Narragansett Brewery, Cranston

Abandoned and derelict for 17 years, the former brewery complex that once employed 850 people was razed in 1998. The brand has lived on and has since reclaimed its Rhode Island heritage.

About this Property

#Reason for Demolition

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 its 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 after 17 years and (cruelly, in our opinion) renamed “Brewery Parkade”. A Lowe’s, K-Mart, and Stop-n-Shop occupy the site nearby along with a Texas Roadhouse and Wendy’s, right off Route 10, on previously undeveloped land. The corner of Garfield and Cranston street will be the home of the Cranston Police Department’s new facility.

In the summer of 2005, right as the reclaimed Narragansett Beer 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 2020 – is still unoccupied.

#Current Events

This location houses the Cranston Police Department and the Cranston Municipal Court. A Katharine Gibbs was in an adjacent parking lot for a short time but it is now Achievement First Elementary School.

#History

From the Free Library

Built in 1890 by a group of German Americans, the sprawling factory once boasted its own barrel-making operation and a stable of 70 horses. It was taken over in 1965 by the Falstaff Brewing Company and then sold to a California businessman. When the brewery shut down in 1981, 600 to 800 people lost their jobs. In its heyday, the Cranston Street plant brewed 65 percent of the beer in the region.

Healey summed up the sentiments of others standing near him who laughed and smiled. “When I started working in 1955, the best four places in the state to get a job were the gas company, the phone company, the electric company and here. But this was tops, because the other three didn’t have beer.”

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 were 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.

From “RHODE ISLAND: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites”, Gary Kulik and Julia C. Bonham, 1978

The Narragansett Brewery Company built this complex of brick brewery buildings between 1889 and 1911. The first buildings on the site are those adjacent to the railroad tracks and abutting New Depot Avenue. These were used for brewing, hop straining, and fermenting. The tower, used as a malt grain bin, is still in place, though its ornate mansard roof has been covered with lead-sheeted copper. Further south along the railroad line stands a 4-story, brick structure with small windows and hip-roofed tower on its northwest corner.

This building, built in 1911, was used for fermenting and storage. Abutting it on the south is the 1898 ale department, a 4-story mill with pilasters and arched corbels at the roof line. Most of the production buildings are still in use and retain their original functions. The boiler house, built in 1890, 90’ X 51’, is located on New Depot Avenue.

Its ornate brickwork, also prominent on other buildings, includes the use of large, round-arch brick headers and heavy granite insets. The first floor contains one Worthington and two Warren steam pumps, c. 1900, used to pump fuel oil. The Warren pumps are fitted with Fisher governors. In the basement there are two Ingersoll-Rand steam turbines, used as feed water pumps, generating 89 horsepower at 3500 rpm. A new power house was completed in 1948. It contains six Terry steam turbines, three for refrigeration and three for generating power. The brewery is still operating, though not too many years ago it went the way of most local breweries, and was bought out by a national chain Everts and Richards.

— Factory Mutual System Insurance Drawing, date unclear on copy, but c. 1940; Interview with Charles Ulmschneider, plant engineer, April, 1976.

#In the News

A video flashback from October 1998 at Channel 10.