Each week (or thereabouts) I take a look at the cities and towns in Rhode Island, their flags, and associated symbols. I also examine their histories and physical features. This week, we reach West Greenwich, the town that nearly died.
About West Greenwich
I fully admit I have grown a little blasé about western Rhode Island town histories, seeing as their histories are mostly genocide, farms, turnpikes, and then mills, and then the automobile and later suburbanization, repeated across the dozen or so towns. Those are all present here, but much more scarce.
West Greenwich was originally claimed by the Narragansetts, and almost certainly under their control or one of their confederates by the time Europeans arrived in the area. However, King Philip’s War broke that nation as a political force, and many Narragansetts joined (or perhaps were transferred) to the Eastern Niantics under Ninigret, who lived in what is today southern Rhode Island. At that point, the Eastern Niantics were the claimants to the land.
After the war (or maybe before, my source is not very good on this), West (and East) Greenwich were marked on Rhode Islanders’ (by which I mean English) maps as “Vacant Land Tract not yet part of the Colony”. It was not vacant; even if Narragansett residents were gone (and they probably all weren’t), English squatters and English tenants of the Niantics/Narragansetts lived in the area.
By 1709, Ninigret’s son, also called Ninigret (at least in English sources), had succeeded his sister as leader of the Niantics, and sold a large part of the Niantic/Narragansett claims to the Colony of Rhode Island, in what my source says was “payment for military defense, as well as other services.” In other words, it was pretty damn coercive.
Worse, in the subsequent sale of the newly acquired land, Rhode Island appears to have proceeded corruptly, selling the land that became West Greenwich to just thirteen men who each acquired over 1000 acres. They then broke it up and sold it a further set of partners. And thus, in a cloud of corruption, the western portion of East Greenwich was born (my source seems to suggest it was “East Greenwich” at the beginning, which doesn’t really make sense to me, but then a lot of town name origins in RI don’t make a ton of sense).
West Greenwich came about during the mid-18th Century boom in Rhode Island (a lot of towns were incorporated in this time as populations grew). Unable to easily get to town meetings or muster for town militia training, the westerners submitted a petition to form their own town, and it was granted by the General Assembly in 1741.
What did West Greenwich have? Well, not much except woods. It did not have a great abundance of fertile land for cash crop farming, it didn’t have unique marble like Westerly. It also didn’t have proximity to other towns (indeed, this was sort of a key reason for its founding). The result was that the town mostly relied on subsistence farming and meat and dairy production supplemented by quarrying where possible, and with portable lumber operations producing things like shingles, floorboards, and the parts that make up barrels (but not the metal hoops that hold them together).
Still, this was enough, and after Independence, the first US Census in1790 placed the town at 2,054 residents. Unfortunately, this was the first zenith of West Greenwich. It would not again have this population until the 1970s.
The big event in West Greenwich history was the construction of the New London Turnpike during the turnpike boom. Now, in other towns histories, we’ve discussed turnpike construction and the impact it had on western Rhode Island. There are two important things about the New London Turnpike that make it distinct. First, by the time it was opened in 1821 it was already late in the game. Built to shave 12 miles off the journey between Providence and New London (so you could reach the steamer to New York City in New London), it was in direct competition with steamers, the already existing public roads, and later, railroads. It was expensive to travel along the road, and with low profits, the owners did little to maintain it.
Second, it caused development to lean towards meeting travelers’ needs. While some taverns and inns had more genteel representations, as fewer people traveled the road, the establishments began to cater to travelers’ vices, establishing, in the words of one source, a “backwoods red light district,” which trafficked in prostitution and gambling, and resulted in the occasional murder. The most notorious area is Hell’s Half Acre, which The Boston Globe‘s Ed Fitzpatrick jogged along fairly recently (Ed’s article says the New London Turnpike was “a important conduit” but the Historical Preservation Commission report says it really only profited the tavernkeepers and the mill owners at the village at Nooseneck).
