Potter Hill Mill of Westerly Rhode Island






 



In my extensive ventures across various businesses, churches, factories, and plants, I've encountered a plethora of remnants from bygone industrial eras. Yet, none have left as profound an impression as the sight of the leftover machinery at the former Potter Hill Mill. Nestled amidst its surroundings, these aging relics stand as silent witnesses to a vibrant industrial past, their once-potent functionality now subdued by the relentless march of time.


The manufacturing equipment, once the lifeblood of cotton goods production, remains steadfast, firmly bolted to the floor, slowly succumbing to the relentless embrace of rust and decay. It's a scene frozen in time—a rare glimpse into the mechanical marvels of the 1800s, preserved in their original state, untouched and unscathed by modern interventions.


As I gaze upon the weather-worn structures and rusted machinery, I'm struck by the poignant juxtaposition of past and present. The former textile mill, once a bustling hub of industry, now stands in desolation, its once-thriving operations silenced decades ago. The dam that once powered its machinery shares a similar fate, its once-mighty waters are now reduced to a tranquil flow, enveloped by overgrown vegetation.


The passage of time has not been kind to this once-vibrant establishment. A devastating fire in the '70s ravaged much of the mill building, leaving behind a haunting tableau of granite shells, charred debris, and echoes of a bygone era. Today, the property is a testament to neglect, enclosed by a locked chain-link fence, its potential obscured by the thick veil of vegetation.









However, amidst the decay and desolation, whispers of change linger in the air. Last year, the Town Council made a decisive move, voting to demolish the decaying remnants of the old mill to pave the way for a new recreational area. Yet, the fate of the Potter Hill Dam, the last remaining vestige of its kind on the Pawcatuck River, remains uncertain.


Advocates for its removal argue for the restoration of natural habitats and the free passage of fish along the river, citing the ecological benefits of dismantling the dam. However, opposition voices, particularly from local homeowners, raise valid concerns about the potential impact on water levels and recreational activities downstream.


The journey to address the dilapidated mill buildings has been a long and arduous one for town officials, spanning decades of bureaucratic hurdles and failed attempts at resolution. From petitions for receivership to debates over demolition, the path to revitalizing this once-iconic site has been fraught with challenges.









History











 



Within Westerly's border with Hopkinton, lies a picturesque yet weathered mill village, bearing silent witness to the ebb and flow of time. Here, where the Pawcatuck River meanders lazily, delineating Rhode Island's boundary with Connecticut, stands a relic of another era—a sizable three-story mill building, its smooth ashlar granite façade rising proudly above the tranquil waters, crowned by a truncated four-story tower that commands a scenic bend of the river.


This derelict yet striking edifice serves as a poignant reminder of Coastal Westerly's rich history—a history steeped in maritime heritage and industrial prowess. For over a century, this coastal enclave has beckoned travelers seeking respite by the sea, its allure enduring through the passage of time.


Originally known as Misquamicut, this idyllic locale, nestled between Block Island Sound and the Pawcatuck River, was once home to the Narragansett Indians, who roamed its shores long before English settlers arrived. In 1637, an English outpost took root in these fertile lands, marking the dawn of a new era. By 1661, the settlers had established a permanent settlement on the banks of the river, laying the foundation for what would become known as Westerly.


Driven by a spirit of enterprise and exploration, Westerly burgeoned into a bustling hub of activity, fueled by shipbuilding ventures that thrived along its shores. It was here that U.S. naval officer Oliver Perry forged gunboats, preparing for the trials of the War of 1812, leaving an indelible mark on the town's maritime legacy.










Yet, Westerly's story extends beyond its maritime endeavors, woven into the fabric of its landscape by the threads of industry and innovation. Textile mills hummed with activity, while other light manufacturing industries flourished, shaping the town's economic landscape. Notably, Westerly's granite quarries supplied the raw materials for Civil War monuments scattered across the country, a testament to the town's contribution to the nation's history.


Along the banks of the Pawcatuck River, the industrial villages of Bradford, Potter Hill, and White Rock stand as relics of Westerly's industrial heyday, their quaint charm offering a glimpse into the town's 19th-century origins. Here, amidst the echoes of bygone industry, one can trace the footsteps of generations past, their legacy etched into the very fabric of the landscape.



Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1850 - 1930). Potter Hill mill and dam. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-ae7c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99




The name Potter resonates with a legacy steeped in tradition and enterprise. In 1764, George Potter, scion of the illustrious Potter lineage and descendant of early Colony settlers, embarked on a venture that would leave an indelible mark on the town's landscape.


