Boom, Bust, and War, 1900-1945

Industrial Rhode Island moved into the twentieth century with a full head of steam, and its booming economy attracted a seemingly endless stream of immigrants, most of whom came from southern and eastern Europe. But the state was not a melting pot despite its many ethnics, for each group (at least for a generation or two) retained its own cultural identity. Perhaps it could be said that Rhode Island (especially its northeastern quadrant) was more like a mosaic of diverse peoples -- or even a stew, with everybody in one pot contributing to the whole, but with each ingredient maintaining its own flavor and identity.

The earliest arrivals among these so-called "new immigrants" were the Portuguese. Islanders -- whites from the Azores and blacks from Cape Verde -- were initially recruited by the whaling industry during the 1850s and 1860s. At voyage's end they settled in such port towns as Providence, Warren, Bristol, and Newport. They became the pioneers and the beacons who inspired a more massive Portuguese migration to southeastern New England in the period from the 1890s onward. Then, as one historian has phrased it, "the loom replaced the harpoon" as the tool of the typical Portuguese immigrant.

The Federal Bureau of Immigration kept detailed statistics from 1898 to 1932 on the ethnicity and destination of all aliens arriving in the ports of the United States. During this thirty-four- year span, Portuguese designating Rhode Island as their destination numbered approximately 20,000. Included in this figure, especially after 1911,were immigrants from the mainland ("continentals"), many of whom settled in and around the Cumberland village of Valley Falls.

The most numerically significant element in the new immigration were the Italians. From 1898 to 1932 federal tabulations listed 54,975 Italians migrating to Rhode Island. Of these, 51,919 were from the south of Italy (mostly rural peasants called conladini). and 3,054 from the more urbanized and culturally distinct north.

An international steamship company, the Fabre Line out of Marseilles, France, chose Providence as its American terminus in 1911. Because the Fabre steamships made calls in Italy, Portugal, and the Azores en route to Providence, the migration of Italians and Portuguese to Rhode Island was facilitated. The line's local presence also accounted for the great number of returnees among both groups. From 1908 to 1932, the period for which return statistics have been compiled, over 13,000 Italians and 7,000 Portuguese were listed as "emigrant aliens departing" from the port of Providence. No other local ethnics had such high rates of return.

Notwithstanding this loss, however, those of Italian ancestry exhibit a strong presence in contemporary Rhode Island, especially in Providence (Federal Hill. Silver Lake, and the North End) and the adjacent communities of Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence. Other important Italian-American settlements were made in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Barrington, Warren. Bristol, Westerly, and the Natick section of West Warwick. The 1980 census listed over 185,000 Rhode Islanders of Italian descent.

The Portuguese-Americans have also remained prominent in the state's cultural life. Most of the 90,000 Rhode Islanders of Portuguese ancestry (1980 census figures) reside in the state's eastern sector -- the Blackstone Valley, the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, East Providence, Bristol County, Tiverton, Little Compton, and the three Aquidneck Island towns of Portsmouth, Middletown, and Newport. In the West Bay, Portuguese colonies developed in the South Elmwood section of Cranston, West Warwick, and, most recently, in the Washington Park neighborhood of Providence.

Third in size among the new immigrant groups (42,715 in 1980) were the Poles, who settled mainly in Central Falls, Pawtucket, Warren, West Warwick, and the Olneyville, Manton, Valley, and West River sections of Providence. In 1902 these deeply religious people established St. Adalbert's Roman Catholic Church on Ridge Street, Providence, the mother church of Rhode Island's Polish community. The cousins of the Poles, though for a time culturally estranged from them, were the Lithuanians. From 1898 to 1932, 893 members of this ethnic group arrived in Rhode Island, most of these taking up first residence on Smith Hill, where they established St. Casimir's national parish in 1919. A third Slavic-language group to settle in Rhode Island (2,050 from 1898 to 1932) were the Ukrainians. A sizable colony of these eastern Europeans -- some Orthodox in religion and others affiliated with the Church of Rome -- made its home in Woonsocket during the decade prior to World War I.

Also from eastern Europe, especially Russia and Russian Poland, came the Jews. Intermittent campaigns of persecution called "pogroms" started their exodus in the early 1880's, but Jewish migration peaked in the years from 1900 to the outbreak of World War I. Most of these refugees settled in the South Providence, Smith Hill, and North End neighborhoods of the capital city, but congregations were also formed in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Cranston, and Newport, where the famed Touro Synagogue was reopened for worship in 1883. An in-depth 1963 survey of the Greater Providence Jewish community counted 19,695 people of Jewish ancestry in the city and its adjacent municipalities, a figure that has remained fairly constant for the past two decades. Statewide, 27,000 Rhode Islanders claimed Jewish ancestry in the 1980 census.

