Trolley cars and fire engines.
Because of its location and the interest of many civic minded citizens in Pawtuxet, the village has been able to retain much the charm it had enjoyed during the late 18th and early19th centuries. It never became a mill village and missed some of the unattractive changes that blighted some of the other villages of Warwick and Cranston. It did, however, change to some degree with the improved transportation services following the Civil War which threatened to make it a suburb of Providence.
During the early nineteenth century, public transportation was confined primarily to horse drawn vehicles of the Union Railroad, which had been established by Amasa and William Sprague in 1865. One of the reasons for the Union Railroad was to bring workers and good to and from their Cranston Print Works.
When the Sprague textile empire collapsed in 1873, a group of stockholders headed by Jesse Metcalf, prominent Providence businessman and part owner of the Providence Journal, purchased the Sprague horse car trolley enterprise. Metcalf led the way for a drive to electrify the horse-car railway and was successful by 1892, when the first electric trolley was operating in Providence. This meant inexpensive transportation to Pawtuxet and other Warwick villages from Providence and other areas of Rhode Island. Realizing the potential for immense profits and the necessity for large outlays of money to accomplish electrification of the various steam locomotive lines in the state, a syndicate was formed to purchase the Union Railroad. This syndicate was headed by Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, Marsden J. Perry and William C. Roelker.
A large portion of the funds raised by this group came from the American Sugar Refining Company, which had close economic ties with Senator Aldrich. The funds obtained were used to finance and electrify car service in the suburbs. The Warwick Railroad, which had been chartered in 1872, was sold to the Rhode Island Suburban Railway Company, and in 1902, the Union Railroad was reorganized to form the Rhode Island Company which connected a large number of local companies. In 1906, J. P. Morgan, director of the New Haven Railroad, purchased the Rhode Island Company and Aldrich, Perry, and Roelker made an alleged fifteen million-dollar profit. Under Morgan, the Rhode Island Company took control of the Rhode Island Suburban Railway and the trolley became a common sight throughout Warwick and the Pawtuxet Valley.
The electric trolley captured the imagination and support of Rhode Islanders as the new system proved faster and quieter than the horse drawn railroad and it was cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than the steam locomotives. The vast networks of trolley lines were all powered by 600-volt DC current and were all standard gauge. The current was provided to the cars by an overhead wire, hence the name "trolley." By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, trolley lines ran from Providence through all of eastern Warwick, which, of course, included Pawtuxet. Very quickly the trolley became an integral part of village life. This brought many to Rhodes-on-the- Pawtuxet, making it one of the great recreational facilities in the state.
In time, the automobile and bus brought about an end to the trolley car. By the 1930s, streetcar companies found the long lines to the suburbs were not economically feasible and the streetcars were operated only on an intra-city basis in Providence. During the twentieth century roads were built to accommodate the automobile and Pawtuxet was not on any of the major roads which so transformed other areas of Warwick and Cranston. This was a factor in enabling the village to remain outside the major changes that would have destroyed it charm.
In the first two decades of the twentieth century there were still many more horses and carriages than there were automobiles, but the trend towards the motor car was sure and steady. The first automobile in the area was here in 1898 and it was a steam-powered car. By 1901, an electric "truck" was already making deliveries in Providence, and by 1920, the gasoline-powered automobile was here to stay. From less than 800 automobiles registered in Rhode Island in 1900, the number had grown to well over 40,000 by 1920. This meant an increased popularity of Warwick as a resort area and, as a result, the communities of Lakewood and Pawtuxet grew as suburban entities.
Fire Company #1
One of the most serious hazards of the early 20th century was fire. From 1891 until the formation of the Warwick Firemen's League in 1926, major fires in the town brought about the creation of a number of fire departments. In 1891, after a very serious blaze that destroyed a large part of the Cranston section of Pawtuxet Village, Volunteer Fire Company No. I, Pawtuxet, was incorporated and purchased a hand engine called "Fire King." Within a year, the hand engine and the new company gained fame and made the cause for fire companies more popular when they played a key role in a Pawtuxet fire that threatened to destroy the village. Fighting that blaze, the volunteers quickly dropped the engine's suction pump into one of the deepest areas at the Cranston side of the Pawtuxet River dam and quickly had a steady stream playing on the burning buildings.
In addition to the excellent cooperation and assistance the Pawtuxet Volunteers have given to Warwick and Cranston in suppressing blazes in both communities, this group of volunteers has thrilled all of Rhode Island with its participation at the musters and water battles that were a common form of entertainment and village pride in the era of volunteer companies.
The Pawtuxet company was famous for its participation in firemen’s musters. Its pride and joy was the Fire King, a hand tub that was one of the most celebrated pumpers of its time. With it the company won the R. I. State Championship and the New England State Championship in 1906 and 1916.
The popular and talented Fire King Fife and Drum Corps was in demand throughout Rhode Island. The group enhanced just about any celebration and was a source of pride to the village.
From the Henry A. L. Brown Collection. (Pawtuxet (images series pg 75 bottom.)