By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
WOONSOCKET, R.I. — Up and down the Blackstone River one can find the brick and stone remnants of the mills that once powered the Industrial Revolution. Some of these mills have stood the test of time. Others have succumbed to neglect, vandalism, and the forces of nature and man. The site of the Alice Mill complex in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood is one of the latter.
Originally built in 1889 to house the already-thriving Woonsocket Rubber Co., it was the largest rubber mill in the world and employed 1,500. By 1890, Woonsocket Rubber was the largest rubber importer in the United States. In 1892, the U.S. Rubber Co. bought Woonsocket Rubber, and allowed the company to operate under its original name.
The market crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression saw the mill close in 1932. It was reopened in 1941 to meet demand for the war. The mill produced attack boats, wading suits and lifesaving jackets that, as history would have it, were used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. After the war, the mill continued to produce rubber goods until the 1960s.
The mill remained shuttered until 1974, when Tech Industries bought the property and refitted the mill to produce plastic caps and jars used mostly for cosmetics. The company operated from the Alice Mill until moving the business, citing the deteriorating condition of the building, to Cumberland in 2009. The company, now known as Portola Tech Industries, recently announced that it would be closing that site as well.
In 2010, the Alice Mill property was bought by Steven Triedman, owner of American Wood Pellet. Triedman was in the process of refurbishing the site to accommodate his wood pellet manufacturing business last year when tragedy struck.
On June 7, 2011, the building erupted into a spectacular and humbling fire that continued to flare up for days after the initial response. Temperatures in the fire were high enough to melt the buildings’ steel structures, and the smoke was thick enough to be detected on weather radar. State and local fire officials have not determined the cause of the fire, and in the aftermath, it's unlikely that they will.
The Alice Mill property has a much brighter potential future than the site of the former Seville Dye Mill, which sits across the Blackstone River, quickly degrading and being misused as an impromptu dump. Today, the Alice site sits flush with debris, mostly bricks, but Triedman wants to rebuild.
“The site has so much historical value,” he said. “We need to remember and preserve that.”
Triedman is in the process of cleaning and salvaging the quite possibly millions of bricks that are piled on the hardtop for resale, and the piles should get significantly smaller soon. “I just received an order for 200,000 bricks," he said. "That’s about 20 truckloads.”
Since the fire, the city of Woonsocket has attempted to recoup the some $40,000 that was paid in firefighter and police overtime due to the blaze, but the city has no ordinance relating to the matter.
“I’m just waiting for an insurance settlement before I can rebuild," Triedman said. He declined to comment on the situation further due to possible legal complications.
Even with a settlement agreement reached with the city, Triedman may not be out of the woods yet. The state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has issued an environmental land-use restriction on the property because of elevated levels of lead and arsenic in the soil. DEM guidelines insist that the site be capped with an impermeable surface, and that the cap remain intact. With the many piles of brick and charred wood on the site, it’s near impossible to determine if that cap has been damaged in any way.
Rhode Island’s mills have the potential to quickly facilitate the “revitalizing of our urban cores” that advocates of smart growth claim is necessary to approach any kind of sustainable society, but these brownfields have a much darker potential when they succumb to fire.
For the many decades that these mills operated, petroleum-based lubricants and solvents were used to maintain the machinery. Those oils and solvents have a tendency to soak into porous surfaces, such as the wood floors in many of these mills, turning them into veritable tinderboxes. In the unfortunate event that one of these mills catches fire, the fire spreads quickly, burns hot and produces a lot of black smoke.
“That smoke,” said Tim Fleury, DEM’s project manager for the Alice Mill site, “contains particulates, soot and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).” While the soot and particulates are of immediate concern to the young, old and those afflicted with respiratory disease, many PAHs have been identified as carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic — or possible causes of birth defects.
All of Rhode Island’s mills are a part of our history and our heritage, but these fires are a reminder that without the proper care and attention, they may not be part of our future.