Each week, I look at the flags and associated symbols of a Rhode Island town. Today, the penultimate entry in this series: West Warwick.
About West Warwick
What was to become West Warwick was firmly within the confederation of Native groups that owed allegiance and support to the Narragansetts at the arrival of the English. Since I’ve already covered the history of Warwick, I won’t repeat the early political history of Shawomet/Warwick. Suffice it to say, Warwick navigated its religious conflict, the genocidal war against the Natives, and the unification of Rhode Island to secure its place in the colony.
The area of West Warwick was surveyed and sold in three tracts. In 1673, the northern part, known as the Natick Lands, was sold to five English settlers from Warwick. In 1684, the southern part, called Cowesett Farms, was sold to more families, among them, the Greenes. Finally, the Wecochaconet Tract was also surveyed and sold to five families in 1692. The Pawtuxet River branches off within this land, with the North Branch continuing west, and the South Branch continuing southwest (though, of course, they flow in the opposite directions). The first mill in West Warwick along the Pawtuxet would open in 1677, a harbinger of what would to come.
But that would be over a century away. West Warwick’s early history was primarily agricultural. English families moved in, cleared the forests, and then put in farmland. Roadways were primarily intended to connect West Warwick and later Coventry (which separated from Warwick in 1741) to markets in Connecticut, Providence, and to the Narragansett Bay where other markets could be reached.
These were primarily subsistence farming operations that were almost entirely self-contained; they weren’t the big plantations of South County.
Anyhow, about 120 years after the first mill was opened in 1677, the first textile mill of West Warwick would open in 1794. Constructed by Job Greene, it was unprofitable until Almy, Brown and Slater bought a stake in it, and implemented the techniques Slater had created in Pawtucket to make it profitable. With that, West Warwick would forever be changed.
Really kicking off with the Embargo Act and the War of 1812, the next century would see a massive explosion of textile mills along the Pawtuxet River valley, and West Warwick was one of the best positioned places to take advantage of it. Eight villages; Centerville, Crompton, Natick, Lippitt, Phenix, Riverpoint, Clyde, and Arctic; were established. Many were named after the companies that built the mills they were centered around. All of them, with the exception of Clyde, all of these were primarily spinning mills (Clyde bleached and printed the cotton cloth). This was truly the heart of Rhode Island’s textile industry. In 1810, there were only seven factories in Rhode Island with over 1,000 spindles in them; five of those were in West Warwick.
It should also be noted that these mills were, like much of Rhode Island’s industrial economy, funded with and built off the products of slavery. The resources of the Almys and Browns wouldn’t have been possible without slavery, and the primary product of slavery was cotton. In fact, the cotton gin, which helped make cotton production more economically viable, was invented on the Georgia plantation of Nathanael Greene, whose family was integral in the history of Warwick and Rhode Island. It’s important to recognize, because the effects of that barbaric trade reach into every aspect of Rhode Island’s economy. People work in mill buildings and live in homes that could only be built because Rhode Island profited from the enslaved labor of other human beings. Even a town like West Warwick, today made up of overwhelmingly white people from immigrant, non-Yankee backgrounds, can’t escape that.
Anyhow, the explosion of mills also meant the coming of turnpikes, Rhode Island’s early 19th Century economic development failure. In 1811, the Natick Turnpike was built. In 1813, the Cranston & Coventry Turnpike was built. And then, in 1820, the New London Turnpike arrived (which I covered in the West Greenwich entry).
As I’ve already noted, the turnpikes were costly and poorly-cared for. Moving raw product in and finished product out of the mill ate into mill budgets, and mill owners were on the prowl for something cheaper than this toll road system. Fortunately, prior to the Civil War, the Stonington Railroad and the Providence, Hartford, and Fishkill Railroad were built. These provided a much cheaper (and faster, and more reliable) way of moving product from factories, and the turnpike companies were driven out of business.
The Civil War and its aftermath greatly increased the scale of West Warwick’s production capabilities; new mills were constructed with the latest technology and spindle amounts went from the thousands to tens of thousands.
The city also experienced a wave of immigrant growth; the two largest groups were Irish and French Canadian immigrants, bringing with them mass Catholicism to the previously Yankee Protestant Warwick. Jews also arrived from the Russian Empire, resulting in a synagogue’s construction. Other groups included Italians, Portuguese, and Swedes; many of these tended to congregate in specific villages. To accommodate the masses of people now necessary to run the factories, the green spaces between villages were cleared, and housing erected, leading to an almost completely contiguous urbanized area. Likewise, a large commercial area developed along Washington and Main Streets, which became the commercial center for central Rhode Island.
