year at a time when the year only had ten months – March thru December.  The Romans later added the months of January and February bringing the number of months to twelve, yet March 1st remained the designated start of the New Year.  In later years, Emperor Julius Ceasar established the Julian calendar, which set the date of January 1st as the start of the New Year. 

Caesar had been a great military general, but he wasn’t a popular ruler as evidenced by his assassination during the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C. The term Ides was used by the Romans to designate the middle of a month, and the Ides of March was a day of festivities dedicated to the Roman god Mars, for whom the month of March was named.  Legend has it that Ceasar had been warned, “Beware the Ides of March” before he was stabbed to death by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate.         

The death of Caesar aside, the start of the New Year reverted back to March 1st on the Julian calendar during the Middle Ages, and remained such throughout most of the world until the Georgian calendar was adopted in the 16th Century, which once again established January 1st as the start of the New Year.  Unfortunately, religious differences between nations led to the use of both calendars.  While most Catholic countries adopted the Georgian calendar, many Protestant countries, which included England, continued to use the Julian calendar.  Since our nation’s original thirteen colonies were under British rule until the American Revolution, colonial America followed the Julian calendar which recognized New Years Day as March 1st.   

What does all of this have to do with Smithfield?  It is because of differences between the Julian and Georgian calendars that one sees a dual year of incorporation on the Smithfield town seal, (1730-1731).  Smithfield was incorporated in February of 1730, according to the Julian calendar.   However, according to the Georgian calendar, the year was already 1731.  The United States didn’t adopt the Georgian calendar until 1752, hence the dual dates.

Today we celebrate the New Years arrival with champagne, but our forefather’s preferred beverage of choice for celebrating the arrival of the new year was mead, a liquor made from honey.  Mead was also the customary drink consumed by newlywed couples, usually during their first month of marriage; that thirty day cycle between one full moon to the next known as the “honey moon”.  

According to folklore and the Farmer’s Almanac, the full moon of March has several names connected to it.  The Storm Moon, for instance, because March is traditionally said to “come in like a lion, and go out like a lamb.”   

The Crust Moon, because the warmer temperatures of the day thaw the top layer of snow, which then crusts over during the night when temperatures fall.   It is this same thawing that brings earthworms to the surface which attracts birds, thus the names Worm Moon, and Crow Moon are also associated with March.  Thawing also brings forth tree sap used for making maple syrup, hence the Sap Moon and Sugar Moon.  

The full moon of March is also referred to as the Lenten Moon, for the Christian calendar cites the time from Ash Wednesday in February, to Easter Sunday in April, as the season of Lent. 

Two other names that seem to contradict each other are the Chaste Moon, and the Death MoonChaste, because March heralds the birth of spring, a time of newness and purity; and Death, because it is the last full moon of winter.  

For those living in rural areas like Smithfield during the 18th and 19th centuries, March was a time for clean-up and preparation for planting.  “Spring cleaning” consisted in part of picking up dead tree limbs, including twigs, that had blown down during the winter and storing them in a wood shed for future use.   Wood was a very valuable commodity before the days of gas stoves and central heating.  In fact, when a farmer decided to sell his farm, he often advertised the amount of wood that came with the deal, either in the form of chopped cord wood, or free standing wood lots.  

Another early spring chore was the necessary clearing of rocks and stone that had materialized in the fields over the winter, pushed to the surface by heaving frost. Some would joke that New England’s most abundant “crop” was stone, and anyone who has ever dug a hole on their property knows that one thing Smithfield soil is not lacking is rocks and stones.  Once the stones were pulled from the ground, they were utilized in stone walls, or simply piled in an out of the way location creating the occasional cairn.  Thus March was a time for mending fences, and the stone handy-work of Smithfield’s early settlers can still be seen everywhere today.  

The abundant stones, by the way, were left behind by the melting glacier at the end of the last Ice Age some ten-thousand years ago.  Some of the early settlers, ignorant of earth science, referred to the Bible, and assumed the tumbled stones were left behind after the “Great Flood” of Noah’s time. 

