Its Industry and settlements as shown on an 1885 map
A Short River Through Time
"Mooshausick," was the name given by the native Narragansett tribe to the body of water that flows into the Providence River at Confluence Park. It means "river where the moose watered."
The Moshassuck originates in Lincoln, R.I., ten miles north of there. One mile into Providence, the Moshassuck is joined by its major tributary, the West River, known locally as Geneva Brook.
In widening from five feet in Lincoln to 45 feet at points up-river from here in Providence, the Moshassuck flows through five ponds and 11 dams.
Roger Williams fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636 when he and his followers settled at a spring on the east bank of the Moshassuck, two hundred yards up river from where you are standing.
Williams granted 13 original plots of land to himself and a dozen "loving friends and neighbors" and added parcels north and south as the settlement grew.
Most of the settlers were farmers. Each narrow parcel fronted along Town Street (now North Main) and stretched several hundred yards up beyond the crest of the hill to your right, to Hope Street on what eventually was called College Hill.
Today the site of the original settlement is the Roger Williams National Memorial, the smallest national park in the country.
From Farm to Factory
The first "factory" along the river was a grist mill and tannery built by John Smith in 1646, at what is now Smith Street toward what was then the north end of the settlement.
In the 1700's, additional mills, a distillery, a cooper, a paper mill and even a chocolate factory were built on the Moshassuck.
In 1790, Joseph Congdon built an iron shop, the oldest surviving industrial building in Providence.
It is over on the far corner there, at 3 Steeple Street across the river.
By 1812, there were 30 textile mills in or near Providence, including the famous Slater Mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket.
The War of 1812 undermined the stability of the maritime traders, and shipping gave way to industry as the focus of commerce - especially the textile industry.
Productivity leaped after George Corliss developed a more accurate and reliable steam engine in his factory along the West River.
The Blackstone Canal, together with its locks and dams, was built between 1824 and 1828 to link factories inland from here to Worcester with the ports of Providence and the Narragansett Bay.
The success of the canal was soon undermined by the invention and growth of rail transportation; however, this only added to prosperity in the Moshassuck and Blackstone valleys, especially in Providence. By 1880, Providence alone had 1,200 manufacturing plants, including some that were the biggest in the nation and the world.
Some 800 trains chugged through the city every day, hauling raw materials into and finished goods out of Rhode Island.
The Befouling of the River
The first factories in Rhode Island were built along rivers, including the Moshassuck, because rivers powered the engines that operated machinery.
After steam replaced water power, factories continued to be built near rivers so that the waste products of the manufacturing process could be easily disposed.
As the factories grew, so did nearby housing for the workers and they, too, disposed of waste in the Moshassuck.
Adjacent public works projects like canal building and railroad construction led many Irish laborers to locate near its banks and resulted in the creation of St. Patrick's Parish.
The increasing availability of jobs for domestics, food peddlers and stevedores on the waterfront attracted former slaves from scaled down plantations in Sough Kingston.
Many of these settled in Snowtown and Hardscrabble, the city's first African-American neighborhoods - now known as Mount Hope.
Pollution was blamed for outbreaks of cholera in 1849 and 1854.
Conditions improved after 1897 when interceptor sewers were built to carry the sewage to the new waste treatment plant at Field's Point.
There still were problems during rainstorms when the storm water overwhelmed the capacity of the sewage system and the regulators discharged the excess untreated sewage and the rainwater directly to the rivers.
Return to the River
Two factors have improved water quality in the Moshassuck River since then.
The first was the shift away from manufacturing in Rhode Island as textile factories moved to the South, and the more recent shift towards cleaner service industries in the Northeast.
The second was the passage by Congress of the Clean Water Act, creating incentives for businesses to reduce pollution and municipalities to improve sewer systems.
That process continues to this day.
Beginning in the 1980's, construction on the capital Center and River Relocation projects have opened the riverfront to the public enjoyment and brought the forgotten river into public focus.
Organizations were formed to protect and improve the water quality from the legacy of abuse from the past.
In 1991, River Rescue was organized by Citizens Bank and University of Rhode Island's Coast Resources Center to watch over the Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers.