The Narragansett Brewery in Cranston, Rhode Island, closed its doors on July 31, 1981. While the beer itself went on to be produced by the Falstaff Brewery in Indiana, the product was never the same – some say, the particular taste of the Scituate Reservoir water gave Narragansett it’s true flavor and quality. The plant suffered a long, drawn out death, succumbing to vandalism, property damage, fire and neglect. The site was eventually redeveloped and (cruelly, in our opinion) renamed “Brewery Parkade”. A Lowe’s, K-Mart, and Stop-n-Shop occupy the site now, right off Route 10. A chain restaurant (currently Texas Roadhouse) and a now unoccupied Katharine Gibbs school also occupy the site. The new Cranston Police Headquarters has been built on the corner of New Depot Avenue and Garfield Streets.
In the summer of 2005, right as the reclaimed Narragansett Brand came under new ownership and started its local comeback, the last remaining building of the original brewery came down – the Cranston Street Trolley Barn. The site of the Trolley Barn – as of summer 2009 – is still unoccipied.
Pieced together from some of the above-mentioned and linked-to sources.
Brewing history started at the site in 1888 when six local businessmen organized the Narragansett Brewing Company. George Wilhelm, formerly of Berlin, Germany, was the first brewmaster. A brick brewing house was built and the first beer produced in December 1890 using “pure artisan water.”
The Narragansett Brewing company was situated on New Depot Avenue, Cranston Street and Garfield Avenue, outside the city of Providence, and alongside the tracks of the then New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. In its first 20 years, the company invested $4 million to build about 30 buildings on its property. They included a large artificial ice plant, two cold storage basements, engine and boiler rooms, a barn and stable; blacksmith, paint and carpenter shops, cooperage and bottling departments.
In 1914, the company installed what was said to be the largest and undoubtedly the most modern and hygienic bottling plant in New England. During its first 23 years, the Narragansett Brewing Company grew from modest beginnings to the largest lager beer brewery in New England. The main competition for the Narragansett Brewery in Rhode Island was the James Hanley Brewery, one of the famous names in New England’s ale history, located on Fountain Street in Providence. Another competitor in the lager market was the American Brewing Company established in 1891. In 1896, James Hanley bought that brewery and changed its name to the Providence Brewing Company. It was located at the intersection of Harris Avenue and Eagle Street.
In 1959, the company celebrated brewing one million barrels, and the company employed 850 workers by 1965. The brewery provided steady pay, good benefits, genuine friendships, and free beer. Employees were not only allowed to drink during the workday; it was encouraged. Anyone caught drinking a soda would be quickly handed a beer. Asking for a draft in a bar in the area would automatically bring a Narragansett. If a worker spotted someone drinking another beer in a bar, he would ask, “Why would you want to keep someone working in Holland instead of the people in your own neighborhood?”
The future of the Narragansett plant became uncertain after giant Anheuser-Busch opened a new state-of-the-art brewery just 100 miles away in New Hampshire. The need to update the state’s only brewery was obvious to everyone. From 1972-75, the State of Rhode Island offered to help finance a new plant. News reports said that “company officials did not respond in a positive way.”
Modernizing the old plant was its only hope for survival. In June 1981, plans were made to convert the old oil-burning boilers to natural gas and solve the hazard of leaking steam pipes. Such a change would save the brewery an estimated $5,000 per day. The brewery asked for a year-round, five-year guarantee of continuous service, a request that the Providence Gas Company refused to guarantee. Cranston’s mayor and the governor stepped in, hoping to mediate a settlement without success. The brewery’s days were numbered. Industry observers said that one of its major problems, one that faced all small breweries, is staying profitable in a market that has become increasing dominated by the national brewing companies.
The Narragansett brand didn’t die with the passing of the brewery. Production of the brand shifted to the Falstaff plant at Fort Wayne, Indiana, in February 1982. The labels still read “Cranston, RI,” but drinkers were not fooled. The water from Rhode Island’s Scituate Reservoir was the best water in the country. The beer from Fort Wayne was not the same.
The once giant brewery became a victim of vandalism and weather in the decade following the closing. In 1993, the state considered building a higher education biotechnology research center at the Narragansett complex. In July 1995, 46 tons of brewery equipment was removed from the Cranston plant and shipped to China. Today, the 77 acres of property, adjacent to Route 10 and the Providence and Worcester Railroad, is minutes away from Interstate 95, 195, and 295. The property includes a seven-acre pond, 40 acres of undeveloped land, and 660,000 square feet for parking 1,000 cars. There was once a small airstrip used in the 1960s by businessmen flying light planes. The sad part is that twenty-nine asbestos-ridden, decaying buildings, and two smokestacks prevented other uses for this valuable real estate. The site suffered from fires, vandalism and vermin. City inspectors determined that the buildings were so badly deteriorated they should be condemned.
On October 27, 1998, Cranston said farewell to an old neighbor when a 100,000-pound excavator rammed its claw-like grapple into the side of the bottling plant. A group of eight other buildings were demolished in the following months.
Nov 14 2015 Just a small correction on the armed robbery of the payroll in the thirties. My dad, George Bertsch, was the chauffeur and guard. He loved to tell my brother and I the story of the robbery! My grandfather’s house was opposite the bottling shop and you could always smell the aroma of the beer on a Saturday morning. Many of my uncles (Walter, Fred and Herbert) worked there also.
Richard Blinkhorn Sep 25 2015 The sign that was on the building, which was on the right hand side of Cranston St. as you were going into Providence, is now in the rotary in Narragansett. If you look closely at the sign you will see tiny little dings in it. Those were courtesy of me when I was a kid we use to throw rocks to hear the sharp sound it made. I believe I made the most dings!
paul russell sr Jul 12 2009 use to go on the plant tours which would finish with gifts from the brewery and beer for adults and soda for children. water fountians in the plant had cold beer coming from them.
