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Photo 1: Phoenix Mill in 1883 by Joseph McCarthy, from the PPL archives
Phenix Mill

 

Investigators probing cause of Phenix Mill fire

Investigators say the blaze is of suspicious origin because the mill was vacant and the electricity had been shut off.

Providence Journal | March 31, 2005
By Alice Gomstyn, Daniel Barbarisi and Benjamin N. Gedan

WEST WARWICK – An intense fire swallowed the vacant Phenix Mill building last night, sending 40-foot smoke plumes and bright embers into the air and drawing hundreds of spectators. The spectacle brought to mind the 1992 burning of the Crompton Mill, an unsolved arson. Chief Charles Hall said Wednesday’s fire will be “one for the scrapbooks.”

Witnesses described hearing a series of about a dozen “small explosions” when the fire began at about 6:30 p.m., West Warwick Fire Chief Charles Hall said. Though officials didn’t know what caused the popping noises, they deemed the fire suspicious before it was even out because utility service to the building at 771 Main St. had been shut off.

The police urged anyone with information about the fire’s cause to call the detective division at 827-9044.

“This was in a mill building with no electricity,” said West Warwick Police Chief Peter T. Brousseau. “There’s no way for a fire to start in a building like that.” The West Warwick Fire Department, Police Department and the state fire marshal’s office are investigating.

No one was injured in the fire. Hall said all five stories of the building were aflame “within four minutes,” and firefighters did not enter the building, but fought the fire entirely from outside.

For the first hour, the mill building stayed mostly intact as flames leaped through scores of large windows. But at 7:40, a four-story extension collapsed, and from that point on, pieces of walls began to crumble around the building.

At about 7:50 p.m., the steeple atop the mill’s bell tower collapsed to the collective gasp of West Warwick, Coventry and Warwick residents who had stood behind yellow police tape, aiming camcorders and camera phones at the spectacular sight.

By 9 p.m., Hall said that the fire had been contained. By 10 p.m., firefighters were aiming their hoses at the mill wall facing Main Street, hoping to keep the wall from collapsing onto the power lines below.

In 2003, the town sold tax title to the 2.6-acre property to Mill Conversions for $1 to Mill Conversions, LLC of Woonsocket. Work had not yet begun, but $80,000 has been spent on clean up. James R. Alarie, a manager for Mill Conversions, was there last night. He sat grim-faced watching the flames, but said the company would move forward with the condo project.

Some local officials had already expressed concerns that the company would not develop the entire property, after it requested permission to subdivide the land and develop six condos in a building next to the main structure that burned Wednesday. That building survived the fire. The day of the fire, a Mill Conversions representative had met with Town Manager Wolfgang Bauer, who asked the company to place money in an escrow account to pay for the potential demolition of the mill and the construction of a riverside park, in case the company abandoned the project.

Mill Conversions specializes in transforming old mills, as it did in a similar project in Woonsocket, where the company is based. In a letter proposing the Phenix Mill project, in 2003, Alarie emphasized that the company hoped to retain the mill’s original appearance.

 

The first mill opened in Phenix around 1809, a wooden structure where workers ground grain into cornmeal and later spun cotton. It burned in 1821, replaced by the five-story stone building that stood, in some form, until last week. In that era, mills were appearing throughout western Warwick along the Pawtuxet River, transforming the economy and demographics and prompting West Warwick’s separation from Warwick, in 1913.

Built in 1822 along the banks of the Pawtuxet River, the Phenix Mill spent the early part of its life manufacturing textiles, housing carding, spinning and weaving operations at different times. By the late 19th century, the cotton mill employed nearly 75 percent of working village residents, who carted, spun, and wove for 13-hour shifts, under dim light and with little ventilation. Portuguese immigrants from the Azores flooded the village, bringing ethnic festivals, while French Canadians opened Our Lady of Good Counsel church, in 1903.

In the 1960s, though, a pharmaceutical research company called Scott Laboratories bought the complex and moved in. It later housed various other manufacturers, including Adams Scientific, a biotech company that moved out in 1994. In the summer of 1995, fire destroyed one of the complex’s smaller buildings, which Adams Scientific had used.

CREEP I grew up just behind the mill across the river. i recall that about every 45 minuits the mill would spew steam with a deafing roar six days a week there was a grey pickett fenc along main street that kids would break off picketts now and then this was around 1967 its too bad to see such rich history go to such waste my grandfather was superatendant of that mill and nearly every mill in the valley one time or another this is yet one more creep story

Donna V I live on Parker Street, right above where the mill was. My mom worked at Scott Labs as well as my brother, sister, aunts, husband, and myself. Living near it in it’s vacancy gave me the opportunity to watch it’s steady decline and to rejoice at the work that was finally being done. I watched as a hawk made a nest on top of the bell tower, but it was long gone by the time of the fire.

amanda james alarie is my dad and he worked hard on this small building and i am glad that that didnt burn down with the big building. i realized that the fire burned down all of the mills history with it, and i hope that the new owner tries their hardest to make it as close to the origional as possible. being near the building after it burnt down made me realize how historic it actually was compared to what i had thought before. thanks so much,
    amanda A.
p.s whoever thinks my dad did that for the money is wrong because i knew he didnt want to see that building like that.

Brandon L The Phenix Mill was not set by the West Warwick Police Department, or the West Warwick Fire Department, or West Warwick Town Hall because I would of known if any one of them set it because my mother is a cop at the West Warwick Police Department and she would of told me so it wasn’t set intentionally. My next door neighbors worked there for some time and they would of known.

Hollie I think that fire was set by the town of West Warwick. Its all too Suspicious. The company rebuilding the mill ran out of $ for financing and had to stop construction. 2 months later the building that they havent fixed burns to the ground. And the builders not even a suspect! Years ago, in Arctic, a number of buildings were burned by an “arsonist” to make way for more modern structures. Its all very suspicious scenario to me. The fire was unbelievable though. I live about 5 miles away and could smell the smoke.

Jeff A It’s too bad about the old Phenix Mill. I used to live in West Warwick back in the 80s and, without a car or a bike, did alot of walking through Artic, Crompton, and Phenix. Always paused to take a look at the Mill, especially the bell tower.

From the Projo David Magiera, a 61-year-old retired pharmacist, said the mill employed his father, a Polish immigrant, his six siblings, and countless former classmates. It also provided a steady clientele for David Magiera’s pharmacy, on Main Street in Phenix. “It raised many, many families,“ Magiera said, recalling neighbors whose children joined their parents screen printing at the mill, the women inspecting patterns, the men repairing weaving machines.

Though life was hard for mill workers, many residents remember the mill’s reign as a golden age for the village. At the Phenix Hotel, built in 1871, owner Richard Bettez, 63, recalled skinny-dipping and fishing for pickerel in the river behind the mill, when he lived on nearby Bettez Street, named for his grandfather. Draining bottled beer at 12 bar stools, Bettez’s former mill worker customers fondly recalled their “alma mater.” “We had some good times in that river,”; Bettez said. “One day it’d be red, one day it’d be green from the mill.”

compiled by Benjamin N. Gedan

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