Boom, Bust, and War, 1900-1945
Industrial Rhode Island moved into the twentieth century with a full head of
steam, and its booming economy attracted a seemingly endless stream of immigrants,
most of whom came from southern and eastern Europe. But the state was not a melting
pot despite its many ethnics, for each group (at least for a generation or two)
retained its own cultural identity. Perhaps it could be said that Rhode Island
(especially its northeastern quadrant) was more like a mosaic of diverse peoples
-- or even a stew, with everybody in one pot contributing to the whole, but with
each ingredient maintaining its own flavor and identity.
The earliest arrivals among these so-called "new immigrants" were the
Portuguese. Islanders -- whites from the Azores and blacks from Cape Verde --
were initially recruited by the whaling industry during the 1850s and 1860s.
At voyage's end they settled in such port towns as Providence, Warren, Bristol,
and Newport. They became the pioneers and the beacons who inspired a more massive
Portuguese migration to southeastern New England in the period from the 1890s
onward. Then, as one historian has phrased it, "the loom replaced the harpoon" as
the tool of the typical Portuguese immigrant.
The Federal Bureau of Immigration kept detailed statistics from 1898 to 1932
on the ethnicity and destination of all aliens arriving in the ports of the
United States. During this thirty-four- year span, Portuguese designating Rhode
as their destination numbered approximately 20,000. Included in this figure,
especially after 1911,were immigrants from the mainland ("continentals"),
many of whom settled in and around the Cumberland village of Valley Falls.
The most numerically significant element in the new immigration were the Italians.
From 1898 to 1932 federal tabulations listed 54,975 Italians migrating to Rhode
Island. Of these, 51,919 were from the south of Italy (mostly rural peasants
called conladini). and 3,054 from the more urbanized and culturally distinct
An international steamship company, the Fabre Line out of Marseilles, France,
chose Providence as its American terminus in 1911. Because the Fabre steamships
made calls in Italy, Portugal, and the Azores en route to Providence, the migration
of Italians and Portuguese to Rhode Island was facilitated. The line's local
presence also accounted for the great number of returnees among both groups.
From 1908 to 1932, the period for which return statistics have been compiled,
over 13,000 Italians and 7,000 Portuguese were listed as "emigrant aliens
departing" from the port of Providence. No other local ethnics had such
high rates of return.
Notwithstanding this loss, however, those of Italian ancestry exhibit a strong
presence in contemporary Rhode Island, especially in Providence (Federal Hill.
Silver Lake, and the North End) and the adjacent communities of Cranston, Johnston,
and North Providence. Other important Italian-American settlements were made
in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Barrington, Warren. Bristol, Westerly, and the Natick
section of West Warwick. The 1980 census listed over 185,000 Rhode Islanders
of Italian descent.
The Portuguese-Americans have also remained prominent in the state's cultural
life. Most of the 90,000 Rhode Islanders of Portuguese ancestry (1980 census
figures) reside in the state's eastern sector -- the Blackstone Valley, the Fox
Point neighborhood of Providence, East Providence, Bristol County, Tiverton,
Little Compton, and the three Aquidneck Island towns of Portsmouth, Middletown,
and Newport. In the West Bay, Portuguese colonies developed in the South Elmwood
section of Cranston, West Warwick, and, most recently, in the Washington Park
neighborhood of Providence.
Third in size among the new immigrant groups (42,715 in 1980) were the Poles,
who settled mainly in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Warren, West Warwick, and the
Olneyville, Manton, Valley, and West River sections of Providence. In 1902 these
deeply religious people established St. Adalbert's Roman Catholic Church on Ridge
Street, Providence, the mother church of Rhode Island's Polish community. The
cousins of the Poles, though for a time culturally estranged from them, were
the Lithuanians. From 1898 to 1932, 893 members of this ethnic group arrived
in Rhode Island, most of these taking up first residence on Smith Hill, where
they established St. Casimir's national parish in 1919. A third Slavic-language
group to settle in Rhode Island (2,050 from 1898 to 1932) were the Ukrainians.
A sizable colony of these eastern Europeans -- some Orthodox in religion and
others affiliated with the Church of Rome -- made its home in Woonsocket during
the decade prior to World War I.
Also from eastern Europe, especially Russia and Russian Poland, came the Jews.
Intermittent campaigns of persecution called "pogroms" started their
exodus in the early 1880's, but Jewish migration peaked in the years from 1900
to the outbreak of World War I. Most of these refugees settled in the South
Providence, Smith Hill, and North End neighborhoods of the capital city, but
were also formed in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Cranston, and Newport, where the
famed Touro Synagogue was reopened for worship in 1883. An in-depth 1963 survey
the Greater Providence Jewish community counted 19,695 people of Jewish ancestry
in the city and its adjacent municipalities, a figure that has remained fairly
constant for the past two decades. Statewide, 27,000 Rhode Islanders claimed
Jewish ancestry in the 1980 census.