Nooseneck was really the only settlement in the pre-automotive history of the town that grew dense enough to be called a village, in large part thanks to the textile mill and company housing established there by David Hopkins. Unfortunately, West Greenwich was just too remote for mills to make much financial sense, and unlike other Rhode Island towns that never developed in the 19th Century because of lack of water resources, West Greenwich’s remove is ultimately what stymied its mill growth.
The other “major” pre-20th Century settlement was West Greenwich Centre where the West Greenwich Baptist Church was established, but it was never very large to begin with. In the southwest corner the Tillinghast family (and later the Hazards as well) established Escoheag, which relied on farming, a gristmill and a sawmill, and a quarry. Potentially the Hazards also ran a molasses factory there on their residence’s grounds, which is why among the names given to Escoheag Hill Road are “Molasses Hill Road” and “Hazard Road”.
The town was already declining by the 1830s, and this accelerated after the Civil War. The Turnpike failed as railroads bypassed the town, the mills failed, and the town resorted to making acetic acid for dyeing at the Knight Mills along the Pawtuxet; this could be done by using oak or ash wood and water (so, the two resources the town had in abundance). The operation lasted less that 20 years.
West Greenwich hollowed out. Young people left for the more populated areas of the state, where there was work and higher quality of life. Old-timers kept to their farms, but many farms were abandoned as people died and no one kept up the property. The farmland was poor and rocky, the town so remote, the people old, and the property areas so small that the mechanization of farming that was happening elsewhere in the country just passed West Greenwich by. The result was that much of West Greenwich was reforested; not by choice, but with nothing else impede the woods’ return. Subsistence farming and ad hoc timber operations were really what continued to sustain the town’s residents. By 1920, even as Rhode Island experienced prodigious growth and the height of its Gilded Age prosperity and prestige, the town had tumbled to a mere 367 residents.
And then… miracle. The rise of the automobile meant paved roads and the beginnings of suburbanization. Route 102 was built in the wake of World War I as “Victory Highway” – Route 3 was likewise improved. In the northeast corner of the town, summer cottages appeared around Lake Mishnock. In the aftermath of World War II, the bypassing of West Greenwich by the railroad was rectified, as I-95 was run through the town. Suburbanization happened, and the town experienced prodigious growth that continued right up until the housing bubble collapsed in 2007 and production slowed precipitously. After eight decades of growing by 20% or more, the most recent Census Bureau estimate suggests that West Greenwich grew about mere 4.1% over the last decade. Today, the town is estimated to be at 6,387 residents, its highest recorded number, and well beyond where it was a century ago.
That said, West Greenwich has a story which mirrors that of Scituate. In 1966, the State of Rhode Island condemned much of the eastern portion of the town, including most of Nooseneck, in order to build the Big River Reservoir. Like in Scituate, homeowners were forced out and had to sell their land at frankly unfair prices. After seven years of work, it opened in 1973 and has supplied drinking water to much of southern Rhode Island ever since.
Just kidding. Today this is the Big River Management Area. Costs for the reservoir ballooned, and then in 1990 the project was denied permits from the Environmental Protection Agency (established four years after the initial seizure of the land). There’s some dispute about whether the land should be sold back to the original owners, or whether the State will ever actually build the reservoir (the State maintains it will use these lands as a “water supply source”). In 1993, the General Assembly complicated this by passing a law preventing sale or development of the condemned lands and establishing them as “open space” while also holding out the possibility that it might establish a reservoir or wells or ground water there. It all seems pretty vague, and I can’t really fault the former landowners for being pretty upset with how it turned out.
Physically, West Greenwich is basically the southernmost of the rectangular towns, with Exeter on its south, Coventry to its north, East Greenwich to its east, and Connecticut to its west. Development is mostly scattered across the town, with even the old villages merely names on the map, having either been destroyed by depopulation or condemnation. Much of the town is woodland.
What has West Greenwich got now?