March can be an “iffy” time of year weather-wise for we never know what we are going to get: snow, rain, sleet, or beautiful, gusty, windy days, perfect for flying a kite and catching “Spring Fever”.  March indicates that winter is fading, releasing its icy grip on the landscape in favor of the more gentle touch of spring.   Therefore, as we come out of winter’s hibernation and look towards the promise of a new season, with its warmer weather and outdoor activities, perhaps we might welcome that ancient colonial greeting.

Happy New Year!

Jumping To a Conclusion

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October, 2009

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

It was just before Christmas in 1920.  As snow flurries blew about, a man stood atop a bridge on Farnum Pike contemplating his next move.  Hours of quiet desperation had all come down to this.  The dark water of the Woonasquatucket River mocked him as it swirled below, almost daring him to jump.  Others had occupied the same spot where he was standing, and for the same purpose, just waiting for the right moment. Then, almost without thinking, he leaped from the bridge and into eternity.  The following morning when police recovered his body, word spread quickly that the Suicide Bridge had claimed yet another victim.   

This is the story of Smithfield’s infamous “Suicide Bridge”, a wrought iron structure that once spanned the Woonasquatucket River connecting Georgiaville to Esmond.  Its ominous reputation was so well known that even newspapers and town death records referred to it by that name.  By all appearances it was no different from other bridges around the state, and hardly seemed like the type of structure to inspire myth and legends.  Long-time area residents will tell you that the bridge’s name came about due to the many suicides that occurred there; sometimes, they say, at the rate of once a month!  However, official town death records show those numbers to be much lower, thereby indicating that once a month is more myth than reality. Like many legends, the story of the bridge has grown with each re-telling. 

Looking down from the present-day bridge that spans the Woonasquatucket, one may find it hard to believe that it was even possible to end one’s life by jumping, but apparently it was.  At one time the Esmond Dam kept the water level higher and therefore deeper.  The old bridge sat at a higher elevation and the road went up to meet it.  One man who grew up in the area recalled how the wide open areas on either side of the bridge allowed for ample swimming in summer, and hockey games in winter.  Today, with the water level kept lower, these areas are choked with brush and weeds.    

 

The structure that later became known as the Suicide Bridge was built in 1890 to replace an earlier one that stood at the same location.  The old bridge was unsafe, and was dismantled after a horrible accident involving a horse and buggy had occurred there.  The new bridge was “state of the art” for its day.  The iron trusses allowed for flexibility and the even distribution of weight.  The anchor bolts holding fast to the massive granite stones on either shore ensured it could withstand just about anything Mother Nature could throw at it.  The only design flaw was that it was too narrow because it was built before the invention of the automobile, when traffic moved at a leisurely 3 to 5 miles-per-hour.  The early “horseless carriages” came into use about 1905 and puttered along with tiny engines. They weren’t much larger than a typical buggy, and didn’t take up much of the highway. However, as the Twentieth Century moved forward, larger and faster vehicles took to the road, and it became apparent just how narrow the bridge was. This fact made for some hair-raising experiences when two autos came to meet at the bridge.  Common sense dictated that one driver stop and wait for the other to cross first, but good sense and pride don’t always go together, and over the years numerous games of “chicken” ended badly.  

Exactly how many deaths occurred at the bridge is unknown as town death records don’t list locations until the early 1900s, but as near as can be determined, the first suicide occurred at the bridge on May 31, 1914, when a 54 year-old woman leapt into the water. Two years later, a middle-aged man followed suit in what was described as a “fit of insanity”.  Four more deaths occurred at the bridge in 1917, and yet another in May of 1918. 

Not every death connected to the bridge was a suicide; some were accidental drownings.  In the days before backyard swimming pools and easy transportation to the state’s beaches, people swam in local lakes and rivers. Drownings occurred in virtually every body of water throughout Smithfield, but when one occurred at the bridge, people took special notice.

With each death reported, the bridge’s reputation grew.  Some said the bridge was cursed, or somehow had a dark force connected to it that inspired people to jump. Teenagers told ghost stories of the bridge being haunted by the tormented souls of those who had died there.  Whether one believes in such things or not, there were those who avoided the bridge at night – just in case.   

