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Burrillville Town

Providence County, Rhode Island

Burrillville Town Hall is located at 105 Harrisville Main Street, Harrisville RI 02830.
Phone: 401‑568‑4300.


Burrillville is the only town in Rhode Island to border two states (Connecticut and Massachusetts).

Beginnings [1]

Located in the northwest corner of the state, Burrillville has a variety of historic resources typical of rural, upland Rhode Island towns. The circumstances of the Town's geography and its relative remoteness, however, distinguish its historic character from that of neighboring towns. Burrillville experienced an early agricultural phase, industrialization in the nineteenth century, and continued residential and industrial growth in the twentieth century. Civic, religious, and educational structures, especially from the early twentieth century, remain as valuable indicators of Burrillville's history.

Topography is important to understand Burrillville's development. Glacial deposits, scouring of the soil as glacier retreated, and long periods of erosion gave Burrillville an irregular topography, which formed settlement patterns and land use. A number of streams and small rivers cross the Town, and small bodies of water include a number of natural lakes and several man-made reservoirs. The presence of moving water across the Town's landscape encouraged settlement and played an important role in industrial development before the advent of steam. The higher, rugged areas remained more thinly populated than the lower, broader, river valleys. Burrillville's natural resources, moreover, are important for recreation and leisure use and their aesthetic qualities.

Pre-European Settlement — Three Algonquin tribes inhabited northern Rhode Island before European settlement. The Nipmucs, including a small sub-tribe known as the Pascoags, who were subsidiary to the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, occupied the area now known as Burrillville. Limited archaeological sites associated with the Indians have been identified.

Early Settlement — The first English settler in today's Burrillville was probably John Smith, who came to the Tarkiln area probably around 1674 and later encouraged several friends and family members to settle there. While their earliest buildings no longer stand, the village that grew at Oak Valley/Tarkiln was one of the Town's earliest nodes.

After nearly a century of English colonization, the rural western part of the state realized a sufficient number of residents who neither could nor would participate in town activities in Providence. In 1731 the northern and western sections of Providence County were set off as separate towns; Burrillville was part of the Town of Glocester. In 1800, residents of present-day Burrillville demanded separation from the Town of Glocester and in 1806 the Town of Burrillville was established.

Eighteenth Century — The eighteenth century settlement pattern of the Town was characterized by a rural population scattered about the Town with farms on the most arable land. Several early farmhouses survive in Burrillville, such as the M. Smith House (ca. 1750), on Victory Highway, the Reuben Keach House (18th century), on Central Street, and the J. Milard House (ca. 1754) on East Wallum Lake Road are all story-and-a-half- center-chimney dwellings. An unusual eighteenth-century form, seldom seen outside Burrillville is the end-chimney house, somewhat reminiscent of the seventeenth-century stone-ender form and apparently built in two sections. Examples include the Esten House, on Mount Pleasant Road, the Ballou-Bligh House, on Joslin Road, and the Greene House on Smith Hill Road. Farming continued into the twentieth century, and farm complexes evolved over time are important in defining the Town's character: barns, corncribs, sheds, stone walls, orchards, and open fields are among the agricultural resources common to the rural landscape.

Nineteenth Century — As agriculture prevailed in the eighteenth century, industry dominated in the nineteenth century. Aided by improvements in transportation and technology, sleepy hamlets became bustling mill villages that saw dramatic changes in physical form. Improvements in transportation began in 1805 with the construction of Douglas Pike (Route 7). Soon after, Walling's Hotel was built beside the route in Nasonville. Railroad service, from Providence in 1873 and from Woonsocket in 1893, came later, and, indeed, its late arrival may well have limited the Town's growth potential in the nascent years of industrialization. Greater access to Burrillville followed the advent of the automobile and an improved road network, including the Victory Highway (1922 et seq., Route 102) from Woonsocket to Wickford, the refurbished Louisquisset Pike (Route 146), and Interstate Highways 95 and 195 to the south and east.

The Town's earliest industrial activity supported the agricultural economy and included sawmills and gristmills; these were in operation at Pascoag by 1746 and Wallum Lake by 1766. By the 1790's, small mills (all now gone) were active in Saxonville, Glendale, Harrisville, and Mapleville. Non-agricultural industry began to appear in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and grew rapidly: a machine shop in Harrisville in 1825, woolen mills in Huntsville and Gazzaville in the 1830's, eleven woolen mills in Town by 1850, and twenty-two woolen mills by 1856. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Burrillville's economy was clearly dominated by textile production. In addition to the mills, the villages that grew around them included mill offices and other auxiliary structures, dams, raceways, bridges, shops, institutional buildings, worker's housing, mill superintendent's housing, and occasionally mill owner's housing. Most of these villages remain but the early mills themselves have been lost to fire, though extensive rebuilding has occurred on original industrial sites. Mills remain today at Glendale (1853, 1889), Harrisville (1882, 1895-1926), Mapleville (1845, 1871-72, 1901), Mohegan (1892), Nasonville (1882), Oakland (1850, 1856, 1870, 1882), Pascoag (1865) and Saxonville (1905).

In response to the nineteenth-century population growth, schools, churches and other institutions flourished. The first public school house was built in 1806, and others appeared in the 1820's, including the Eagle Peak School (1826). In the 1860's and 1890's schools included the Joseph C. Sweeney School in Bridgeton and the Mapleville School in Mapleville. The Town's first religious structure was the Society of Friends Meetinghouse (1791), now much altered, in Mapleville. In the nineteenth century religious diversification paralleled the Town's growth: Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and especially, after 1850, achieved sufficient numbers to build nine new churches for their members. Important surviving churches include the First Baptist Church (1839) in Pascoag, the First Universalist Church (1886, 1933) in Harrisville, and the United Methodist Church (1893) in Glendale.

The Town's rural character attracted new institutional use, including a tuberculosis hospital (now the Zambarano Hospital Complex) at Wallum Lake in the 1890's; Casmir Pulaski Memorial State Park in the 1930's, and the creation of several Management Areas.

Twentieth Century — Burrillville continued to develop in the twentieth century. Charles Fletcher located his Coronet Worsted Company in Mapleville in 1901 and added a new mill to that complex. Beginning in 1912, the presence of Austin T. Levy and his Stillwater Worsted Company had a profound effect on the Town. Not only did Levy purchase and operate existing mills, but also built large amounts of new worker's housing, including attractive Neo-Colonial houses in Harrisville from the 1920's through the early 1940's and modern pre-fabricated houses (unusual for Rhode Island) at Glendale in the 1930's. Levy also recast the village of Harrisville in a "New England Village" mode through his contributions of the Town Hall, The Assembly, The Ninth District Court, and The Jesse M. Smith Library, all designed by Jackson, Robertson & Adams in a Neo-Colonial style.

Post World War II — As the State underwent extensive suburbanization after World War II, Burrillville has received large numbers of new suburban residents. Its population has grown from approximately 8,000 in 1940 to over 13,000 in 1980. The construction of new houses, most of which are strung out along the Town's many roads, is a trend dissimilar to the strong village settlement pattern which characterized Burrillville's historic development. The Town retains, however, important groups of historic properties that reflect its agricultural beginnings, its industrial growth, and its civic development.

  1. Burrillville Planning Board, Burrillville Comprehensive Plan revised June, 2004, Chapter II, pp II-29 to II-32, www.burrillville.org/Public_Documents/