World War II Veterans Memorial State Park History (1960)
The Mill River, which supplies water for the pond in the World War II Veterans Memorial State Park in Woonsocket, rises in the Town of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, some seventeen miles to the north. It flows in a parallel path with the Blackstone River. Before arriving in Woonsocket, the Mill River forms the boundary between the towns of Milford and Upton and continues its southerly flow through the towns of Hopedale, Mendon, and Blackstone. In its course through Woonsocket it disguises itself in the form of two large ponds, in a lop-sided, elongated hour-glass shape. The first of these is the Harris Pond created in the 1860s by industrialist, Edward Harris, a prominent woolen manufacturer and friend of Abraham Lincoln. The horseshoe-shaped earthen dam across the river fed power to what was then the largest and finest mill in a city of mills. The mill, made of brick, was supported by eighty worker tenements. The whole comprised what was known as the Privilege Mill complex.
Just south of the Harris Pond the harnessed Mill River spilled into a second pond, used by the Social Manufacturing Company. Ultimately, this pond became the “water feature” of the World War II Veterans Memorial State Park. The Social mill began in 1810 as a cotton manufacturing partnership of eight local men; it marked the beginning of Woonsocket’s entry into the world of cotton textile manufacturing. The owners included Ariel, Abner, and Nathan Ballou, an old Cumberland family. Others were Eber Bartlett, Joel and Luke Jenckes, Oliver Leland and Joseph Arnold.
As was typical of the Rhode Island textile story, the first mill at the pond was made of wood. In 1827 it was joined by a second factory, also of wood. In 1841, another member of the Ballou family, Dexter Ballou, acquired the Social Manufacturing Company, and, in 1842, a new stone mill was built on the site. Between 1850 and 1870, Ballou recruited French Canadian factory operatives. Housing and stores were built in the area to accommodate working families. The importation of French Canadian mill hands and their families gave a special tone to the Social Village; by the 1870s, the ‘Social Corner’ at Cumberland and Social streets emerged as the center of a lively French cultural community.
Following a devastating fire in 1874, an iconic five story new mill, made of brick graced the site by the pond. It was powered by a 1000 horsepower Corliss steam engine in addition to a 240 horsepower force supplied by the Mill River. The mill contained 55,600 spindles, 1380 looms and employed 650 workers. The mill operated until 1927 when it closed. Adjacent enterprises around the pond included the Nourse Mill, begun in 1883 as part of the Social Manufacturing Company. It later became the home of the Woonsocket Rayon Company and the site of violent labor protests in 1934. Also on the site was the Bailey Wringer Company, maker of rubber rollers used in the laundry process before the introduction of dryer machines.
When Manville-Jenckes Company, the last owner of the Social Mill, closed it in 1927, they tried to sell it. Efforts to reopen failed and the structure, except for an office building was razed in 1932, leaving just the pond area which became a municipal playground. The nearby Nourse mill faced a similar fate and while undergoing demolition in 1956, it was destroyed by fire, further opening up the area around the pond. With the loss of the center pieces of manufacturing an opportunity for a new chapter of urban development opened for the City of Woonsocket. Before that chapter could be written, however, some difficult events unfolded.
In August of 1955, Hurricane Diane delivered a powerful blow to the Woonsocket area. Over the course of a couple of days nearly ten and a half inches of rain fell on the Blackstone Valley, swelling the rivers and threatening dams. The 90-year old dirt embankment holding back the Harris Pond failed and the Social flatlands below it were devastated by a 20 foot surge of water. Buildings collapsed; water and mud covered everything. Nearby cemeteries were washed out, carrying coffins into a mix of gray mud and swirls of fuel oil. The rise of other rivers nearby only added to a city-wide devastation which rose to 31 million dollars of cost. This hit hard in an economy already weakened by the departure of job-rich textile mills to southern states.
Flood control measures began almost immediately, but the second phase of the improvements did not reach the Social flatlands for five years. The State of Rhode Island took part in much of the recovery from the floods. Assuming park ownership by the State in the administration of Governor Del Sesto, in 1960, was just a part of this more comprehensive effort to breath new life into the Social flatlands. About 15 acres including the pond land led the way for the city park becoming the World War II Veterans Memorial State Park.
Before area attention focused on the developments at Social Pond, however, the decade of the 1960s was distracted by the Gateway Urban Renewal Project for the downtown’s Main Street. The goal of Gateway was to reverse the trend towards the fringe development as epitomized by the Walnut Hill Plaza on the eastern edge of Woonsocket in 1960. However, in 1966, the Gateway project which would have recast Main Street was surprisingly turned down by the voters. The Social District and its park were on the perimeter of the plan.
Fortunately, while development energy focused on Gateway, flood control measures completed the rebuilding of the dam and earthen embankment of the Harris Pond, making the downstream Social Pond more secure. Crushed rock banks now contained the Mill and nearby Peters Rivers. As they entered the Blackstone they now did so through underground conduits, further safe-guarding park developments. Thus protected, by flood control provisions, high rise public housing and other structures like the future Marquette Credit Union Bank building arose in the mid 1960s near the park. These developments beckoned the future growth of the area and insured its prominence in the life of the city for several decades.
After the state began managing the park in the 1960s, a bathhouse and beach were installed. Later, under the direction of city planner, Robert L.Bendick, Jr. ( who went on to become the Director of the state Department of Environmental Management), a combination of state, Federal, and community agencies revamped the park with lawns and a fountain. Footpaths, playground equipment, tennis and volley ball courts were added. The former bathhouses and decks from the 1960s were replaced, and the park assumed its popular sobriquet, “Social Ocean.” In May of 1977, the present name of World War II Veterans Memorial State Park was dedicated.
In 1979 the first Autumnfest took place. Autumnfest, now over thirty years old, is a three day fair and community extravaganza anchored at the park, featuring food, exhibits, and entertainment, topped off by a giant parade. It is one of several signature community events for Woonsocket and all northern Rhode Island.
Maintaining a venue for such showcase-type events, as well as sustaining a swimming facility and play grounds to standards of public safety, has required frequent upgrades and expenditures. Since the state acquisition in 1960, three or four major upgrades were done in intervening years. . Much attention focused on monitoring and controlling the water quality of the Mill River to insure its safety for public swimming. First improvements occurred at the time of acquisition, then again in 1977. The most recent was a revamp in 2007 of the bath house facility. Nonetheless within a year of that work, issues over state budget cutbacks, the inability to recruit qualified lifeguards, maintenance of playground equipment, and property vandalism all challenged the future operation of the park. There was a move to try to turn back the park to city supervision. Negotiations, however, between the City and the State resulted in solutions to simplify the swimming experience to a ‘splash park’ with other improvements of a less costly nature. Delays, though, have pushed these concepts into the next season.
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