It was George Potter, son of Martin Potter, whose ancestry traced back to the regicides—judges who condemned Charles I—that first laid the foundation for what would become known as Potter Hill. In 1672, a dam rose across the Pawcatuck River, near the site now immortalized as the Meetinghouse Bridge, though its name has shifted through the ages. This initial endeavor, however, met an unfortunate fate, as overflow from the dam wreaked havoc on the surrounding farmland, prompting irate farmers to dismantle the mill.


Undeterred by adversity, a second mill emerged on the west bank of the river, heralding the birth of Potter Hill. Here, George Potter seized the reins of opportunity, purchasing the mill complex and its accompanying lands in 1775 for a sum of three hundred pounds. Among the acquisitions were a sawmill, a gristmill, two dwellings, and sixteen acres of fertile soil—an investment poised to shape the town's destiny.











Under Potter's stewardship, the mills flourished, becoming beacons of industry in the burgeoning town. Cotton and woolen goods flowed from their looms, marking the birthplace of Westerly's textile legacy. Legend has it that the first pound of cotton cloth ever produced in the region found its origins within these hallowed halls, a testament to Potter's vision and ingenuity.


Yet, Potter's ambitions extended beyond the confines of textile production. In a testament to his multifaceted endeavors, he ventured into shipbuilding, adding yet another facet to the tapestry of Potter Hill's history. Though his foray into ship construction was modest, yielding only two vessels, it symbolized the boundless spirit of innovation that defined Potter's legacy.


In 1843, the iconic main mill building of Potter Hill emerged, its sturdy frame hewn from the famed Westerly pink granite—a testament to the town's rich geological bounty and architectural prowess. Over the years, this bastion of industry grew, evolving to meet the demands of a burgeoning workforce. By 1885, two additional structures stood proudly alongside the main mill, providing a bustling hive of activity for over 200 dedicated workers, their hands weaving the intricate tapestry of woolen textiles.










Yet, the roots of Potter Hill's industrial heritage delve even deeper into history, reaching back to the early 19th century when Joseph Potter laid the groundwork for cotton manufacturing at what was then known as Potters Bridge. In 1810, Joseph Potter breathed life into an old mill, ushering in a new era of cotton production. Two years later, a new factory arose, signaling the dawn of a thriving industry that would come to define the region's economic landscape.


The Potter family's ingenuity extended beyond textiles, venturing into the realm of boatbuilding as early as 1810. Though their endeavors in ship construction were relatively modest, primarily focused on small-scale vessels, they added yet another chapter to Potter Hill's storied history.


In 1844, the torch of innovation passed to Edwin and Horace Babcock, who acquired the mills and water privileges at Potter Hill, laying the foundation for a new era of manufacturing. Their ambitious expansion efforts in 1847 saw the construction of two mills—one of stone, the other of wood—solidifying Potter Hill's reputation as an industrial powerhouse.


Over the years, ownership of the mills changed hands, with the Campbell Mills Company and later the Swift River Woolen Company guiding its operations. However, the inexorable march of time eventually took its toll, and in the 1960s, the once-thriving mills fell silent, their looms stilled by the winds of change.


Tragedy struck in November 1977 when a devastating fire engulfed much of the mill complex, reducing the two-and-a-half-story frame building along the river to ashes. Though the flames claimed many of the structures, the resilient granite walls of the main mill endure, bearing silent witness to a bygone era.


The Potter Hill Dam, a relic of Westerly's industrial past, stands as a silent sentinel on the Pawcatuck River, its weathered facade bearing witness to centuries of change. Built in the 1780s to power the bustling mill that once bore its name, this historic landmark now faces a pressing challenge—one that threatens not only its structural integrity but also the delicate balance of its surrounding ecosystem.


In years gone by, the Pawcatuck River teemed with life, its waters teeming with shad, brook trout, alewife, blueback herring, and American eel. Anglers flocked to its banks, drawn by the promise of bountiful catches and the camaraderie of shad festivals and bakes. However, the construction of dams along the Pawcatuck and Connecticut Rivers altered the river's course, obstructing the natural migration patterns of these aquatic species and decimating their populations.


The installation of a fishway in the 1970s offered a glimmer of hope, providing a lifeline for struggling fish populations seeking passage upstream. Yet, for many local species, including the smaller fish endemic to the Pawcatuck River, the fishway proved to be an ineffective solution. Designed primarily with larger migratory fish like salmon and striped bass in mind, the fish ladder failed to adequately address the needs of the river's native inhabitants, serving more as an inspection net for regulatory agencies than a pathway for spawning fish.










