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Smithfield, RI Weather

A Disaster Averted, And Other Tales of Georgiaville Pond

By Jim Ignasher

Some may recall that about four years ago the water level in Georgiaville Pond was significantly reduced to allow for work on the flood gate of the Georgiaville Dam. During that time the remains of a mysterious wooden wall were revealed. It began a short distance off the beach and ran in a straight line to one of the tiny islands located about two-hundred feet to the north. Questions arose, but nobody knew its origin or purpose, and after the gate was repaired, the water level returned to normal, and the wall was soon forgotten.

However, recent evidence has come to light that suggests the curious wooden wall dates to the 1890s, and once played a role in saving Georgiaville, Esmond, and other municipalities further down the Woonasquatucket River from possible catastrophe.

For those unaware, Georgiaville Pond is a man-made reservoir on the Woonsasquatucket River that was created in the early 1850s to supply waterpower to the Bernon Mill during the summer months to keep it operating at peak capacity. The upper portion of the pond begins behind the historic Smith-Appleby House on Stillwater Road, and as a point of fact, prior to the reservoir being built, Stillwater Road once ran behind the Smith-Appleby House, but was relocated to its present location to accommodate the anticipated rise in water level.

Dam failures were a common concern in the 19th century, and by the 1870s those living below the Georgiaville Dam began to worry about a possible failure, even though there was no indication that one was likely. Yet some might argue that the worry was valid, for at that time the water level in the reservoir was much higher than it is today, with literally billions of tons of water pressing against the dam. Should a failure occur, the massive onslaught of rushing water would overwhelm other dams located downstream causing a succession of further failures all the way to Providence. If that occurred, the loss of life and property would be enormous.

The obvious solution was to reduce the water level of the reservoir, which some weren’t prepared to do, so Providence officials saw to it that whenever heavy rains fell, horse-mounted riders would be stationed at the dam ready to spread the alarm if a failure seemed imminent. However this was a reactive, not pro-active solution.

By 1882, the state was petitioned to order the water level to be permanently lowered by nine feet, but it’s unclear what action was taken. Then, in May of 1889, the infamous Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood occurred, killing over 2,000 people and causing millions in property damage. Barely three months later, a small dam failed in the Fiskeville section of Cranston killing three people. Some newspapers compared it to the Johnstown Flood, one calling it “Johnstown on a small scale”.

In light of these events, Smithfield was ordered by the state Supreme Court to reduce the height of the Georgiaville Dam by several feet, which would force a permanent reduction in water volume contained in the reservoir.

In 1894 de-construction on the dam was begun, and photographs of this massive project, on glass negatives, have recently been donated to the Historical Society of Smithfield by Roger Beaudry.

Thus the remains of the wooden wall are what are left of a temporary dam built to divert water while the reduction of the Georgiaville Dam took place.

Georgiaville Beach is located on the southern shore of the reservoir, and the parking lot happens to be where the first Georgiaville Baptist Church was constructed in 1857. It’s been said that baptisms were conducted in the water just off the beach. With the completion of the present church on Farnum Pike in 1906, the old church fell into disuse and was eventually raised.

During the winter months blocks of ice from the pond would be cut and stored in two massive ice houses that once stood along the western shore next to the former Providence & Springfield Railroad tracks. On April 20, 1919, fire tore through the buildings, and when it was over, the buildings were gone, but the stacks of ice blocks remained.

Ice harvesting was dangerous, and one of the earliest recorded drownings at the reservoir happened in December of 1858, when a 32-year-old man fell through thin ice.

And there have been numerous other drownings ever since. One case in particular involved a sad twist of irony. On August 30, 1872, 16-year-old Frederick Kendricks was one of the few to survive the sinking of the steamship S.S. Metis off Watch Hill, R.I. One year later, Frederick drowned within a few feet from shore while swimming in Georgiaville Pond.

The exact number of drownings to have occurred in Georgiaville Pond is unknown, but many have been connected to a large island which seems to beckon beachgoers to try to swim to it. As far as I know, the island has no name, but perhaps it should.

A strange incident occurred at Georgiaville Beach one afternoon in 1981 when a man drove up to the gate, and gesturing behind him, told the parking attendant that he was going to put his boat in the water. Yet strangely, he wasn’t towing a boat. He then proceeded into the parking lot, and after lining up with the boat ramp, gunned the engine and drove full-speed into the water! Momentum carried the car about twenty feet from shore before it sank. Stunned onlookers stood by as he climbed out the driver’s side window, swam to shore, and calmly walked away.

Smithfield police were called and arranged for the car to be removed from the water. Meanwhile it was learned that the incident stemmed from a domestic squabble, and the car belonged to the man’s wife. Once it was pulled ashore via a tow truck cable, officers checked to make sure it was empty. It was.