After a man drowned himself at the bridge just before Thanksgiving in 1921, things seemed to quiet down, and no further suicides were reported there for the rest of the decade.  Some no doubt felt that the jinx had been broken, but it was only lying dormant. 

It was an accident that brought about the construction of the Suicide Bridge, and it was another accident that caused it to be dismantled.  In the early morning hours of January 20, 1932, a car carrying two young men crashed through a guardrail at the bridge and tumbled into the icy water. One man managed to free himself, but the other drowned.  Afterwards, plans were begun to replace the bridge. 

The last known death to occur at the bridge happened on February 20, 1933, when a man was struck and killed by a passing automobile. 

The new bridge was completed in 1934 and is still in use today.  Hundreds of motorists cross it daily, never realizing the dark past of its predecessor.   Since its completion, there have been no reported suicides at that location.

However, that’s not the end of this story, for the old Suicide Bridge is still in use today!  Once it was dismantled, it was brought to Harrisville and re-assembled over the Nipmuc River on Sherman Farm Road, and re-named the Shippee Bridge.  The bridge is open to two-way traffic and has a walkway for pedestrians.  Although the occasional car accident still occurs on the bridge, there have been no serious incidents, and no reported suicides.  A modern chain link fence runs along the walkway that prevents people from jumping. 

The Mysterious Skeleton of Putnam Pike

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2010

Few things would be more unnerving to the average homeowner than to be digging in one’s own yard and happen upon human remains.  Fortunately such discoveries are rare, but at least one case occurred in Smithfield on the evening of April 11, 1977, when a man digging in his yard literally unearthed a mystery that has yet to be solved.

The man, who will remain anonymous to protect his privacy, had been removing a tree stump in order to widen his driveway when he uncovered a human skull.  Smithfield police were called to the scene, and Patrolman John Whitecross later recorded in his report, “The skull had a full set of teeth and appeared to be that of a human.  It was found approximately 3-4’ down in the ground and 20’ from the west corner of the garage.” 

It was apparent by the skull’s brown coloration that it was old. Of course the obvious questions were, who did it belong to, and how did it get there?  Had the homeowner uncovered an unmarked grave, or were the bones connected to something more sinister?

Smithfield police detectives Brian Burke and Joe Parenteau were assigned the case.  There were no known cemeteries in the area, and further examination of the site showed no evidence of wood fragments, screws, or any other indications that the bones had been buried in a coffin. 

The state Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted, but the detectives were informed that a forensic investigator could not respond to Smithfield until the following day.

The next morning Burke and Parenteau returned to the site, and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt where the skull had been found.  After a few minutes they had uncovered several more bones which led them to believe that an entire skeleton was buried there. The depth at which the bones had been found left no doubt that they had been deliberately buried, and not simply covered by erosion. 

Shortly before noon a forensic investigator arrived, and after examination of the bones, determined they were between 40 to 100 years old.  If the police were dealing with a murder, it was definitely an old one. The investigator said he would send two technicians to conduct a more through excavation.  In modern terminology, this would be known as a “forensic excavation”, where the dirt would be sifted through a screen to be sure that no evidence such as small bone fragments, jewelry, or even a bullet was missed.  However, this procedure was never carried out, for apparently the technicians felt further digging was unnecessary.  According to the official police report, the two technicians arrived at 1:30 p.m. and only wanted to collect the bones that had already been unearthed by the detectives.  The bones were taken to Providence for further examination and testing.    

In the meantime, Smithfield police continued with their investigation.  Town records made no mention of any cemeteries in the area, and research of birth and death records of all previous property owners going back more than one hundred years proved fruitless.  

Detective Burke interviewed long-time residents of the area. One man remembered hearing from his grandfather that a “sick house” had once been located near where the bones were found.  The sick house was where people with communicable diseases such as Small Pox were brought and kept in isolation during the 19th Century to prevent epidemics. Could the bones be that of someone who died at the so-called sick house?

Police interviewed two women in their 80s who had lived in Greenville all their lives, but neither could remember any un-solved murders or missing person cases.

One elderly gentleman recalled a legend about a Native American princess who had supposedly once lived in the area.  Details were hazy, but it seemed she had wandered off sometime in the mid 1800s and was never heard from again; but was it fact, or simply a folktale?