Jerry Apr 24 2009 My father worked at the brewery for 25 years. He was the foreman of the electric shop. He was one of the last people to leave the brewery on its final day. he disconnected all the electrical stuff but didn’t write down what he did. That way if they ever reopened it they would have had to hire him back! I used to visit the brewery on Saturdays when I was in the service and would come home for a weekend pass. I can still smell the combination of grease and hops that permeated the building! RIP Narragansett and Hi Neighbor!
wally pickford, jr. May 10 2008 My paternal grandfather worked at the brewery for forty years, finishing as paymaster. In fact, he and chauffeur/security guard Walter Birch were robbed of their cash payroll at gunpoint. My father worked in the brewery ever since he graduated from Cranston Hign in 1937. He logged thirty years, finishing as draft beer supervisor. The Haffenreffer family paid my way through college. I actually ache over the complete obliteration of anything NB – not even the magnificent status of Gambinus, father of brewing. God bless the brewery family. I must be hallucinating, but I can suddenly smell the mash.
james w farrands to think this is the home of my beloved giant imperial quarts of gansett gone for ever
Hurley My great grandfather worked here in the 30’s/40’s. Drinking on the job led to his demise. As my grandfather tells the story, he came home from work one day and was acting rather strange. He opened the oven and stuck his feet in it. The next day at work, while picking up a broom stick his last words were “I’m a soldier,” as he dropped dead. Apparently he had been having a stroke, most likely from alcohol consumption day after day. Is it odd that Narragansett continues to be my favorite beer?
PS– I work at a local liquor store and it is the number 1 six pack sold.
eddie jones my uncle worked at the brewery, and i remember my dad stopping there every so often to get a case of beer. free, of course. i remember my uncle saying there was no water in the water fountains, just gansett!
Ralph It’s strange how in Rhode Island so much of our history that previous generations once cherished and protected are being destroyed and/or replaced for reasons that are neither sound nor valid. In Europe, they preserve and protect their rich history and pass on their traditions from one generation to the next, but in Rhode Island we have neglected and abandoned what we always claimed to have favored such as the Brewery, the Outlet, Rocky Point, the Shore Dinner Hall, the Warwick Musical Theatre, etc., etc. Of course, the politicians and land developers call this “progress”.
All of these places, however, could have been saved if only the younger generation were as proud, aggressive, business savvy and innovative as their ancestors once were. Yes, we need to get our act together and the politicians need to stop catering to the rich and powerful! Replacing our history and traditions with things like Lowes, Condominiums, and fancy strip malls is not a very good thing for the Ocean State. Very soon we will become a state with few hints of history and tradition.
Julie Motta Taylor hey I have been told that the Narragansett Brewing sign was given to the town of Narragansett when the brewery closed. It is the one located in the rotary.
A. Avakian-Douglas I remember this building we made our own beer unique to RI here, I remember seeing those lights on in the factory at night, and the numbers of trucks getting ready for transporting their products. And I remember hearing the clanking of full bottles. Narragansett Beer unique and oh so special to us Rhode Islanders.
Mark Alexander My Uncle Al Faenza was sales manager of the brewery and he employed our whole family just about. My uncle Joe Bielawski was superintendant of the Bottling department and he lived across the street from the brewery. It was our family business. When I was a kid, I would not let my friends in my car unless they had the right beer which was Gansett of course.
pat I moved to the Arlington section of Cranston in the spring of 1990 and one of the first things I noticed was the old brewery. When I got to know the kids in the nieghborhood, we’d explore the grounds and while walking the tracks that ran along side the brewery and under Cranston St. you could see a visual time line. Many of the buildings that made up the once thriving factory each had it’s erected date, signifying the difference in time periods. It was really cool to see and ultimetly taken for granted. That summer, we found a way into the old brewery, which was no easy task. We had to litterally climb into an open window that was perched about eight or nine feet from the ground, and once you were up there, you had to wedge your body through the brick interior and the conveyor belt that ran down into a small dark tunnel on your right. On your left you could see a larger opening that lead to a much larger room. It was very creepy (the chipped paint, the smell of mildew etc.) Crates with empty beer bottles still sat on the conveyor belts, Playboy centerfolds lined the locker room walls, all dating back to the mid 60’s to late 70’s. It was pretty cool stuff and yes, taken for granted. You could clearly see when the day came and shut down for good, everybody stopped what they were doing and just left. Very creepy but cool none the less. Ounce you made it up and through and over (you had to crawl down the belt to the larger room on your left) you had countless hours of fun and dangerous exploring to accomplish. Not all of the brewery could be explored however. The old catwalk bridge was securly locked so I never got to see the whole brewery. On the other side of the property ( facing Garfield) me and my friend Josh had a small hangout spot under one of the loading docks. He noticed a vent cover under the loading dock and we decided to take a screw driver to it and after several minutes of hard labor, we got the metal cover off. What we found was the ULTIMATE hangout destination. When your a 13 year old kid, this was better than Rocky Point!!!!!!! We’d go to the NHD ( now abandon!!) on Cranston St. and buy spray paint to decorate the walls inside. Im not to sure the purpose of this room was, it looked like some sort of bomb shelter. It had no windows and was very dark ( even in broad daylight) so a flashlight was always needed. And on the far end (where Gibbs School is located) was this big blue tower that overlooked the whole damn brewery. The view, (and I don’t mean to be cheesey) was breath taking. I really miss that place and looking at the old photo’s really brought me back. It was an amazing building providing so much history and adventure. It was all taken for granted. The fire a few years later only caused security to be beefed up, ending any future fun. I consider myself lucky, but pissed!! I thought that place would be there forever (like Rocky Point) at my disposal.
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