Other locally important and identifiable new immigrant groups are the Armenians.
the Greeks, and the Syrian-Lebanese, From 1898 to 1932, 6,375 Armenian refugees
from Turkish persecution came to Rhode Island. Most settled in Providence, in
such areas as the North End, Federal Hill, Olneyville and, especially, Smith
Hill. During the same period 4,201 Greeks arrived, implanting their rich heritage
and Orthodox religion primarily in three communities -- Providence, Pawtucket,
Finally came Christian Arabs (Orthodox, Protestants, and Melkites and Maronites
affiliated with Rome) fleeing Moslem persecution and Turkish misrule. The 2,434
Arabs who arrived during the first three decades of the century settled in Providence,
Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket.
The new immigration altered Rhode Island's religious profile. By 1905 the state
census revealed that 50.81 percent of all Rhode Islanders claimed allegiance
to the Roman Catholic faith. Protestants (at 46.72 percent) had finally lost
their numerical ascendancy. In the state elections of 1906, James H. Higgins,
an Irish Democrat, was chosen the state's first governor of the Roman Catholic
But the influx of these Catholic newcomers was not an unmixed blessing, for
ethnocultural antagonism developed, especially between the dominant Irish Catholics
large Franco-American and Italian-American Catholic communities. Fortunately,
serious conflicts were prevented, in large measure because of the creation
of national parishes, the importation of ethnic religious orders, and the sensitive,
tolerant, firm, and prudent leadership of Bishop Matthew Harkins (1887-1921),
one of the era's most able Catholic prelates, known locally as "the Bishop
of the Poor."
Apart from its strenuous industrial endeavors and its increasing ethnic diversity,
the most notable aspect of early twentieth-century Rhode Island was its turbulent
politics. Until the election of 1932 -- in the depths of the Great Depression
-- the Republican party was dominant. It owed its ascendancy to many factors,
not the least of which was the state's political system established by the Constitution
of 1843. That document, care-fully drafted by the Law and Order coalition of
upper-class Whigs and rural Democrats that vanquished Thomas Dorr, was designed
to prevent the old-stock industrialist and the Yankee farmer from succumbing
to the numerically superior city dwellers, especially those of foreign birth
and Catholic faith. When the Republican party formed during the 1850's in response
to the slavery issue, it revived the Law and Order coalition of the preceding
decade; it adopted that group's nativistic posture; and it determined to use
and preserve that party's constitutional checks upon the power of the urban working
Those checks included (l) a malapportioned senate which gave a legislative veto
to the small rural towns; (2) a cumbersome amendment process to frustrate reform;
(3) the absence of procedures for the calling of a constitutional convention;
(4) the absence (until 1889) of a secret ballot; (5) a General Assembly that
dominated both the legislatively elected supreme court and the weak, vetoless
(until 1909) governorship; and (6) a real estate voting requirement for the naturalized
citizen. This last- mentioned check was eliminated by the Bourn Amendment (VII)
in 1888, but it was replaced by a $134 property-tax-paying qualification for
voting in city council elections. This requirement had the practical effect of
preventing many, usually immigrants, from exercising control over the affairs
of the cities in which they resided. This was true because the mayors, for whom
all electors could vote, had very limited powers, while the councils, for whom
only property owners could vote, were dominant, controlling both the purse and
The famous political reformer James Quale Dealey of Brown University contended
in 1909 that "the political effect of this [voting] limitation is to place
the control of municipal government in the hands of the Republicans. The general
vote which elects the mayor is usually Democratic in the five cities, but the
property vote is strongly Republican. As the mayor has small powers in government,
control over municipal affairs rests with the Republican organization. This limitation
on municipal suffrage is a standing grievance on the part of Democratic, reform,
and radical organizations and is pointed at as the only survival in the United
States of the old fashioned, colonial property qualifications." Nearly
60 percent of those who could vote for mayor were disenfranchised in council
As if constitutional checks were not sufficient, General Charles Brayton, legendary
boss of the Republican party, for good measure engineered the enactment in
1901 of a statute designed to emasculate any Democrat who might back into the
chair by virtue of a split in Republican ranks. With a few limited exceptions
this "Brayton Act" placed the ultimate appointive power of state
government in the hands of the senate. In the aftermath of its passage a governor
effectively appoint only his private secretary and a handful of insignificant
By 1920 the senate -- the possessor of state appointive and budgetary power
-- was more malapportioned than ever. For example, West Greenwich, population
had the same voice as Providence, population 237.595; the twenty smallest towns,
with an aggregate population of 41,660, outvoted Providence twenty to one,
although the capital city had over 39 percent of Rhode Island's total population.
senate, said Democratic Congressman George F. O'Shaunessy (1911-1919), was "a
strong power exercised by the abandoned farms of Rhode Island."
