The City of Cranston

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Historic District Commission

History of Cranston

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Cranston is a city of contrasts. Heavily populated in the east, it remains largely rural, with some scattered subdivisions in the west. Although a city since 1910, Cranston does not have a single urban center. Primarily agricultural throughout its early history, it was nonetheless the hub of Rhode Island's greatest nineteenth century industrial empire.

One of the most dramatic contrasts is that between the general perception that Cranston is a twentieth century suburban satellite to the City of Providence and the fact that Cranston contains a wealth of historical sites and interesting architecture. Currently there are sixteen locations within Cranston that have been recognized by and listed in the National and State Register of Historic Places.

National Historic Districts include Pawtuxet Village, Oaklawn Village, Lippitt Hill and Furnace Brook, which is also an area of archaeological significance. Individual properties on the National Register include the Governor Sprague Mansion, the Joy Homestead, the Edgewood Yacht Club, the Thomas Fenner House, the Sheldon House, the Nathan Westcott House, the Ballroom and Gazebo at Rhodes-on-the-Pawtuxet, the Arad Wood House, the Knightsville Meeting House, the Potter-Remington House, the Niles Westcott House and the Arkwright Bridge.

Cranston's boundaries include one of the most important archaeological sites in the state, two seventeenth-century "stone-enders," the road Rochambeau marched en route to Yorktown, and the home and mill village of one of the nation's most prominent nineteenth-century manufacturers, the Spragues. The city has unique examples of early twentieth-century buildings that reflect the social evolution of the community as well: a yacht club that withstood two major hurricanes, a dance hall that remains popular, and a trolley barn that is one of the most impressive of its type. The legacy of the past plays an important role in the community's everyday life, and a knowledge of that past can enhance our understanding of the city.

In 1638, two years after Roger Williams made the "grand purchase" of Providence from the Indians for himself and twelve other "proprietors," he made a second purchase further south for the same group. This was the "Pawtuxet Purchase" incorporating into Providence the "South Woods," which is now the eastern part of present-day Cranston, including Pawtuxet Village.

William Arnold, one of the original Providence Proprietors, was the first Englishman to settle in what is now Cranston. He built a home in the wilderness about a mile north of the Pawtuxet Falls near Warwick Avenue in 1638. Soon thereafter, three other followers of Roger Williams--William Harris, William Carpenter and Zachariah Rhodes--settled along the fertile meadows of the Pawtuxet. Rhodes and Arnold's brother-in-law, Stephen Arnold, built a gristmill near the falls and laid out the "Arnold Road" northward to join the Pequot Trail that led south to Connecticut. This road today is Broad Street. William Arnold's son, Benedict, became the first Governor of Rhode Island under the charter of 1663.

In 1662, a group of Warwick men speculated in the "Meschanticut Purchase" of land immediately west of the Providence Purchase, which included the remainder of present-day Cranston. The precise boundary of the Pawtuxet Purchase was a source of continuing controversy throughout the seventeenth century, which pitted the "Pawtuxet men" against Roger Williams, the Providence Proprietors, and the settlers of adjacent Warwick. The controversy was resolved in 1714 when the present southern and western borders of Cranston were established.

When the town of Cranston, with its 1460 inhabitants, was incorporated as a town in 1754, it was set off from Providence and contained large portions of what are now the South Providence, Elmwood, and Washington Park sections of the City of Providence. Cranston's northern border was a much straighter line than it is today. Most of these portions were ceded to the Capital City in 1868 as part of an effort by local and state politicians to maintain Republican control of the General Assembly in the face of the growing Irish Democratic population. Further cessions of land occurred in 1873, 1887, and 1892, as Cranston turned over to Providence the land that became Roger Williams Park.

Cranston is a city that has embraced all social classes and ethnic groups. The early English settlers arrived in an area already occupied for centuries by the Narragansett Indians. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, immigrants from Ireland, Italy, French Canada, Germany, Sweden, Greece and Armenia arrived to work in the mills. As it did for the newcomers of past generations, Cranston now represents an important step in realizing the American dream for many of its new Latin American and Southeast Asian residents.

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