Greenville Center – October 4, 2019

Greenville Center – October 4, 2019

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Early Banks Of Smithfield

     Originally published in the Smithfield Times magazine, September, 2019.

Early Banks Of Smithfield

By Jim Ignasher

     An historical treasure has recently surfaced in the form of a five dollar banknote from the former Smithfield Exchange Bank in Greenville. The note, dated July 4, 1859, depicts illustrations of Zachary Taylor, our nation’s 12th president, and Katherine “Bonnie Kate” Sevier, wife of Revolutionary War hero John Sevier, who later became Governor of Tennessee. It’s unclear as to why their images were chosen to be depicted on a Greenville, Rhode Island, banknote as neither was from New England, and at the time the bill was printed, Taylor wasn’t the sitting president.

     Legend has it that John Sevier saved Katherine’s life when she was accidentally locked outside Tennessee’s Fort Watauga during a surprise Indian raid in the summer of 1776, and later married her.

   The banknote harkens back to an era between the late1700s to the early 1860s when individual banks actually issued their own currency. 

     The history of paper money in America is long and varied, but to put it briefly, except for certain Treasury notes, general circulation paper money as we know it today wasn’t officially issued by the U. S. Government until 1861. Prior to then individual banks were authorized to issue their own currency in order to keep local economies running.

     Most banknotes were issued in one, two, three, five, ten, and one-hundred dollar denominations, but some were issued as fractional currency, either less than a dollar, or somewhere between one and two dollars.

     There were however drawbacks to this system, for there were no standardization requirements, and each bank designed and distributed its own style of currency which often caused problems with merchants and creditors especially from one state to another. Sometimes monetary designs were changed without notice, and as the number of banks grew so did the variations of notes in circulation, thus making it fairly easy for counterfeiters and con-men to ply their trade.

    Ironically, some banks went out of business because they issued too many banknotes, and their face value exceeded the amount that the bank could actually cover in the event all of them were to be cashed in at the same time.  

     The type of paper used to print the banknotes was often similar to writing paper, which is one reason so few examples have survived to modern times. Another reason is that at some point after the Civil War, like Confederate money issued by the Confederacy, the notes became worthless, so few bothered to save them.    

     The first bank in Rhode Island was The Providence Bank, established in 1791.  

A 1930s postcard view of the former Smithfield Union Bank

       The first bank in Smithfield was the Smithfield Union Bank, so named because it was originally located in Smithfield’s “Union Village”, which prior to 1871 was still part of Smithfield, but is today Woonsocket. The bank was chartered in 1804 and opened for business the following year. In the basement was large a granite vault with iron doors and two locks which required keys twelve inches long to open.

     The bank later relocated to Slatersville in present-day North Smithfield, and the building it occupied survives today as a private home.      

     Besides being the first bank established in Smithfield, it may also have been the first to be robbed. On October 27, 1838, the lone cashier on duty locked the door and left the bank to conduct some business. While he was away, someone entered a vacant apartment above the bank, and after cutting a hole through the floor, casually made off with $3,400 which had been left in the cash-drawer. The culprit was arrested two weeks later in Boston, and was discovered to be the same man who’d been imprisoned for attempting to rob the Weybosset Bank in Providence.

     Ironically, he’d been released just five months earlier with the stipulation that he leave the state and never come back!    

     Literally dozens of banks came and went in Rhode Island during the first several decades of the 19th century, the names of which have long been forgotten. Some in proximity to Smithfield included The Farmers Bank of Glocester, established in 1804; The Burrillville Agricultural Bank, 1815; The New England Pacific Bank of Smithfield/North Providence, 1818, The Rhode Island Agricultural Bank of Johnston, 1823; the Globe Bank of Providence, (1831), originally located in Globe Village, which was once part of Smithfield, but is now part of Woonsocket; and The Scituate Bank in North Scituate, 1836; to cite but a few examples.  

    Another early Smithfield bank was The Smithfield Lime Rock Bank, founded in 1823, located on Great Road in the present-day town of Lincoln. The bank moved to Providence in 1847, and went out of business in 1894. The original bank building on Great Road exists today as a private home.

     Various banknotes from this institution featured images of George Washington, Native Americans, and eagles, as well as farming, nautical, and transportation themes,  

   Getting back to the Smithfield Exchange Bank, which was established in June of 1822; the bank’s original location was in the back ell of the former Waterman Tavern in Greenville. Most of the original tavern is gone, but the back ell remains, along with the original vault in which the money was stored. In the 1850s the brick building next to the remaining ell was constructed and became the new home for the bank. It was in this building that the five dollar bank note pictured with this article was first put into circulation in 1859.

     In 1865 The Smithfield Exchange Bank became the National Exchange Bank of Greenville, with a capitol of $150.000 – a humble amount of money by today’s standards.

    In 1928 the bank became known as The Greenville Trust Company, and in 1954 it was acquired by Citizens Savings Bank, which is located in Greenville today.  

   19th century banknotes are highly sought after by collectors, and prices can range from affordable to “Holy cow!” depending on condition and rarity.

     The banknote pictured with this article was donated to the Historical Society of Smithfield in memory of Edwin and Doris Osler of Burrillville. Should you wish to view a high resolution image of the note, please visit the historical society website at         




Waterman Tavern Painting

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Waterman Tavern – 1906

View of the Waterman Tavern, Greenville, R. I. – 1906

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View of the Waterman Tavern

Greenville, Rhode Island


Smithfield’s “Powder Mill” Turnpike

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, February – 2012

By Jim Ignasher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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