By the 1910s, tensions within Warwick between the immigrant, urban, Democratic west and Yankee, rural, Republican east had come to a head. Where Cranston ejected its Democratic section secure in the knowledge they would be absorbed into Providence’s political representation, Warwick feared that an independent West Warwick would add more Democrats to the State House, threatening their increasingly tenuous grasp. Though division had been discussed for decades, it had been suppressed by the corrupt Republican machine of Boss Brayton from Warwick. When he died in 1910, West Warwick was able to move rapidly to agitate for incorporation as its own town.
In 1913, the General Assembly placed a question before Warwick voters asking whether they would accept splitting the town. However, in an attempt to foil it, the question offered four options, which it was hoped would return inconclusive results. Under the auspices of the Division League, West Warwick voters coordinated and chose separation. In 1913, the Town of West Warwick was incorporated from three of Warwick’s House districts, taking with it Warwick’s urban centers, the majority of its population, and its entire commercial district. In recognition of Arctic’s place as the most important and populated of the villages, the new Town Hall was built there.
A few short years after independence, West Warwick suffered economic disaster. The Northern textile industry, dependent on Southern cotton produced by either slavery or Jim Crow sharecropping, had taken the lack of industrialization in the South for granted. However, the 20th Century saw that change, as new factories were built down South. It was relatively easy for the cotton industry to abandon the North, with its extra costs to transport raw goods and its growing union movement, for the South, which was near where the product was grown and had an anti-union climate backed in large part by racial resentment.
Northern businesses responded by cutting wages, slashing wages by 22% in 1920 and then another 20% was taken out in 1922 which prompted a wave of strikes that engulfed Rhode Island. The companies also stopped building housing, and sold off the workers’ housing they had already built. By the 1940s, most of the old textile mills had closed. West Warwick’s industry shifted from cotton production to textiles like lace or turned to synthetic fibers. New industries came in, like chemical manufacturing, food production, and metal fabrication.
Throughout this, West Warwick continued to grow. Though it never achieved the massive population booms of more rural towns, it grew at a steady pace from 1920 to 1990. Part of this was suburbanization, which was somewhat of a mixed bag for West Warwick; while it may have benefitted from people moving into town into suburbs south of Crompton, the Warwick malls devastated West Warwick’s Washington & Main commercial sector, which has never really regained its footing. Just as commercial work shifted to be closer to the highway, so too did Warwick’s industrial sector; an industrial park was built in the south of the town around where I-95 cuts through.
Unfortunately, West Warwick is probably most famous for the Station nightclub fire in 2003, the fourth most-deadly nightclub fire in U.S. history, caused when pyrotechnics ignited acoustic foam, killing 100 people and injuring a further 230. In a small, dense state like Rhode Island, it’s nearly impossible to not know someone who knew a victim, and Rhode Island takes its fire safety for large events very seriously as a result.
West Warwick’s most historically prominent politician was Robert “Fighting Bob” Quinn, part of a trio of progressive politicians who fought against the Republican-dominated state; an attempted Senate filibuster ended in a Republican-instigated gas attack. As Lieutenant Governor, Quinn was also instrumental in refusing to seat two Republican senators, forcing a secret recount which resulted in Democrats being declared the winners: depending on your point of view, this was the “Bloodless Revolution” or what the Providence Journal called a “coup d’etat.” Quinn served a single two-year term as governor before his battle with Narragansett Racetrack resulted in a Vanderbilt beating him.
What has West Warwick got now?
West Warwich has a coat of arms.
According to the Tercentenary Commission, it’s blazoned as such:
Gules a chevron between these[sic] crosses botonne or, on a chief a chief of the last a demi-sun in splendor issuant of the first. (See Warwick and West Greenwich.)
So, the note to see Warwick and West Greenwich is for the explanation of the arms. These are the arms of the Earl of Warwick, Richard Rich, differenced with a chief of a setting sun, which signifies “west” – just as it does on the arms of West Greenwich.
As arms go, they’re perfectly good arms. Sun means west, Rich family arms stand for Warwick.
West Warwick has a seal, which incorporates the arms, but with one key difference. See if you can spot it.
Yep, West Warwick has inverted the colors of the main section of their arms. Where their arms were intended to be gold on red, they’ve chosen red on gold. These arms are used on the website and in front of Town Hall, so they’re pretty official.
West Warwick also has a flag, but it may have two of them, actually.
One version is shown here, in this cropped still from a town council meeting:
Another version can be seen in this photo of the West Warwick police color guard marching at a police parade. Here’s a better shot from the police department’s Facebook page:
Frustratingly, the arms on both versions of the flag are the intended colors.
Theoretically I could be wrong that these are at all town flags; one could be the police flag, and the other could be just a banner they use to cover the television monitor. Fortunately, Google Street view had this image of the Town Hall, and we clearly see the first flag being flown.
This is just my speculation, but it seems like there’s the version that Town Hall uses, and there’s the version that the Police Department uses, and they’re pretty much the same flag.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what that flag is that’s to the right of the town flag in the town council chambers, it’s the flag of Rabo de Peixe, West Warwick’s sister city (props to former Sen. Adam Satchell for getting in touch with the Town Council president to find out the answer). This actually gives me a chance to talk about Portuguese municipal flags and symbols.
