The Power of Words. Scituate Reservoir: A story of sacrifice
Scituate Reservoir: A story of sacrifice
It brought water to Providence, destroying communities and lives in the process

Journal Staff Writer
       On May 23, 1916, the City of Providence paid Frank and Lyman Knight $12,150 for their holdings in rural Scituate, according to records on file with the Providence Water Supply Board.
       The father and grandfather sold 406 acres, two barns, a sawmill and an ice house on Knight Brook. The bill of sale included two houses, "1 burned."
       Lyman Knight's ancestors think they understand the peculiar entry.
       Rather than sell his house to the builders of the Scituate Reservoir, the Knight family patriarch set it afire, they believe. They imagine he stood in his fields and watched as two centuries of family history burned so that the city would have its water.
       "The Knights were very strong, stubborn people," said Shirley Arnold of Scituate, a descendent of Frank and Lyman Knight. "They did not want to leave that house."
       A lot of others didn't want to leave, either. Up the road, in the once-upon-a-time village of Ponaganset, a farmer told his daughter he was going outside to feed the livestock, walked into his barn and hanged himself. A neighbor slit his throat.
       Most others persevered, through depressing auctions, hurried moves, a cataclysm they never imagined possible. Eighty years later, their ancestors try to fathom a time and a story that lies, like Atlantis, in the watery deep.
       Begun in 1915, the Scituate Reservoir by the mid 1920s flooded a great natural bowl at the headwaters of the North Branch of the Pawtuxet River, creating Rhode Island's largest body of fresh water. Some experts believe the ready source of clean water allowed metropolitan Providence to grow and for Rhode Island to prosper.
       More than half the state drinks water from the lake, which forms a long, crooked V across the belly of Scituate. Managed wisely, said Richard Rafanovic, the reservoir's chief engineer, the tap could run forever.
       But there was a price to pay for that consistency and that prosperity. It was borne by about 1,600 mostly quiet, hard-working, rural folks who in 1916 began answering alarming knocks at the door. It was a man from the city, and he had papers saying their way of life was over.
       Kent, home to the Knights since 1708, fell first. Then all the rest: Richmond, Ashland, South Scituate, Saundersville, Rockland and Ponaganset, all abandoned, torn apart board by board, cleared and drowned.
       Like others connected to Scituate's "lost villages," Shirley Arnold sometimes speaks of the decade with a lingering sadness. She tries to picture her mother, grandparents and great-grandparents living in a condemned village.
       She is a sunny, outgoing woman, but her voice softens when she surveys the clues.
       "You can imagine how they might have felt," she said. "Over 200 years of family history, gone."
       The second decade of a new century was a time of building the infrastructure for a more affluent, industrial society. Smithfield was building its own, smaller reservoir, Stump Pond, today one of the town's prettiest lakes. In Glocester, linemen stretched wires for the electricity that lit up Chepachet in 1914. The state was finishing turnpikes that linked northwest towns to a regional highway system.
       As they built up the home front, Rhode Islanders also helped shape the world. Europe erupted into a great war, and recruiting stations in Johnston and North Providence were busy with volunteers. At the end of the decade, the towns welcomed their warriors home with parades and monuments, but there was little revelry in Scituate.
       In the reservoir town, World War I offered only a respite from the breathtaking work under way.
       The city had been eying Scituate water since the mid-1800s. A half-dozen reservoir plans were formulated, only to collapse. Perhaps a sense of complacency had settled on the town, historians say. And perhaps no one could really believe what was happening.
       Scituate in the mid-1910s was a network of little company towns linked by electric trolley lines. People worked in textile mills for $15 a week or farmed their land. Many did both.
       "Everybody had animals, a cow, maybe a goat, something to live on," said Frank Spencer, 91, who pronounces his hometown the old way, with a long A at the end, "SICH-u-aate."
       He was 8 years old in 1916, but a boy never forgets men behind mule teams digging a reservoir in an era without bulldozers. He recalls more vividly the muleskinners, exotic men from Arkansas, who on Sunday afternoons led their mules through tricks to the amazement of the Rhode Islanders. And he remembers the mill villages that to him were great, teeming cities.
       Richmond was home to four mills, a school, a town hall and tenements that housed 600 mill workers. But most of the condemned communities were more like Kent, a postcard village with a mill, a church and a few dozen families that had lived there seemingly forever.
       They were 15 miles but a world away from the State House in Providence, said town historian Barbara Sarkesian.
       "People didn't really understand what was happening," she said. "This was pretty much a done deal when the folks heard about it."
       In 1914, the General Assembly rejected a bill to condemn the reservoir lands and seize them by powers of eminent domain. But the very next spring, it passed the measure and the governor signed it. The state empowered a newly formed Providence Water Supply Board to appraise and buy property and clear it away.
       By December 1916, the condemnation notices went out.
       "They came to your house with liens. They served them personally," said Spencer, who has amassed a large body of photos and history of the lost villages. Like a baseball statistician, he can recite the loss at season's end: 375 houses, 233 barns, 30 dairy farms, 7 schools, 6 churches, a railroad.
       He said the mill owners generally did well in the exchange. The mill era was fading anyway. But the mill workers and small farmers received take-it-or-leave-it offers that few considered fair.
       Some protested. Some fought the condemnations in court, but no one prevailed, Sarkesian said. Some tried to make the best of it.
       Letter writers poked defiant fun at Providence in local newspapers as late as 1918.

