Olneyville, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Providence, is located in the central western section of the city. The topography of Olneyville, typified by the spectacular view across the city from Bowdoin Street, is one of the most diverse and engaging of any neighborhood in Providence. Its boundaries are Atwells Avenue to the north, the AMTRAK railway line and Route 10 to the east, the Woonasquatucket River and Interstate 195 to the south, and Glenbridge Avenue to the west.
Olneyville is the core of a larger historically and geographically defined area called the Woonasquatucket River Valley. Olneyville Square, where Broadway, Westminster Street, Harris Avenue, Hartford Avenue, Plainfield Street, Manton Avenue, Valley Street, and Dike Street all meet, has long been the industrial, commercial, cultural, and transportation hub of the entire west side of Providence.
The Indian settlement known as Woonasquatucket, meaning "at the head of the tidewater," had long existed near Olneyville. This settlement, along with the rest of the valley, was also part of the Providence Colony that Roger Williams acquired from the sachems Canonicus and Miantonomi of the Narragansett Indians in 1636.
Settlement began around Olneyville Square in the early 1700s. In 1714, the Plainfield Road was constructed along the path of today's Weybosset, Westminster, and Plainfield Streets, which connected the old Indian village site at the bend in the Woonasquatucket River with the center of Providence. Trading soon followed along the river.
From as early as 1745, the Ruttenburg family had established a paper mill and a distillery just north of the intersection of Atwells Avenue and the Woonasquatucket River. Although the mill was a short-lived enterprise, the road that the Ruttenburgs built from their mill to their farm near Plainfield Road still exists today as Valley Street. Valley Street is important today in that it generally follows the course of the Woonasquatucket River and is used to travel between Orms Street in Smith Hill, past numerous transportation and manufacturing nodes, including the enormous Foundry complex on Promenade Street, all the way to Olneyville Square.
Christopher Olney settled what became Olneyville in 1785. He operated a grist mill and a paper mill on a wide part of the river known as Olney's Pond which exists north of where Kossuth Street now runs. Olney's prominence and active involvement in industry eventually gave Olneyville its name. By the end of the American Revolution, Olneyville was the location of a forge and foundry and various other minor industries.
Development in Olneyville intensified early in the 19th century. The Woonasquatucket River, a source of water power, made Olneyville attractive to industry, and numerous mill villages popped up along its banks. Throughout the 19th century, Olneyville remained a leading industrial center. Christopher Olney's 18th century paper mill continued to operate into the early 19th century, but by then the textile industry had become the dominant industry in Providence.
Improvements in roads and the establishment of public transportation also enhanced the popularity of Olneyville. During the 1830s the establishment of the railroad made the area in and around the Woonasquatucket River Valley and the area to the northeast of Olneyville more attractive as industrial sites. By 1847, there were major railroads entering Providence from the south which met at Benedict Pond and then paralleled Valley Street and the Woonasquatucket River to what was, at the time, the new central terminal on Exchange Place (now known as John F. Kennedy Plaza). This enabled direct access to the mills along the river for delivery and distribution, and consequently contributed to the rapid industrial growth there in the latter part of the 19th century.
By 1846, Providence Dyeing, Bleaching and Calendaring Company had opened a plant in Olneyville on Valley Street. The 1850s marked the beginning of one of the most important industrial facilities in Olneyville, the Atlantic Mills. The first building was constructed in 1851 by General C.T. James. This building was altered and enlarged several times, with the addition of two circular towers in front added in separate stages in the 1860s. In 1899, an impressive mill office and the round brick gasometer was added. The structure still stands today on Manton Avenue and is used by various neighborhood-based groups and artists.
In addition, the expansion of public transportation also had a significant influence on Olneyville's residential development, particularly in the area around Olneyville Square. By 1895, the original horse-drawn streetcars had been replaced by electric trolleys, and new lines were extended out along Atwells Avenue to Academy Avenue. The convenience of public transportation and the possible employment opportunities in the mills further increased residential development.
During the 1880s and 1890s, the streets between Atwells and Manton Avenues were completely filled with two family houses. Many of the homes were originally built by mill owners who provided housing for their workers. As population increased and mill owners were no longer able to construct the housing, speculators stepped in. By 1900, Olneyville's physical appearance had been firmly established.
In the early decades of the twentieth century, Olneyville retained much of its 19th century character as a working class neighborhood, dominated by the all-powerful textile industry. Olneyville became the home for many Polish and other Eastern European immigrants during the period just before World War II. In fact, one of the only Polish festivals still celebrated in Providence is held right on Atwells Avenue.
After World War II, however, the fortunes of Providence's textile giants declined precipitously. Industries moved out of the city for cities in the southern United States or shut down altogether. The effect of this demise on the Olneyville neighborhood was devastating. Thousands of jobs were lost and were never replaced. Some of these jobs have been recaptured in the costume jewelry industry but not enough to change the plight of the neighborhood.
As jobs declined, Olneyville became severely depopulated as more and more residents left the neighborhood to seek new employment. This flight was exacerbated by the construction of the Route 6 connector in the early 1950s. Built to alleviate the traffic snarls in Olneyville Square, the Route 6 connector had the effect of destroying a great deal of affordable, working-class housing.
Since the 1960s, the jewelry industry has replaced textiles in Olneyville. Numerous businesses in the Promenade Center provide hundreds of jobs to neighborhood residents. Despite the emergence of this new industry, however, Olneyville continued to lose population throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980 Census showed that 16 percent of Olneyville's residents had left during the 1970s. It was not until the 1980s that the population of Olneyville began to stabilize again.
Sources: Olneyville: Neighborhood Analysis, Department of Planning and Urban Development (City of Providence, 1977) and Providence: A Citywide Survey of Historic Resources, edited by William McKenzie Woodward and Edward F. Sanderson (Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1986).
HUD Secretary Tours Olneyville