Other locally important and identifiable new immigrant groups are the Armenians. the Greeks, and the Syrian-Lebanese, From 1898 to 1932, 6,375 Armenian refugees from Turkish persecution came to Rhode Island. Most settled in Providence, in such areas as the North End, Federal Hill, Olneyville and, especially, Smith Hill. During the same period 4,201 Greeks arrived, implanting their rich heritage and Orthodox religion primarily in three communities -- Providence, Pawtucket, and Newport.

Finally came Christian Arabs (Orthodox, Protestants, and Melkites and Maronites affiliated with Rome) fleeing Moslem persecution and Turkish misrule. The 2,434 Arabs who arrived during the first three decades of the century settled in Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket.

The new immigration altered Rhode Island's religious profile. By 1905 the state census revealed that 50.81 percent of all Rhode Islanders claimed allegiance to the Roman Catholic faith. Protestants (at 46.72 percent) had finally lost their numerical ascendancy. In the state elections of 1906, James H. Higgins, an Irish Democrat, was chosen the state's first governor of the Roman Catholic faith.

But the influx of these Catholic newcomers was not an unmixed blessing, for ethnocultural antagonism developed, especially between the dominant Irish Catholics and the large Franco-American and Italian-American Catholic communities. Fortunately, serious conflicts were prevented, in large measure because of the creation of national parishes, the importation of ethnic religious orders, and the sensitive, tolerant, firm, and prudent leadership of Bishop Matthew Harkins (1887-1921), one of the era's most able Catholic prelates, known locally as "the Bishop of the Poor."

Apart from its strenuous industrial endeavors and its increasing ethnic diversity, the most notable aspect of early twentieth-century Rhode Island was its turbulent politics. Until the election of 1932 -- in the depths of the Great Depression -- the Republican party was dominant. It owed its ascendancy to many factors, not the least of which was the state's political system established by the Constitution of 1843. That document, care-fully drafted by the Law and Order coalition of upper-class Whigs and rural Democrats that vanquished Thomas Dorr, was designed to prevent the old-stock industrialist and the Yankee farmer from succumbing to the numerically superior city dwellers, especially those of foreign birth and Catholic faith. When the Republican party formed during the 1850's in response to the slavery issue, it revived the Law and Order coalition of the preceding decade; it adopted that group's nativistic posture; and it determined to use and preserve that party's constitutional checks upon the power of the urban working class.

Those checks included (l) a malapportioned senate which gave a legislative veto to the small rural towns; (2) a cumbersome amendment process to frustrate reform; (3) the absence of procedures for the calling of a constitutional convention; (4) the absence (until 1889) of a secret ballot; (5) a General Assembly that dominated both the legislatively elected supreme court and the weak, vetoless (until 1909) governorship; and (6) a real estate voting requirement for the naturalized citizen. This last- mentioned check was eliminated by the Bourn Amendment (VII) in 1888, but it was replaced by a $134 property-tax-paying qualification for voting in city council elections. This requirement had the practical effect of preventing many, usually immigrants, from exercising control over the affairs of the cities in which they resided. This was true because the mayors, for whom all electors could vote, had very limited powers, while the councils, for whom only property owners could vote, were dominant, controlling both the purse and the patronage.

The famous political reformer James Quale Dealey of Brown University contended in 1909 that "the political effect of this [voting] limitation is to place the control of municipal government in the hands of the Republicans. The general vote which elects the mayor is usually Democratic in the five cities, but the property vote is strongly Republican. As the mayor has small powers in government, control over municipal affairs rests with the Republican organization. This limitation on municipal suffrage is a standing grievance on the part of Democratic, reform, and radical organizations and is pointed at as the only survival in the United States of the old fashioned, colonial property qualifications." Nearly 60 percent of those who could vote for mayor were disenfranchised in council elections.

As if constitutional checks were not sufficient, General Charles Brayton, legendary boss of the Republican party, for good measure engineered the enactment in 1901 of a statute designed to emasculate any Democrat who might back into the governor's chair by virtue of a split in Republican ranks. With a few limited exceptions this "Brayton Act" placed the ultimate appointive power of state government in the hands of the senate. In the aftermath of its passage a governor could effectively appoint only his private secretary and a handful of insignificant state officals.

