“The building always reminded me of an old wrestler. It’s been beaten up by hurricanes and uprisings and changing times, but still has strong bones,” our program director, Caroline Stevens, said thoughtfully as we pulled up in the parking lot facing Atlantic Mills. One of its two red brick towers, was missing its cupola, making it appear worn but resilient in the rain, much like a weary wrestler.
While Providence is a city dearly loved for its various quirks and historic mansions, many don’t appreciate that it was also once an important industrial hub. Indeed, Olneyville’s Atlantic Mills was one of the nation’s highest producing textile mills in the 19th century. With its introduction of the George H. Corliss steam engine in 1852, the mill served as a model for textile mills across the country. Today the complex houses new businesses and a weekend flea market.
A single rectangular block of a building and two lonely towers survive from the once giant industrial mill complex. The doors to the first tower gave in to a light push, and revealed two round stairwells encased in the tower’s walls; it felt like peering inside a wooden rendering of a Georgia O’Keefe painting, the wooden steps curling upward on each side of the central space. The tower was full of character and a simple, aging elegance. There was an intimacy to the way the stairs occasionally creaked, and I found myself careful not to disturb the stillness of the long uninhabited space as I walked up the wooden steps. It was odd to imagine that the mills had once housed around eleven thousand workers, but there were definite vestiges of industrial labor. The windows looked out not only to the second tower, but also the police station that had been built near the mills during the time of worker uprisings. The black banisters that followed the stairs were further embedded with thorn-like rivets; Robby McCall, the maintenance manager at Atlantic Mills, later confirmed that they had been installed to keep children who worked at the mills from sliding down the banisters. The tower was quiet, but hummed with stories of the laborers who had passed through its halls.
After exploring the towers, we moved into the main building to visit the building owner’s office inside. The adjoining lunchroom had been turned into a fascinating micro-museum curated by Robby with old photographs, newspaper clippings, and artifacts from earlier times preserved on its walls. His treasure trove also showcased old lightbulbs, winding machines to mark the shifts of night watchmen, and spools of wool samples. They might seem like a motley array of trinkets, but Robby’s interpretation of each item gave each one significance within the history of the mill.
Atlantic Mills closed in 1953, after 101 years of manufacturing wool. It has since become a crumbling edifice housing an eclectic mix of small businesses and studios, with its wide halls austere and often quiet. Yet it boasts an important history in Rhode Island, not only in its former function in the textile industry, but also in its labor history of strikes and uprisings.
I couldn’t help but wonder how the mill would look on the day of our festival; perhaps the sound of steam engines and textile machines might invigorate the battered building. But more importantly, Atlantic Mills would truly come alive in all its former glory, if its halls could be filled with visitors discovering its value and what it once stood for.
by Jane Kim
Site: Atlantic Mills, Address: 118 Manton Ave, Providence, RI