At last, the old state arsenal

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Christopher Martin, who edits the indispensable blog Quahog.org (a quahog is a clam), notes that on my Lost Providence book page I bemoaned my inability to locate a more substantial image of the arsenal attacked by Thomas Wilson Dorr at the outset of the Dorr Rebellion of 1841-42. Not that a drawing of the “battle” itself is anything to sniff at.

The caption on the rear of the postcard reads:

The Old White Mill was originally a state arsenal; garrisoned in May 1842; unsuccessfully attacked by Thos. W. Dorr and his forces; used in turn as a grist-mill; woolen mill and cotton mill; and purchased by the State of Rhode Island, Dec. 1895. The site is now occupied by the new State Armory, south of Dexter Training Ground, Providence, R.I.

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The drawing shows a building, left, considerably smaller than the Old White Mill in the postcard sent by Christopher. I do not know whether the old arsenal in the drawing is the central structure of the postcard, as expanded, or the smaller structure to its left. Evidently, sometime after the Dorr Rebellion the arsenal was sold by the state to a mill owner who, it seems, expanded the arsenal into a factory. Decades later, it was sold, perhaps by a later owner, back to the state. The mill was pulled down to make way for the Cranston Street Armory, completed in 1907, which remains at the south end of the Dexter Training Ground, site of the original arsenal.

From today’s perspective the Dorrites’ attack on the arsenal seems a comical affair. Dorr had been elected governor of Rhode Island in April 1842 under a new constitution designed to expand the sufferage. But the existing governor, elected under the royal charter of 1663 that still ruled Rhode Island long after the Revolution, did not step down.

For six weeks two parallel governors and legislatures co-existed uneasily. Attempting to end the stand-off, Dorr and his “troops” stole two Revolutionary-era cannon from the United Train of Artillery, in the old town meeting house, now the Providence County Superior Court. (Dorr grew up at 109 Benefit St., several blocks to the north.) He marched the night of May 18, 1842, on the other arsenal, in the West End, which was defended by supporters of the charter governor, Samuel Ward King of the Law and Order Party. The defenders included several members of Dorr’s family, who were upset at his shenanigans. The Dorrites tried unsuccessfully to fire one of the ancient cannon, then fled.

This may indeed seem comical, and the Dorr Rebellion fizzled out ignominiously. Dorr returned to the state in 1843 to be tried for treason and was sentenced to prison in 1844. He was released in ill health in 1845 and died in 1854. (The Providence Journal owns a silver tea service given to the paper for supporting the charter government.) Eventually, partly as a result of pressure generated by the rebellion, Rhode Island’s constitution was changed to expand voting rights to native-born citizens, lifting the requisite $134 worth of property to cast a ballot. It was lifted for foreign-born naturalized citizens in 1888.

By the way, Christopher is the co-author, with David Norton Stone, of the fascinating Rhode Island Clam Shacks, published last year by History Press, the same house that published my own book, Lost Providence, a few months after Christopher’s.

[Many thanks to Russell DeSimone for correcting several errors in the initial version of this post.]

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Benefit Street Arsenal, center left, which survives. Baptist Church steeple at right. Farther up Benefit Street was the United Train of Artillery, located in what was first the Congregational Church, then the town house, and eventually the site of two county courthouses at the corner of Benefit and College.

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State Prison (1838-78), next to the Cove Basin, where Thomas Dorr was imprisoned for a year. Archaeologists uncovered remains of the prison before excavating the site for the Providence Place mall before its construction in 1996-99. (Providence Public Library)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to At last, the old state arsenal

  1. Thanks very much, Russell. I will make these fixes.

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  2. Russell DeSimone says:

    There are a few errors that I think should be noted.
    1. Dorr was not elected governor in 1841, he was elected governor under the People’s Constitution on April 18, 1842.
    2. The attack on the arsenal situated on the Cranston Road (as it was called at that time) began late in the evening of May 17 reaching the arsenal in the early hours of May 18, The date of May 19th is incorrect.
    3. The two cannons were taken from the United Train of Artillery; their armory was located in the old town meeting house (now the site of the court house). The armory shown in the photograph was for the use of the Providence Marine Corps of Artillery.
    4. The constitution that resulted from the Dorr Rebellion removed the $134 property requirement only for native born citizens. Foreign born naturalized citizens would not get the same treatment until passage of the Bourn amendment in 1888.
    5. It is my understanding that the silver tea set referred to is now at the Providence Public Library.

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