By 1920 the senate -- the possessor of state appointive and budgetary power -- was more malapportioned than ever. For example, West Greenwich, population 367, had the same voice as Providence, population 237.595; the twenty smallest towns, with an aggregate population of 41,660, outvoted Providence twenty to one, although the capital city had over 39 percent of Rhode Island's total population. The senate, said Democratic Congressman George F. O'Shaunessy (1911-1919), was "a strong power exercised by the abandoned farms of Rhode Island."

The Progressive Era (ca. 1898-1917) was an age of national reform -- political, economic, and social -- but Rhode Island's reactionary constitutional system survived the period relatively intact. Boss Brayton and Nelson Aldrich proved more than a match for Lucius Garvin, James Higgins, Charles E. German, Robert H.I. Goddard, Theodore Francis Green, Amasa Eaten, and other supporters of governmental reform. The Brayton- Aldrich combine even survived a national expose by noted muckraker Lincoln Steffens, who in 1905 described Rhode Island as "A State for Sale."

The Progressive Movement was eclipsed by American involvement in World War I. In Rhode Island pro-Allied sentiment ran high, conditioned in part by the Providence Journal, whose editorials repeatedly urged intervention to halt alleged German aggression. When war finally came in April 1917, the state contributed 28,817 troops, of whom 612 died. Many of these succumbed not to German gas or bullets but to the Spanish influenza, a dread virus that was carried home from the battlefront by returning soldiers. This deadly infection took 941 lives in Providence alone during 1918.

With the return of peace in Europe, Rhode Island's political wars resumed. The stormy decades of the 1920s and 1930s witnessed a major transition from Republican to Democrat control in state government. Economic unrest stemming from such factors as the decline of the textile industry, the crash of 1929, the ensuing Great Depression, and the local rise of organized labor coupled with the development of cultural antagonisms between native and foreign stock to weaken the allegiance of France- American and Italian-Americans to the Republican Party. Simultaneously, vigorous efforts by the Irish-led Democratic party to woo ethnics, key constitutional reforms such as the removal of the property-tax requirement for voting at council elections (by Amendment XX in 1928), the shift in control of the national Democratic party from rural to urban leadership, the 1928 presidential candidacy of Irish-Catholic Democrat Al Smith, and the New gear of Franklin D. Roosevelt combined to pull the newer Immigrant groups towards the Democratic fold by the mid-1930s.

At this juncture Democratic leaders -- especially Governor Theodore Francis Green, Thomas P. McCoy of Pawtucket, and Lieutenant Governor Robert Emmet Quinn -- staged a governmental reorganization known as the Bloodless Revolution of 1935. This bizzare coup, made possible by a controversial scheme that gave the Democrats control of the state senare, resulted in the repeal of the Brayton Act, the reorganization of slate government by replacing the commission system with the present departmental structure, and the replacement of the entire supreme court.

Outside of the state, Green's actions met with mixed reviews: the Chicago Daily Tribune declared them to be unconstitutional and its Editor, Colonel Robert McCormick, ordered one star cut out of the American flag stating that Rhode Island did not deserve to be part of the union; the New York Times, on the other hand, agreed with Green's maneuverings.

Soon after this takeover Democratic factionalism became in tense; promised reforms such as the calling of an open constitutional convention went unfulfilled; and a bitter battle erupted between Governor Quinn and race track owner Walter O'Hara, who was a supporter of Pawtucket Mayor Thomas P. McCoy. which led to Quinn bringing a libel suit against O'Hara and declaring martial law around the Narragansett Race Track, owned by O'Hara (the track, upon orders of Quinn, was surrounded by soldiers to prevent it from opening). These events were the subject of Zachariah Chaffee, Jr.'s, lively analysis State House versus Pent House.

These intense local embarrassments were compounded by a national recession in 1937 so that the state elections of 1938 returned the Republicans briefly to office. The GOP enacted a Civil Service law in 1939 to protect state employees from whole- sale firings, such as Green's. Governor William Vanderbilt soon became ensnared in a wiretap controversy during his attempt to implicate Pawtucket's Mayor McCoy in vote fraud; ironically, it was alleged that he had ordered taps placed on the Republican Attorney General, Louis V. Jackvony.

In 1940 the Democratic tide rolled in once more as U.S. District Attorney J. Howard McGrath, who had made political hay with Vanderbili's wiretap controversy, won the governorship.

Scarcely had the state's political wars simmered down when World War II disrupted Rhode Island life. In the three and a half years following Pearl Harbor, many of Rhode Island's sons and daughters fought and died in the great struggle against the Axis powers. An examination of war casualty lists reveals that this was the state's most costly conflict. More men and women served (92,027) and more died (2,157) than in any other war.

