Its industry and settlements as shown on an 1895 map
The Early Years
"Wanasquatucket" was the name given by the native Narragansett tribe to the larger river that flows into the Providence River and Confluence Park.
It means "the river where the tide ends." This panel, along with the panel for Moshassuck River a few yards over to your right, will tell you the story of these rivers.
The Woonasquatucket and its tributaries originate almost 19 miles upriver from Waterplace.
From Smithfield, North Smithfield and Gloucester, the Woonasquatucket traverses 17 reservoirs and mill ponds.
It reaches its greatest width, 100 feet, as it enters Waterplace.
The first family settled on the Woonasquatucket in 1646.
The first "factory," a paper mill, was built south of what is now Atwell's Avenue in the 1740's. That was fully a century after Roger Williams had founded Providence on the Moshassuck, up the river to your right a couple hundred yards.
The major settlement on the Woonasquatucket before Independence was that 95-acre farm of Christopher Olney, who established a grist mill and the Rising Sun Paper Mill near what has become Olneyville.
By then, the village also boasted a forge, a foundry and even a chocolate factory.
During the 1800's, following the lead set by industry along the Moshassuck, industrialists developed textile mills along the Woonasquatucket above the Great Salt Cove.
As factories drew wealth and workers to Providence, the city prospered and developed the banking, insurance and other commercial enterprises that supported industry.
Like the Moshassuck to your right, the Woonasquatucket flows by many old factories, few of which still serve the purposes they once did. Most were textile mills, but the biggest were the Nicholson File Co. and Brown & Sharpe Co., toolmakers and machinists of world renown.
As they went into eclipse after World War II, the neighborhoods they spawned forgot the river that runs through them.
Today, the process of remembering is under way.
A Salty Old Cove
As the downtown grew, it encroached upon the Great Salt Cove, which was slowly filled.
By the late 1840's, the Great Salt Cove had been transformed into the Cove Basin, an oval pond 1,100 feet wide, encircled by an elegant pedestrian promenade.
Railroad tracks lined this new park's southern and eastern edges after Union Depot was built in 1848.
The Cove Basin's popularity as a civic amenity did not last long.
At low tide its mud flats were exposed.
Industrial waste from factories and human waste from the growing population of the Woonasquatucket valley flowed into the basin.
The basin's difficulties were magnified by the continuous growth of the railroads, which made hazardous work of approaching the cove by foot.
Stench and the need for more land to accommodate trains spelled doomsday for the Cove Basin.
By 1894, it was filled in and a new Union Station was completed in 1898.
The Woonasquatucket's course was contorted.
Portions were decked over so that a fire station and other buildings - most recently, the Post Office to your left, which replaced the fire station in 1940 - could be built over it.
Industry and wealth in Providence and Rhode Island continued to grow - reaching an apex in the 1920's.
The city's population reached 240,000 by World War II, but the relocation of most of the state's textile industry to the South, where production costs were lower, reversed the trend of growth.
By 1960, as families moved to the suburbs, the major department stores left downtown and the city's population fell to 150,000.
By 1970, the land between Union Station and the State house was nothing but a vast parking lot for a daytime commuter population of up to 40,000, which evacuated the city at night, a far cry from the 1940's which say the passage of 800 trains through here each day.
A Waterfront Revival
Beginning in the 1950's, the city and state sought to reverse the decline of downtown Providence.
The Capital Center Plan, conceived in the late 1970's, moved the railroad tracks under Smith Hill, built a new depot, Providence Station, and opened up 35 acres for new office, retail and residential development.
Originally, Memorial Boulevard which begins at the Route 95 interchange, would have dumped more traffic into Memorial Square - known by many as "Suicide Circle."
Planners solved the prospective automotive snarl with an amendment to the plan called the River Relocation Project.
This project moved the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket rivers to new channels meeting at a confluence 100 yards east of its former location under the Post Office to your left.
The new confluence replaced Suicide Circle.
Fitting Memorial Boulevard onto the west bank of the Providence River permitted the whole east bank of the river to be devoted to pedestrians.
This the solution of a vehicular traffic problem led to the creation of a newly reopened waterfront at the center of the city.
In 1994, the Providence Plan and the National Park Service established the Woonasquatucket River Coalition to create a greenway along the entire length of the river in Providence.
Of Time and the Rivers
Waterplace is a symbolic reminder of the old Cove Basin which itself represents the only time in the city's history when its waterfront was considered a civic amenity, not to be worked or ignored, but to be enjoyed.
We must not forget
the past, which warns us that we must treat our rivers well if we want them to treat us likewise.