As one might expect, the case attracted the attention of the media, but there wasn’t much to report.  On April 13, 1977, The Evening Bulletin reported that the Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings showed the bones to be of a young woman, buried, “more than 40 years ago, but not longer than 75 years ago.”  It was also reported that investigators were still awaiting other test results.

Two days later, Detective Burke received a brief preliminary report from the Medical Examiner’s office that stated the bones appeared to belong to one person; “…buried for over 50 years with no evidence of foreign material (such as jewelry or bullets, etc.) and no evidence of ante mortem trauma.”  (“Ante mortem” means, before death.)  The report stated additional tests were in progress and could take several weeks.  

 On June 16, 1977, the Providence Journal reported that an orthopedic surgeon and anthropologist would study the remains for additional clues.  It was further stated that the bones, “were buried no more than 50 years ago”, but their exact age was unknown.  The article concluded with one of the investigators explaining that the case was “lagging because more recent deaths were given priority”.

Three days later, a small news item appeared in The Evening Bulletin, under the headline, “Bones May Have Been Teenager”, which stated that according to the chief medical examiner, the bones, “may have been those of a teenage girl who died of tuberculosis 50 to 100 years ago.”  (Discrepancies between the various news reports were never explained.)  

The medical examiner’s autopsy report does not offer much more in the way of clues.  The report stated  it was, “highly probable” the remains belonged to a white female, between 12 and 16 years old, who stood approximately 4’10” inches tall.  The report went on to state that the person was, “probably in good health”, and that x-rays didn’t show any signs of disease, or signs of  injury which would indicate foul play.  Unfortunately, the report does not narrow down the time of death or state a cause.   

 So, who was this young girl, and how did she come to be buried where her remains were found?  The autopsy report would seem to indicate that it’s unlikely she died at the “sick house”.  It also seems unlikely that she was a Native American since the autopsy report also states, “The teeth do not exhibit distinctive racial traits.”, and the race is classified as “Caucasoid”. (White)

The Native American princess legend may have its origins in an actual incident that occurred in the Tarklin section of Burrillville in 1831.  In that case, researched by former Smithfield resident Thomas D’Agostino, a woman named Hannah Frank, who was a Native American, but not a princess, was murdered by her two brothers who were opposed to her upcoming marriage to a Vermont peddler. 

Thus, the simple act of removing a tree stump uncovered a mystery that remains unsolved.  Although no evidence of a crime was discovered, that doesn’t prove one wasn’t committed because a forensic excavation was never conducted.  However, after all these years the question seems moot, for if a murder was committed, those responsible would surely have gone on to their final judgment by now.  

The story of this young girl may never be known.   Who was she?  How did she die?  Perhaps the answers still lie buried with the rest of her bones under a driveway on Putnam Pike.

The Industrial National Bank Disaster

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – November, 2011

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

This Greenville rescue truck was one of the many pieces of fire apparatus that answered the call for help when disaster struck on the Glocester-Smithfield town line in 1962. Photo by Elwood Kelley, courtesy of John Tucker.

There is an underground building, more of a bunker really, that is hidden in plain sight at the four-way intersection of Snake Hill Road, West Greenville Road, and Smith Avenue, almost directly on the Smithfield-Glocester town line.  Built during the height of the Cold War in 1962, it was designed to withstand a nuclear attack.  Hundreds of people pass it every day barely aware of its existence let alone the awful tragedy connected to it, for ironically, the building did suffer the effects of an explosion during its construction; a blast that left two men dead and eleven others injured.

For those too young to remember, the Cold War was a time when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened mutual annihilation with nuclear weapons. In 1962, the Russians began building nuclear missile launch sites in Cuba, a move that led to a high-seas showdown between President Kennedy and Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev in what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  It was the arms race and threat of a nuclear holocaust which led some forward thinkers such as Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon to urge construction of protected sites for the storage of banking and financial records in the hopes that society would continue after the fallout. Thus it was that Industrial National Bank began construction of its ultimate safe-deposit box, an underground vault of re-enforced concrete located twelve miles northwest of Providence in what was then rural Rhode Island.