West Greenwich has a coat of arms:
According to the Tercentenary Commission its blazon is:
Azure an hour glass argent, on a chief or a demi-sun in splendor issuant gules. A silver hour glass on a blue field, with a golden stripe at top on which is a red setting sun. The arms are a modification of those of East Greenwich differenced with the setting sun significant of the West.
So, we’ll see this setting sun symbol again when we get to West Warwick, but basically, West Greenwich’s arms are constructed from two different symbols: the hourglass representing Greenwich, England (where the Prime Meridian is, and where Coordinated Universal Time is measured from). As I discussed in East Greenwich, the arms of the Rhode Island Greenwiches pull from the arms of the English Metropolitan Borough of Greenwich.
West Greenwich actually uses these arms, though they seem to have gone through some updates:
At left are arms that apparently used to appear on the sign out in front of West Greenwich Town Hall, but at some point before 2019 were replaced by the ones on the right. These arms (more accurate to the Tercentenary Commission arms), appear to be used on the Town website. However, the old arms still show up on West Greenwich forms.
West Greenwich doesn’t really have a traditional seal, instead apparently using the arms as its seal. You can see how the arms have been adapted as a logo for use on the town website, and this pseudo-seal which seems to only appear on the Town’s Comprehensive Plan.
As far as a flag goes, I was unable to locate any image of West Greenwich’s flag. When I have to reach, I can usually find them at in photos of police parades or town council meetings, or on town Facebook pages. But, to the best of my knowledge, West Greenwich doesn’t have video of town council meetings, they don’t have town Facebook pages, and they don’t have a photo of their flag anywhere on their website. Local media also simply doesn’t cover West Greenwich’s municipal affairs enough to provide good images, and the one outlet that does doesn’t have images.
So, I have no idea what West Greenwich’s flag looks like.
Digitizing the Arms
With no seal and no flag, all we can do is create vector versions of the arms:
At left is my version, at right is WappenWiki’s (although the hourglass is not a genuine hourglass asset, it’s something I modified from WappenWiki). All in all, these are fairly good arms, in my opinion; they do enough to draw connection with Greenwich, England while using that setting sun for the “west” part. It’s not place-specific to West Greenwich itself, but they’re unique and eye-cathing.
So, who knows what West Greenwich’s flag is. If you can’t find an image of a flag online, then chances are, it isn’t being used very much. So let’s see if we can create something that West Greenwich could be proud to fly.
Redesigning West Greenwich’s Flag
Designs 1a, 1b & 1c
As usual, let’s start with a direct application of the arms. The major design problem is the sun. It works somewhat okay in 1a turned horizontal, but was a complete failure in Design 1b, where it had too much space to work with. 1c moves lends both elements equal weight, but I feel like it makes the hourglass seem less integrated with the whole thing.
We can fix the problem I’m having with 1c by simply removing the hourglass, and transforming the blue stripe to green. This gives us a nice bicolor adorned with a setting sun. The green here represents the agricultural history of the town and its verdant green spaces, as well as being a slight play on the name “Greenwich”.
This tricolor is just a redone version of one I created for East Greenwich, using the hourglass shape as the central stripe, offset towards the hoist. West Greenwich’s uses the colors of its arms.
This triband uses the Canadian pale (1:2:1 ratio of proportion to the stripes), and sets the setting sun at the bottom of the flag. Since it felt a little empty with just the sun, I placed the hourglass above it, but I’m not sure it’s quite successful.
Finally, this striped design uses eight stripes for the eight villages of West Greenwich, with the half-sun at the hoist. The goal with a 1:2 ratio flag like this is to represent the shape of the town: basically, a long rectangle.
West Greenwich has been a little intimidating (hence the delays), I didn’t feel like I had good designs for it, and I still don’t, to be honest. In many ways, it reminds me of the difficulty of doing East Greenwich, but I do think these flags came out looking a little nicer than those did.
I’m down to two towns, this project is nearly complete!
As always, please vote in the poll!