Yet the losses only seemed to spur the citizenry on to greater efforts: spirited parades were held in Providence and other communities at intervals during the war years; war-bond drives were oversubscribed; those ablebodied workers that remained at home turned out many articles of war, including boots, knives, parachutes, gauges, and, especially, the Liberty ships and combat cargo vessels that were constructed at the Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard on Field's Point by a work force that numbered 21,000 in early 1945. The Rhode Island Office of Price Administration, which had the task of enforcing the war-imposed rationing laws, won nationwide praise and became a role model for other states.

During the four and a half decades from the turn of the century to the end of World War II, Rhode Islanders increasingly found escape from work, war, and politics in the worlds of entertain· ment and sport. Vaudeville, the silent screen, and then "talkies" successively developed wide popular appeal, and Providence (birthplace of George M. Cohan) became a center of the performing and visual arts. Its splendid theaters -- Fay's (1912), the Strand (1915), the Majestic (1917), the Albee (1919), Loew's State (1928), and the Metropolitan (1932) -- all date from this era. And theatergoers, before or after the show, could visit such bustling department stores as Diamond's, Cherry and Webb, the Boston Store, Gladding's, Shepard's and the Outlet. Of these big six --all of which were at their peak -- Shepard's and the Outlet were the giants, and their spirited rivalry spilled over from retailing to radio. On June 2, 1922, Shepard's inaugurated Rhode Island's first radio station (WEAN); three months later the Outlet beamed back with WJAR, the embryo of what would become an Outlet broadcasting empire.

In sports, baseball was still king. Minor league teams, usually dubbed the Providence Grays, were formed occasionally and even won championships. Most notable were the International League titlists of 1914, who included a pitcher named Babe Ruth. In the new sport of professional football Providence boasted its Steam Roller eleven, the National Football League kingpins in 1928. In college football Brown fielded several nationally prominent teams, including the famous Iron Men of 1926 and the 1915 squad that played in the very first Rose Bowl game.

In the 1920s a crosstown athletic rivalry developed between venerable Brown and the new Catholic men's college founded in 1919 by Bishop Matthew Harkins. On June 7, 1924, the Bruins and Providence College played the longest collegiate baseball game on record, a twenty inning contest in which future Pawtucket mayor Charlie Reynolds went the route in the Friars' 1 to O victory.

In professional hockey the Rhode Island Reds came to a newly constructed Rhode Island Auditorium in 1926, and from 1930 to 1938, to the delight of local sports fans, the Reds won the Canadian-American Hockey League championship four times. In 1930 the America's Cup first came to Rhode Island waters as Enterprise beat Shamrock V four races to none. Finally, the state got major thoroughbred race track to host "the sport of kings": largely through the exertions of textile magnate Waiter E. O'Hara, Narragansett Park opened on the Pawtucket-East Prov- idence line (site of the old What Cheer Airport) on August 1, 1934.

Other highlights of the 1900-1945 era included the establishment of Providence as the sole state capital (1900); the founding of several colleges -- Barrington (1900), Johnson and Wales (1914), Providence (1919), and Roger Williams (1919, reorganized in 1948); the creation of the town of West Warwick in 1913; the long incumbency of the popular France-American Republican governor Aram Pothier(1909-1915 and 1925-1928); the passage of a state women's suffrage law in 1917; the distinguished tenure of internationally renowned Dr. Charles V. Chapin as Providence's director of public health (1882-1932); the construction of the Scituate Reservoir( 1915-1929); the opening at Hillsgrove of the nation's first state-run airport in 1931; the construction of the Providence skyline, especially the Industrial (now Fleet) Bank Building (1928); the completion of the Mount Hope and Jamestown bridges (1929 and 1940); and the opening of Quonset Naval Base (1941). On the debit side one must note the sinking of the steamer Larchmont (out of Providence)in Block Island Sound on February 11, 1907, with a loss of 111 lives, and the 1938 hurricane -- the state's worst natural disaster -- whose 120-mile-an-hour winds and tidal waves caused over a hundred million dollars in damage and took the lives of 311 Rhode Islanders, most in the Westerly-Charlestown area.

In August, 1945 war ended. By year's end the work force at the Walsh-Kaiser Shipyard had been nearly disbanded, veterans were home seeking jobs, and the state's declining textile industry. granted a temporary reprieve by the necessities of war, looked towards a bleak future.

An eventful era had passed.

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