The Progressive Era (ca. 1898-1917) was an age of national reform -- political,
economic, and social -- but Rhode Island's reactionary constitutional system
survived the period relatively intact. Boss Brayton and Nelson Aldrich proved
more than a match for Lucius Garvin, James Higgins, Charles E. German, Robert
H.I. Goddard, Theodore Francis Green, Amasa Eaten, and other supporters of
governmental reform. The Brayton- Aldrich combine even survived a national
expose by noted
muckraker Lincoln Steffens, who in 1905 described Rhode Island as "A State
The Progressive Movement was eclipsed by American involvement in World War I.
In Rhode Island pro-Allied sentiment ran high, conditioned in part by the Providence
Journal, whose editorials repeatedly urged intervention to halt alleged German
aggression. When war finally came in April 1917, the state contributed 28,817
troops, of whom 612 died. Many of these succumbed not to German gas or bullets
but to the Spanish influenza, a dread virus that was carried home from the battlefront
by returning soldiers. This deadly infection took 941 lives in Providence alone
With the return of peace in Europe, Rhode Island's political wars resumed. The
stormy decades of the 1920s and 1930s witnessed a major transition from Republican
to Democrat control in state government. Economic unrest stemming from such factors
as the decline of the textile industry, the crash of 1929, the ensuing Great
Depression, and the local rise of organized labor coupled with the development
of cultural antagonisms between native and foreign stock to weaken the allegiance
of France- American and Italian-Americans to the Republican Party. Simultaneously,
vigorous efforts by the Irish-led Democratic party to woo ethnics, key constitutional
reforms such as the removal of the property-tax requirement for voting at council
elections (by Amendment XX in 1928), the shift in control of the national Democratic
party from rural to urban leadership, the 1928 presidential candidacy of Irish-Catholic
Democrat Al Smith, and the New gear of Franklin D. Roosevelt combined to pull
the newer Immigrant groups towards the Democratic fold by the mid-1930s.
At this juncture Democratic leaders -- especially Governor Theodore Francis Green,
Thomas P. McCoy of Pawtucket, and Lieutenant Governor Robert Emmet Quinn -- staged
a governmental reorganization known as the Bloodless Revolution of 1935. This
bizzare coup, made possible by a controversial scheme that gave the Democrats
control of the state senare, resulted in the repeal of the Brayton Act, the reorganization
of slate government by replacing the commission system with the present departmental
structure, and the replacement of the entire supreme court.
Outside of the state, Green's actions met with mixed reviews: the Chicago Daily
Tribune declared them to be unconstitutional and its Editor, Colonel Robert McCormick,
ordered one star cut out of the American flag stating that Rhode Island did not
deserve to be part of the union; the New York Times, on the other hand, agreed
with Green's maneuverings.
Soon after this takeover Democratic factionalism became in tense; promised reforms
such as the calling of an open constitutional convention went unfulfilled; and
a bitter battle erupted between Governor Quinn and race track owner Walter O'Hara,
who was a supporter of Pawtucket Mayor Thomas P. McCoy. which led to Quinn bringing
a libel suit against O'Hara and declaring martial law around the Narragansett
Race Track, owned by O'Hara (the track, upon orders of Quinn, was surrounded
by soldiers to prevent it from opening). These events were the subject of Zachariah
Chaffee, Jr.'s, lively analysis State House versus Pent House.
These intense local embarrassments were compounded by a national recession in
1937 so that the state elections of 1938 returned the Republicans briefly to
office. The GOP enacted a Civil Service law in 1939 to protect state employees
from whole- sale firings, such as Green's. Governor William Vanderbilt soon became
ensnared in a wiretap controversy during his attempt to implicate Pawtucket's
Mayor McCoy in vote fraud; ironically, it was alleged that he had ordered taps
placed on the Republican Attorney General, Louis V. Jackvony.
In 1940 the Democratic tide rolled in once more as U.S. District Attorney J.
Howard McGrath, who had made political hay with Vanderbili's wiretap controversy,
won the governorship.
Scarcely had the state's political wars simmered down when World War II disrupted
Rhode Island life. In the three and a half years following Pearl Harbor, many
of Rhode Island's sons and daughters fought and died in the great struggle against
the Axis powers. An examination of war casualty lists reveals that this was the
state's most costly conflict. More men and women served (92,027) and more died
(2,157) than in any other war.
