Pontiac Village

Warwick’s Villages & Historic Places

By Don D’Amato

Pontiac Village

Change comes to the historic mill at Pontiac

Warwick, a modern and dynamic city, is constantly growing and changing. Fortunately, in the last few decades while changes have been inevitable to keep pace with modern needs and wants, enough concerned citizens and leaders have taken pains to ensure that the city's heritage not be forgotten. This is especially true in the effort to keep the historic fabric of our villages as alive as possible.

Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, the village of Pontiac is undergoing a great deal of new development. In addition to the modern shopping malls that have made Warwick a leading retail center in Rhode Island, we are seeing the construction of a modern 161-room hotel on the site of the historic Pontiac Mill.

The mill has long been a landmark in Warwick that remids us of the time when the "Fruit of the Loom" textiles were the most famous in the world and when immigrants from England, Sweden, French-Canada and Italy came to Warwick to find work and a new way of life. Today as the work begins to demolish part of the mill structure, plans are being made to retain the most impressive section of the complex.

A Village of many names

Despite the changes of the 21st century, Pontiac is one of the villages in Warwick that has managed to retain much of its 19th century identity. Dominated by the Pontiac Mill, the village has been the home of a number of ethnic groups that came to Warwick to seek employment in the cotton mills and made a positive impact on the town. Pontiac, while having a number of unique features, is an excellent example of the mill villages that abounded in Rhode Island.

In 1852, at about the time that the mills were thriving in Crompton, Centreville and Apponaug, the B.B. & R. Knight Company acquired the mills of John H. Clark. They also decided to change the name of the village from Clarkesville to Pontiac. Oliver Payson Fuller, in his 1875 History of Warwick notes, "No one of the villages on the Pawtuxet River and its tributaries has been designated by so many different names in teh course of its history, as the one we have now come to." He traces the names back to May 10, 1662, when Warwick records show that it was known by the Indian name of Toskeunk. The Records say, "Ordered that Goodman Hedger is apoynted to give notis to ye inhabitants of ye Towne to repayer ye fence at Toskeunk and he to oversee the work....."

Great Weir

Fuller, commenting on the Indian names for the area says, "Papepieset, or Toskiounke, as it was sometimes called, makes a very good mouthfull of language..." The English settlers in Warwick found the Indian names difficult and, as was their custom, renamed the village, calling it "Great Weir" as many fish, including salmon, shad and herring, migrated here and were caught with "weirs" or water traps. Fuller tells us that these early weirs consisted of:

...a wooden trellis-work, armed with sharp pointed sticks, and sunk upon rocks one or two feet below the surface of the stream, and as the middle of the river by being filled with large stones, was rendered too shallow for the upward passage of the salmon and shad, they plunged by necessity into the deeper water near the shore, where these concealed traps received them with a fatal welcome.

The Great Bridge at the Weir

The nineteenth century brought a great increase in the use of the river to power the cotton mils and dams and made the natural migration of fish impossible. As a result, the weir was no longer in use. Fuller wryly comments, "...the fish took offence...and finally abandoned their old nurseries..." As a result, he says, "...the weir...ceased to properly designate the place..."

The story goes on to say that later, when a bridge was built across the river, the people, "like a drowning man, who is said to 'catch at a straw'...re-christened the place as 'the great bridge near the weir'..." The man most closely identified with the bridge was Captain Benjamin Greene, also known as "Tobacco Ben Greene," as he raised large quantities of tobacco, according to Fuller. For a number of years the area was called "Capt. Benjamin Greene's Bridge."

Tobacco Ben

According to Henry Rousmaniere's 1859 "Letters about the Pawtuxet," Greene was a captain in the colonial forces in the 17th and early 18th centuries. He had a tannery near the bridge and had married Susanna, daughter of Randall Holden, one of the founders of Warwick. Rousmaniere tells us that, "During a high freshet in the Pawtuxet river it is said he saved his wife by taking her from the house in a boat. He soon after took that house to pieces and removed it to a more elevated location." Captain Benjamin Greene gave his land and homestead to his grandson, Benjamin Arnold.

Arnold's Bridge

The bridge eventually was called "Arnold's bridge". It became especially well known as an important area when Henry Arnold, son of Benjamin, kept a "most noted public house" or tavern there. He became even more famous for his mills when he acquired the Mumford holdings. Gideon Mumford owned land and water rights in the village in 1800. Mumford, according to Fuller, was drowned in teh river near his house and Henry Arnold, along with one of his brothers, Dutee Arnold, purchased Mumford's land and water power rights. The Arnold's erected a saw and grist mill along the river in 1810. Later, Dutee Arnold's son, Horatio, erected another mill and "carried on wool carding and cotton spinning...This building was also used...for the manufacture of coarse woolen cloth..."

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