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The Dark History of Providence’s Water Supply

J.R. Hess, December 10th, 1925. Photo housed in the Providence City Archives

Strangers streamed into the milling villages within Scituate, Rhode Island in the summer of 1915. Arriving by train and in jet-black Model T cars, they parsed through land deeds at the town clerk’s office and took photographs of local homes. Suspicious residents looked on. The newcomers’ mission was not of curiosity, but of conquest: The villages were scheduled to be evacuated, then razed, then submerged beneath 60 feet of water.

The City of Providence gained permission from the State of Rhode Island to create the Scituate Reservoir just a few weeks prior to this invasion. Over the next decade, the Providence Water Supply Board (PWSB), a public utility, acquired more than 23 square miles of land in Scituate. It took possession of over 1,195 buildings, including 375 homes, 7 schools, 6 churches, and 6 mills. It demolished them all, and Scituate residents suffered immensely. Seven residents committed suicide during the demolition and displacement process.

Governments cannot ethically execute infrastructure projects on the scale of the Scituate Reservoir unless they compensate and care for the people they displace and sometimes kill. Their victims are disproportionately racial and socioeconomic minorities. This framework is violent and pervasive. It has facilitated megaprojects across the globe––and just 10 miles from College Hill.

Keegan Cothern, a Brown Ph.D. candidate who studies environmental history and infrastructure development, explained, “Oftentimes… dams and other large infrastructural projects are intentionally sited in places where people are the poorest, the most needy, and have the least capability to resist those sorts of projects. And the least know-how to negotiate to get better deals out of that.”

The 1,600 displaced residents had no legal recourse: Their lawsuits against land confiscation were thrown out and the PWSB ignored their counterproposal for a smaller reservoir. Still, a Scituate farmer, identified in municipal paperwork as Mrs. Fiske, journeyed to Providence City Hall on March 7, 1917 to fight for her future. The PWSB had demanded to tear her farm in two, taking the pasture for construction while leaving her the farmhouse. Fiske argued before the Providence Real Estate Committee that her farm would be economically insolvent without pasture. 

Mrs. Fiske’s farmhouse as photographed by J.R. Hess, hired by the PWSB to take photos of every structure in the condemned area. Hess’s full collection is housed at the Providence City Archives.

The committee stood tall. It only offered Fiske compensation for what it deemed to be half of the value of her farm, a sum that is easy to manipulate. There is no market for condemned land, so as the only buyer, the PWSB compensated landowners at alarmingly low rates. Fred Faria, chairman of the Scituate Preservation Society, said the PWSB issued Scituate homeowners “peanuts, nothing” for their land despite its mandate to deliver “just compensation.”

Decisions handed down by authorities in Providence stripped Scituate residents of their homes and communities. Lifelong friends parted. Families who had lived there for generations had no choice but to pack up and leave. “My mother’s family had to move because of the reservoir, and it was heart-breaking,” local historian Shirley Arnold told Rhode Island Monthly in 2017. “They were here even before the town was incorporated in 1731.”

Religious communities in Scituate faced an existential crisis, furthering social upheaval. Religious community was deeply intertwined with the social and professional lives of residents at the time––residents participated in clubs and societies affiliated with their church in addition to regularly attending services. But condemnation forced a near-impossible decision: relocate or disband. According to local historian Raymond Wolf, nearly all chose the latter.

The Trinity Episcopal Church as photographed on May 14, 1916. The congregation is now located two-tenths of a mile from the reservoir’s northern corner.

The Six-Principle Baptist Church of the village of South Scituate met for the final time on May 28, 1925 at church member Benjamin Wilbur’s new home in Cranston. First, the congregation agreed to sell the church and its land to the PWSB for $4,240, less than $70,000 in today’s dollars. Then, it empowered its secretary to write letters of recommendation for churchgoers who would soon seek acceptance in new congregations. The church soon disbanded. So, too, did the Six-Principle Baptist Church in Kent, another Scituate village. This undoubtedly contributed to the weakening and eventual dissolution of the entire denomination over the subsequent decades.

As the PWSB advanced community destruction and reservoir construction, Scituate residents began leaving their homes in droves. “Their employment was gone, their house was gone, their friends were gone,” said Wolf. “If I lost your address, it’s like you’ve fallen off the face of the earth.” The PWSB even displaced the dead: It relocated 1,485 bodies from condemned land, sometimes creating great physical distance between former residents’ new home and the resting place of their loved ones. Still, 728 graves were never removed and remain below the water.

Yet it remains hard to fully fault the City of Providence for causing this mass displacement and suffering. In the early twentieth-century, Providence faced existential concerns over water use and population growth. Increased commercial and personal demand led to dry spells in the Pettaconsett River, requiring Providence to draw water from a haphazard network of private reservoirs. Exacerbating the water crisis, sewage and industrial pollution flooded the Pawtuxet River, forcing Providence to become the third city in the United States to employ a chemical sewage treatment plant in 1901. 

The foundation of the Richmond Mill Complex on December 10, 1925, as the reservoir filled in.

In the century since Providence constructed the Scituate Reservoir, it has experienced a prolonged period of water security. It has not needed to find an alternative water source nor expand its supply. The reservoir ultimately provided the abundant, clean water that Providence was searching for.

This does not excuse the trauma Providence inflicted on Scituate families. It could have paid residents a fair price for their beloved homes and businesses. It could have considered resident input during deliberations before 1914. It could have sponsored relocation efforts to keep communities intact. But Providence chose not to.

“People’s property and their livelihood––their social and natural resources that allow them to survive in a place––are systematically undervalued by these sorts of projects,” said Jon Nelson, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Brown who specializes in environmental sociology. “A just amount of compensation would be much higher than what people would generally be considering.”

An opportunity to provide vital social services is not a license to sacrifice the people that stand in the way. A framework for megaprojects needs to include equity and compassion. In practical terms, this means that a broader community shares the burden of displacement, not a targeted group of already marginalized residents who have the least ability to fight back.

Compassionate policy looks like fair compensation and the opportunity for displaced residents to live near each other, thus retaining a vital sense of community. They may make further demands of the government to soften the blow of forced removal––and it must be the government’s obligation to listen.

Still, the pain of displacement lingers. At age 14, Wolf’s mother, Helen Larson, was one of the very last Scituate residents to endure the exodus. When she passed away in 2005, Wolf found 1,700 poems she had written, many tinged with longing for a home she could never return to. “My mom lived to 94 and a half,” Wolf said. “She never, ever got over it.”

The village of Ashland, partially razed, on August 2, 1923. The village is the namesake of the Ashland Causeway, the only road across the reservoir. The Causeway sits directly next to the site of the former village.