Construction began in April of 1962, and all was proceeding on schedule until November 23rd, when an explosion tore through the cavernous structure, blackening walls, and blowing both bodies and equipment through doorways and hatches.  For most working at the site, the shock came without warning; one moment they were at their jobs, the next moment they found themselves amidst total chaos and fighting for survival.   

Ernest Imondi, an electrician from Coventry, later related how a welder working in the main part of the building complained to him of a “knock” in the welding system.  Imondi went to an adjacent room to inspect the generator used to power the welding torch, and when he returned he saw flames climbing a wall covered with one-inch thick insulation material.  He grabbed a nearby fire extinguisher but discovered it didn’t work!  As he and others began to shout warnings of “fire”, an explosion occurred.   

Two who felt the effects of the blast were Gerard Desjarlais, and Noe Barrette.  Both were blown through an outside doorway and landed almost forty feet from where they had been standing.   Remarkably, each man suffered only minor injuries, and quickly discovered that their proximity to the doorway had been a blessing.  At least they were outside, away from the smoke and flames, and alive.  Others weren’t as lucky.

One man who was killed was 31 year-old Donald Arndt of Harrisville, who was tasked with insulating pipes in the computer room.  It was only to be a one-day job, and he was nearly finished when the explosion occurred. That morning he had told his wife he would be leaving the construction site at 4 P.M., and expected to be home by five o’clock.  The blast took place at ten minutes to four.   

Robert W. Knight of Knight’s Farm, located directly across the street, reported that he saw twenty to thirty foot flames shoot from an escape hatch atop the building, followed a few seconds later by black smoke.

Within moments of the explosion, acrid smoke permeated the building, disorienting and choking those still inside.  Men working close to the source of the flames suffered burns on various parts of their bodies, and were forced to crawl on their hands and knees to escape. 

In all, there were about thirty workmen present at the time of the accident. While most made it out, one who didn’t was 62 year-old Vincent Mulvey, an electrician from Pawtucket who found himself pinned beneath some staging.   Charles S. Wilson Jr., a civil engineer and sport-scuba diver from Providence was in the parking lot at the time of the explosion, and when he heard that a man was trapped inside, he ran to his car and retrieved his scuba tank from the trunk.  With the help of Edward Milazzo, he entered the building and located Mulvey. 

Wilson tried to teach Mulvey how to “buddy-breathe” off the scuba tank while he and Milazzo struggled to free him, but were unable to do so.  When the air in the scuba tank ran out they were forced to abandon their mission and withdraw from the building.  As it was, both Wilson and Milazzo had to be treated for smoke inhalation.    

Meanwhile, sirens were wailing at fire stations in Harmony, Greenville, Georgiaville, North Providence, and Scituate, as volunteers rushed from their homes and jobs to man the fire trucks.  Fire engines from Harmony and Greenville were the first to arrive, and Chief William Corbin of the Harmony department took command.  The danger was far from over.  A fire in an underground building of this type presented special challenges, especially with only one way in or out.  Corbin knew firefighters would have to lay hose lines and snake their way through the structure to hit the flames at their source, all the while enduring heat, smoke, and other dangers. The situation became even more acute when Corbin was informed that some workers were unaccounted for.  He had no choice but to order some men into the building to fight the flames and search for the missing, while directing others to care for the injured.

One firefighter tasked with search and rescue operations was 17 year-old Robert Aldrich of Harmony, who still lives about a mile from the disaster site.  In a recent interview he related how he responded to the scene from his home, and upon his arrival, was told that three men were trapped inside.  As he was donning his air-pack and other protective gear, one of the missing was carried from the building.  That left two men still unaccounted for.   

With disregard for his own safety, Aldrich entered the smoky structure alone, with nothing more than a hand-held floodlight connected to a portable generator by a series of extension cords daisy-chained together.

“The smoke was so thick that at first I couldn’t even tell if the light was on!” he recalled.

Aldrich maneuvered his way through the inky darkness along a series of wooden planks and ramps traveling a considerable distance into the structure.  Suddenly, through the smoke, he could hear the alarm bell of another firefighter’s air-pack sounding, indicating that the tank was low on air.  Although he could see nothing, he moved towards the sound in case his comrade needed help.  As he did so, he was bowled over in the darkness, presumably by the other firefighter who was understandably in a hurry to exit the building. As he recovered, Aldrich suddenly found himself in a dire situation, for he had dropped the floodlight which served as his only lifeline with outside world.  Without it, he couldn’t follow the cord to backtrack his way out of the building!  As he crawled about in near total blackness feeling for the floodlight cable that would lead him to safety, his own air supply began to run low!  

Aldrich remembered his training and didn’t panic.  When his air supply ran out, he removed his face mask, and began gulping air from the space between his body and his fire coat.  In this way the air was somewhat filtered, but he couldn’t go on that way for very long.  It was then he found a ramp that seemed familiar and followed it.  Luckily it proved to be the right way to salvation, or he might have become a third fatality in the incident.  As it was, he developed pneumonia due to smoke inhalation and spent five days in the hospital.  Fortunately he suffered no long-term effects, and went on to serve another twenty-eight years as a volunteer with the Harmony Fire Department. 

Another volunteer firefighter who was at the scene that day was 20 year-old John Tucker of Greenville. John remembered how he could see black smoke billowing in the distance from his home on West Greenville Road, and drove to the scene in his car. He arrived at the same time as one of the fire-rescue trucks; “I don’t remember if it was Greenville’s or Harmony’s’ he stated, ‘but I took an air-pack from the truck and began putting it on.” As he was doing so, a construction foreman ran over to him and asked to take the air-pack because he knew the layout of the building and Tucker didn’t.  The young fireman had to make a quick decision; if he went in not knowing the structure’s floor plan he might be wasting valuable time. The foreman, he reasoned, would be familiar with the building, and more importantly, where men had been working at the time of the blast.  With visibility in the building at near zero it seemed like the best course of action, and Tucker gave the man the air pack.

Tucker then focused his attention on three men with soot-blackened faces suffering from smoke inhalation.  After assisting them aboard one of the rescue trucks he accompanied them to Roger Williams Hospital.  After turning the patients over to physicians, the rescue raced back to the scene.

“Smoke was still coming from the building when we got back.’  Tucker recalled, ‘so after suiting up I entered the building with a booster line (fire hose) and life-line (rope) tied around my waist to put out a few remaining hot spots.”   

Smoke and flames weren’t the only dangers emergency workers faced that day as evidenced by the experience of another firefighter, 19 year-old Laurence Sasso Jr., who responded with Greenville’s rescue truck.  He recalled how the heavy vehicle became stuck in wet mud up to its chassis, and when the truck’s portable generators were put into service to power floodlights and exhaust fans, the truck became electrified!  One fireman who touched the truck while standing on the wet ground became frozen in place unable to let go, and Sasso was forced to give him a hard shove to save him from possible electrocution!

Thankfully that fireman didn’t suffer any serious harm, but fellow Greenville firefighter, 26 year-old Robert Broady, required hospital treatment for smoke inhalation.

The bodies of Donald Arndt, and Vincent Mulvey weren’t recovered until after the fire was out.  Arndt was found in the main storage room of the building, but there was a delay in his identification because he had forgotten his wallet at home that morning.  Mulvey was found in a separate room still pinned beneath staging.  Reverend Joseph P. Hynes of St. Phillip’s Church in Greenville administered last rites to both men.  As to the living, besides Aldrich and Broady, nine others received injuries serious enough to require medical attention.  

An investigation into the cause of the disaster was conducted by state troopers assigned to the State Fire Marshall’s Office, along with investigators from the Rhode Island Department of Labor.  Unfortunately copies of their reports were unobtainable for this article, but it was speculated at the time that the blast was caused by the ignition of flammable glue vapors produced by sprayers used to apply glue to the walls before attaching insulation.

Despite the devastating tragedy, structural damage to the building was minimal.  Construction was scheduled to be completed by January of 1963, but delays set the opening back until the following summer.  When the facility opened, it became one of the first non-government underground computer centers in the United States. The building is still in operation today, storing and protecting important records as it was designed to do, however it is no longer owned or occupied by Industrial National Bank.   

Return to Top ▲Return to Top ▲