Yet the losses only seemed to spur the citizenry on to greater efforts: spirited
parades were held in Providence and other communities at intervals during the
war years; war-bond drives were oversubscribed; those ablebodied workers that
remained at home turned out many articles of war, including boots, knives, parachutes,
gauges, and, especially, the Liberty ships and combat cargo vessels that were
constructed at the Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard on Field's Point by a work force that
numbered 21,000 in early 1945. The Rhode Island Office of Price Administration,
which had the task of enforcing the war-imposed rationing laws, won nationwide
praise and became a role model for other states.
During the four and a half decades from the turn of the century to the end
of World War II, Rhode Islanders increasingly found escape from work, war,
in the worlds of entertain• ment and sport. Vaudeville, the silent screen,
and then "talkies" successively developed wide popular appeal, and
Providence (birthplace of George M. Cohan) became a center of the performing
and visual arts. Its splendid theaters -- Fay's (1912), the Strand (1915),
the Majestic (1917), the Albee (1919), Loew's State (1928), and the Metropolitan
(1932) -- all date from this era. And theatergoers, before or after the show,
could visit such bustling department stores as Diamond's, Cherry and Webb,
Boston Store, Gladding's, Shepard's and the Outlet. Of these big six --all
of which were at their peak -- Shepard's and the Outlet were the giants, and
spirited rivalry spilled over from retailing to radio. On June 2, 1922, Shepard's
inaugurated Rhode Island's first radio station (WEAN); three months later the
Outlet beamed back with WJAR, the embryo of what would become an Outlet broadcasting
In sports, baseball was still king. Minor league teams, usually dubbed the Providence
Grays, were formed occasionally and even won championships. Most notable were
the International League titlists of 1914, who included a pitcher named Babe
Ruth. In the new sport of professional football Providence boasted its Steam
Roller eleven, the National Football League kingpins in 1928. In college football
Brown fielded several nationally prominent teams, including the famous Iron Men
of 1926 and the 1915 squad that played in the very first Rose Bowl game.
In the 1920s a crosstown athletic rivalry developed between venerable Brown and
the new Catholic men's college founded in 1919 by Bishop Matthew Harkins. On
June 7, 1924, the Bruins and Providence College played the longest collegiate
baseball game on record, a twenty inning contest in which future Pawtucket mayor
Charlie Reynolds went the route in the Friars' 1 to O victory.
In professional hockey the Rhode Island Reds came to a newly constructed Rhode
Island Auditorium in 1926, and from 1930 to 1938, to the delight of local sports
fans, the Reds won the Canadian-American Hockey League championship four times.
In 1930 the America's Cup first came to Rhode Island waters as Enterprise beat
Shamrock V four races to none. Finally, the state got major thoroughbred race
track to host "the sport of kings": largely through the exertions
of textile magnate Waiter E. O'Hara, Narragansett Park opened on the Pawtucket-East
Prov- idence line (site of the old What Cheer Airport) on August 1, 1934.
Other highlights of the 1900-1945 era included the establishment of Providence
as the sole state capital (1900); the founding of several colleges -- Barrington
(1900), Johnson and Wales (1914), Providence (1919), and Roger Williams (1919,
reorganized in 1948); the creation of the town of West Warwick in 1913; the long
incumbency of the popular France-American Republican governor Aram Pothier(1909-1915
and 1925-1928); the passage of a state women's suffrage law in 1917; the distinguished
tenure of internationally renowned Dr. Charles V. Chapin as Providence's director
of public health (1882-1932); the construction of the Scituate Reservoir( 1915-1929);
the opening at Hillsgrove of the nation's first state-run airport in 1931; the
construction of the Providence skyline, especially the Industrial (now Fleet)
Bank Building (1928); the completion of the Mount Hope and Jamestown bridges
(1929 and 1940); and the opening of Quonset Naval Base (1941). On the debit side
one must note the sinking of the steamer Larchmont (out of Providence)in Block
Island Sound on February 11, 1907, with a loss of 111 lives, and the 1938 hurricane
-- the state's worst natural disaster -- whose 120-mile-an-hour winds and tidal
waves caused over a hundred million dollars in damage and took the lives of 311
Rhode Islanders, most in the Westerly-Charlestown area.
In August, 1945 war ended. By year's end the work force at the Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard
had been nearly disbanded, veterans were home seeking jobs, and the state's declining
textile industry. granted a temporary reprieve by the necessities of war, looked
towards a bleak future.
An eventful era had passed.