       The water sharks of Providence
       Good judgment seem to lack
       If they will take a trip up here
       They'll find us on the map

       William H. Joslin, a wealthy farmer and mill owner, built the Richmond Casino, a movie house and dance hall, in the condemned village of Richmond in 1919. According to Spencer, Joslin is reported to have said, "We might as well have a good time until we leave."
       But by then, a desperate atmosphere had settled on the land. Sarkesian displays a yellowed letter written by a Mrs. Leach of Ashland to a Mr. Williams, written in hurried sentences and hand delivered.
       When I went away from your father's house he owed me four weeks pay. I hate to send for it but I have to have it. I need it so bad.
       It is only $4. I wish you would send it down this week, for we are going to move.
       Send it to me if you can. I think we must move next week. I need it so bad.
       The letter is dated July 8, 1919. Ashland was cleared that summer.
       Some could not bear what was happening. Spencer tells the story of a Ponaganset farmer who went to the courthouse in Providence to fight his eviction. He arrived home that afternoon about the same time as his daughter, a teacher in Foster. She asked him what happened.
       "We gotta move," he reportedly said, then went out to feed the animals. A while later, the daughter went to the barn and found her father hanging from a beam.
       Arnold said she has documented that and seven other suicides, mostly farmers.
       More intriguing to her are the number of families who apparently did as they were told - packed up, auctioned off what they could not carry, and abandoned their homes.
       One family was so angry they left everything, even dishes on the table, Arnold said. But still they left.
       She credits Yankee stoicism, a kind of Job-like fatalism.
       "A lot of people just seemed to accept this as their lot in life," she said.
       But she also thinks many were simply overwhelmed, as one might be if a hurricane roared through.
       In the 1910s, earth was moved with mule teams and steam shovels and strong backs. Mills and houses were demolished by hand. At times, more than 400 men worked on the reservoir.
       "Overnight, all these men, surveyors and contractors, were all around," said Arnold. "The construction workers came in like gangs out of the city. You know, these are quiet little mill towns. I think it happened so quickly, they just couldn't do anything about it."
       Arnold is a retired librarian who helped create the local history archives at the North Scituate Library. Tracing her genealogy drew her to interview family elders about the coming of the reservoir.
       The interviews were not easy. She was broaching a subject the family rarely discussed, she said. Still, it's her history, too.
       Her mother was born in the family home in Kent. Growing up, Arnold said, she would hear her mother or grandmother refer to "the old place." For years, Arnold was told, the family would drive back to see where the house stood, before Kent Dam closed and the waters rose.
       She talked to her elders and learned more, about cooling milk in the brook, about her grandfather, a horseman, selling horses used to build the reservoir.
       Her uncle described driving cattle by the hundreds up Scituate Avenue to the new farm in Cranston, and Arnold laughs to imagine the site.
       But no one ever described leaving; no one would talk about the end and how it felt.
       The water board kept meticulous records, photographs of everything it razed. After 20 years' research, Arnold can breathe life into the clues. She and other Knight descendents can imagine, now, some of the unspoken.
       There's the photo of her great-grandfather's house, a handsome ranch house with two sitting porches, three chimneys, a stone foundation.
       There's the obituary the newspaper ran upon the death of her great-great-grandfather.
       "He was often seen in his fields with his son and his grandson," it reads. "His home was the dearest place to him on earth."
       There's the inventory, the cold record of what the Knights sold to Providence in the spring of 1916 - 2 houses, 1 burned.

Return to Textfiles Menu