However, the challenges facing the Potter Hill Dam extend beyond ecological concerns. The dam's narrow spillway and treacherous hydraulic patterns pose a grave risk to public safety, particularly during periods of high flow. Known colloquially as "keepers" or "roller waves," these recirculating currents create hazardous conditions that have led to multiple injuries and drownings nationwide each year. Even with lower flows, the dam's hydraulic effects remain unpredictable and difficult to navigate, posing a constant threat to unsuspecting river users.


As the community grapples with the dual challenges of ecological preservation and public safety, the future of the Potter Hill Dam hangs in the balance. Calls for comprehensive solutions that address both the structural deficiencies of the dam and the ecological imperatives of the river echo through the halls of local governance. From retrofitting outdated fishways to implementing innovative hydraulic engineering measures, stakeholders are united in their quest to safeguard the river's delicate ecosystem while ensuring the safety of all who tread its waters.


As the 1980s dawned, the once-majestic Potter Hill Mill found itself teetering on the brink of oblivion, its weathered façade bearing the scars of neglect and decay. With the specter of safety concerns looming large, the town of Westerly took decisive action, seeking to bring an end to the mill's slow descent into ruin. A demolition order was issued, signaling the end of an era for this once-vibrant industrial hub.









Despite the unanimous endorsement of the Rhode Island Building Code Standards Committee and a reaffirmation of the order by a District Court judge in 1984, the wrecking ball never swung. In 1992, a glimmer of hope emerged as Renewable Resources Inc. acquired the mill for a mere $50,000, but hopes of revitalization were dashed as the property languished, untouched by the promised redevelopment efforts.


Since then, the mill has stood as a silent sentinel, its crumbling edifice a poignant reminder of a bygone era. As May 2024 dawns, the debate over the fate of the Potter Hill Dam and its attendant buildings rages on, with the town and local residents locked in a perpetual struggle to balance preservation with progress.


The history of the Potter Hill Mill is as rich and varied as the tapestry of Westerly itself, woven with the threads of generations past. From its humble beginnings under the stewardship of Joseph Potter & Sons Co. in the early 19th century to its heyday as a bustling woolen mill under the Babcock family's tenure, the mill's story is one of innovation, industry, and resilience.


Through the decades, the mill changed hands, each new owner leaving their mark on its storied legacy. From the production of cashmere yarn and cloth by J.P. Campbell & Company to the modernization efforts of the Pawcatuck Woolen Mill Company, the mill adapted to the shifting currents of industry, remaining a beacon of hope for the community.










Yet, as the 20th century unfolded, the winds of change swept through the region, leaving the once-thriving mill in their wake. The decline of local and regional manufacturing companies, coupled with the exodus of industry to southern shores, spelled the end for the Potter Hill Mill and its ilk.


Today, as the Potter Hill Mill stands silent amidst the verdant landscape, its legacy endures—a testament to the ingenuity, perseverance, and community spirit that shaped its destiny. Though the future may be uncertain, the echoes of its storied past linger on, a reminder of the indomitable spirit of Westerly and the generations who called it home.







Sources:





1. Cronin, C. (2023, November 13). (Westerly to Hold Forum on Fate of Potter Hill Mill and Dam). eco RI News.

2. Faulkner, D. (2022, July 27). (Acquisition of Potter Hill Mill property moves closer). The Westerly Sun.

3. Drummond, C. (2022, February 4). (Westerly Town Council Decides Potter Hill Dam to Survive Mill Demolition). eco RI News.

4. Cronin, C. (2024, January 20). (New Options for Westerly’s Potter Hill Dam Drum Up Old Concerns). Progressive Charlestown.

5. Dunn, C. (2014, October 12). (Quiet village of Ashaway has roots in mills). The Providence Journal.

6. Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission. (March 1978). Historic and architectural resources of Westerly, Rhode Island: A preliminary report (pp. 13-15).

7. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1850 - 1930). Potter Hill mill and dam. Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-ae7c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

8. Munroe-Hultman, L. (n.d.). (Returning a Rhode Island river to its natural state helps wildlife and people). U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

9. Bicknell, T. W. (1920). The History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. United States: American Historical Society. pp.15-16

10. The Biographical Cyclopedia of Representative Men of Rhode Island. (1881). United States: National Biographical Publishing Company. pp.119.

11. McHugh, A. (2015, January 28). (Two South County companies continue Westerly’s textile heritage). Rhody Beat.


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