Most (but not all) Portuguese municipal flags follow a standard design. All municipalities have their arms with their name on a scroll, and a crest of castles. The field of each flag changes based on the size of the municipality: cidades (cities, above 8,000 residents) use gyronny, vilas (towns, between 8,000 and 3,000 residents) are quartered, and aldeias (villages) ostensibly use just a plain field. These rules are more or less followed, but like many legal ordinances surrounding flags and their designs, are occasionally ignored.
One final interesting thing that a contributor to CRW Flags reported in 2003 was that changes in administration result in municipal logo changes. This is generally because changes in administration are because the opposition party comes to office. So the Rhode Island equivalent would be how Cicilline abandoned the Cianci-era mayoral seal and commissioned the Providence P only to have Taveras abandon that logo in favor of the city seal, and then for Elorza to come in and revive the P. This Portuguese “custom” (it’s relatively recent) is an interesting way to leave official things like arms the beyond politics, but allow for each administration to break with the symbols of their predecessor.
Digitizing Existing Designs
So, with the arms, I figured it was best to do both versions, the one the Town uses on its seal, and the one it uses on its flag. However, I only did one WappenWiki version.
The problem with the color shift to red on gold is that it really eliminates the chief as a design element. That sun just cuts off halfway for no apparent reason, whereas you can see it’s “issuant” (in heraldic terms) from the chief in the gold on red version.
For the seal, it’s relatively easy once you’ve got the arms. Book Antiqua was the font on my computer that seems to most closely match that on the town seal.
So what about the flag? Well, I made what I think are close approximations of both of them.
I’ve complained numerous times about the S.O.B., the “seal-on-a-bedsheet” style of design, and that’s basically what West Warwick has here; albeit, “arms-on-a-bedsheet.” The police version at least does away with the needless “Town of” text. The sort of shaved sun on the Council version seems to be original.
West Warwick has a pretty cool history, has been a nice town every time I’ve gone there, and I think it deserves a better flag.
Redesigning West Warwick’s Flag
Designs 1a & 1b
So, typically I’d do one or two versions of flags based off the municipal arms here, but since West Warwick has two versions of its arms, here are two flags based off of either version.
Designs 2a & 2b
Former Senator Satchell and Jim Clarke from the Associated Press told me I needed to include the mills and the Pawtuxet River on the design, with the specific instruction to “throw the sun over the Royal Mills at the top!” These two designs are based off this suggestion. The first is a tricolor, with the grey embattled line in the top third standing in for the Royal Mills’ parapet, but also recognizing the villages: there are eight squares, standing for each of the eight villages (if my village count is wrong, these numbers can be changed). The blue stripe symbolizes the Pawtuxet. Unfortunately, I kind of hated the grey on the tricolor, so I also made a bicolor, which I think is a little stronger as a flag, while still keeping the embattled line to recognize the mills.
Clarke also charged me to “sneak a Wizard in there somewhere.” The Wizards are the mascot of West Warwick High School. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out a way to sneak a wizard onto a flag, but I did make a Wizard flag.
Designs 4a & 4b
While I would never recommend Design 4a, I did feel like I would be a nice challenge to design one according to Portuguese municipal flag rules, and that’s where that design comes from. Gyronny is apparently reserved for cidades, which is defined as places with over 8,000 residents. Since West Warwick is well past that at over 28,000, I figured that would work well. It also divides the flag into eight sections. I also made the crest resemble the towers on the Royal Mills.
Design 4b is an attempt to make something I would feel more comfortable with as a real flag. It centers a counter-charged sun against a counter-charged disc; representing the town’s division from Warwick, but also as a symbol of a mill wheel to acknowledge the Pawtuxet and West Warwick’s mill history.
Designs 5a & 5b
Since the simple W flag I created for Warwick was popular, I figured I’d do versions for West Warwick. 5a, using the color styling of the town seal, seems to work better, with the two blue lines representing the two branches of the Pawtuxet that flow through the town and differentiate. Design 5b is basically just that Warwick W flag, differenced by the inclusion of the blue line down the middle (the charging of one W to the other in both flags created the two Ws you need for “West Warwick”).
I think I’ve broken my projected date for getting West Warwick out maybe half a dozen times, and I didn’t even manage to get this post out on Friday. Even with that, I’m not sure I hit everything a flag for West Warwick would need, and it’s definitely something that I would recommend a full flag design commission with a process do. Given the variations in the design, the infrequency with which the flag is displayed, and the way the town’s used symbols differ from each other, it would be worthwhile to nail down exactly what the symbols of the town should be.
This marks the last town in Rhode Island, and the penultimate entry in my RI municipal flag series. Next week, this wraps up with Woonsocket. As always, please vote in the poll.