The Birth of the North American Industrial Age
Originally home to members of the Nipmuc, Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes, the lands along the Blackstone River attracted settlers in the early 1700’s. While the Blackstone had long been a source of plentiful food, settlers soon found another source: power. In the mid-1700’s, Benjamin Smith built a trench to divert the water from the river to power a snuff mill. Captain Stephen Jenks soon built a river-powered trip hammer and blacksmith shop that took advantage of not only the Blackstone but also nearby iron reserves. In so doing, he soon developed a base of skilled artisans and mechanics that would in turn further develop area mills.
Building on this growing community of industrial skills, a local industrialist named Charles Keene hired Sylvanus Brown, who a decade later would help erect nearby Slater Mill, to build a damn and create a millpond for Keene’s new mill along the Blackstone. This mill would soon house the new country’s first chocolate mill, which in turn would lend the village its first nickname, “Chocolateville.”
By 1824, this burgeoning village, flanked by Valley Falls to the north and Pawtucket Falls to the south, was ready for a formal name. That year, a celebration was held at the middle of these three falls to dedicate a mill and bridge built by David and George Jenks. At the dedication, family patriarch Captain Jenks arose from his chair and declared that village should be named Central Falls, thus giving the village its official name.
New mills, particularly those making textiles, would soon follow and, given the need for people to work in them, the village experienced a rapid influx of ready workers from Ireland, Scotland and Canada. These new immigrants staffed river-powered factories that would provide the world clothing, tools, brooms, aprons, badges, candy, beverage bottles, lace, braid, hosiery, webbing, belting, spools, art goods, rayon, mills supplies, monuments and knitting machines, among other items. Important mills of the era included the Wheatherhead & Thomspon Tannery Firm (1858); E.L. Freeman Co. (1869-1889), which owned and operated the “Central Falls Weekly”; Conant’s Mill (later known as J. & P. Coats Thread Mills) (1868); Pawtucket Hair Cloth Co. and National Haircloth; and The Weybosset Textile Mill, which was perhaps the largest employer during the mid to late 1800′s.