Woonsocket is located in the Blackstone River Valley, the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. At the midpoint between the historic harbor cities of Boston & Newport, Woonsocket finds itself at the heart of New England’s rich industrial and cultural heritage.
First appearing as a town formed by three mill villages in 1867, Woonsocket united the banks of the Blackstone when it merged with three additional villages on the opposite side of the river and became a city in 1888.
The city takes its name from Native American words meaning “thunder mist,” a reference to Woonsocket Falls, found at the city’s center. The fall’s vertical drop is the single greatest in the 50 mile river which drops an average of 10 feet per mile. This steep descent makes it one of the most powerful rivers in the United States, providing the ideal hydraulic power for establishing a thriving textile industry in the early nineteenth century. With the founding of the first factory in 1810, Woonsocket quickly gained an international reputation for the quality of its production and became one of the jewels of the American textile industry, attracting thousands of workers mainly from French Canada. The early twentieth century saw the apogee of Woonsocket which, due to its influence in the region, was known as the “Queen City of the Blackstone Valley.” Visitors today can still admire the many landmarks and treasures that highlight America’s Industrial Age.
In addition, Woonsocket is also part of a tradition of natural heritage that has been protected for over thirty years by a community of environmentally minded citizens. The legacy of this group’s tireless efforts can be seen in the harmony between Woonsocket’s industrial & natural landscapes. Whether traveling on the bikeway that crisscrosses the city’s historic sites, enjoying a river tour on the Blackstone Valley Explorer, or observing wildlife while kayaking and canoeing, visitors can witness all the subtle nuances of this unique cohabitation in North America.
“If we wish to preserve the best of our proud heritage, we must act now. If we are to maintain our cultural roots, we must live in consonance with the Quebecois motto, Je me souviens–“I remember”–and adapt. That is the challenge of the future.”— The Franco-American Committee of the Rhode Island Heritage Commission
Today Woonsocket is proud and eager to transmit its history to visitors from around the world. It is also a community that has preserved an authentic artistic and cultural life. The Stadium Theatre, with its architecture from the “Roaring Twenties,” features many prestigious performers for the enjoyment of audiences from around the region. The city also hosts a series of festivals and celebrations throughout the year featuring musical performances, art fairs, film screenings, and farmers markets.
Finally, Woonsocket’s tradition as a textile city continues to be carried on by manufacturers like the Northwest Woolen Mills who produce blankets and berets for the US military as well as baseball cores for America’s pastime. In addition, Woonsocket is home to CVS Health, a pharmaceutical company operating more than 10,000 stores in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and Brazil. The long-term relationship between Woonsocket & businesses like these symbolizes the economic interest that the city represents.
Woonsocket, unlike many Francophone cities in North America, was not founded by French explorers. In fact, the city earned the designation of “the most French city in the United States” from the massive immigration of French-speaking Canadians at the turn of the 20th century. Far from being forgotten, this heritage reflects the francophone, multicultural and historical richness that continues to mark the city’s landscape. With pride, Woonsocket has preserved this history to become an essential tourist attraction within the Blackstone River Valley for Francophones and Francophiles alike.
Although the very first French Canadian arrived in Woonsocket in 1815, the greatest wave of immigration took place between 1840 and 1930. During this period, nearly a million French Canadians immigrated to New England for the promise of a better life and stable employment. These new workers came with their families from the countryside of Quebec to answer the call from Woonsocket’s booming textile industry. Beyond transforming the urban landscape, this major change reshaped the city’s identity, with the arrival of these newcomers forever changing Woonsocket’s history. La Survivance is the expression French-Canadian immigrants adopted to describe their fight for the survival of their culture, language and faith. This duty of cultural preservation explains their long resistance to integrate into American society.
It is from this immigrant community that the city obtained its most illustrious historical characters. Among them, the politician Aram J. Pothier was a prominent figure in the history of Franco-Americans. Born in 1854 in the Province of Quebec, Pothier moved to Woonsocket in 1872 where he became a businessman. During official travels to Europe, he met French and Belgian mill owners whom he encouraged to open factories in Woonsocket. European investors quickly saw advantages in having a presence in New England, especially since most of the workers living in Woonsocket shared a common language: French. The success of this operation led to an eminent political career, with Pothier serving as mayor of Woonsocket from 1894 to 1896 and as the first French-Canadian governor of Rhode Island from 1909 to 1915 and from 1924 to 1928.
In addition, who would have thought that the “Emperor” of Baseball was from Woonsocket? America still remembers the exploits of Napoléon Lajoie, born in 1875 to French Canadian parents. This champion of the “National Game” set records that still remain undefeated. He was inducted into the “Baseball Hall of Fame” in 1937 and his legendary accomplishments live on.
The existence of those personalities echoes an unprecedented fact in Rhode Island’s history: in 1920, 70 percent of Woonsocket’s population were French Canadians who transformed the downtown into an authentic “Petit Canada.” French became one of the primary languages of the city and some dwellers exclusively spoke it for their whole lifetime! However, the obstacles met between the First and Second World Wars progressively constrained these new American citizens to abandon La Survivance and finally integrate into American society. Consequently, fewer and fewer people learned French and its use declined.
Nevertheless, the French heritage lives on and French continues to be spoken on occasion by citizens. Above all, the city is home to many institutions dedicated to the preservation of its French roots. Since 1997, the Museum of Work & Culture has dedicated its permanent exhibitions to the fascinating and touching history of these French Canadians. In paying tribute to their commitment and hard work, the Museum is proud to present its exhibitions in English and French to visitors from around the world. In addition, the Museum plays a key role in education programs for history and French language students of all ages.
The American-French Genealogical Society contributes to this mission with an individualized approach. Its opening in 1978 sparked a craze for citizens who wanted to trace the Francophone origins of their families. With more than 10 million US citizens claiming French-Canadian descent in the United States, the Society is a leading group in genealogy, collecting and publishing vital statistics while directing valuable research on one of the greatest American’s hobbies.
Established in 2007, the St. Ann Arts & Cultural Center is housed in the former St. Ann’s Church, one of the first and largest French-Canadian parishes in the city. Its goal is to preserve and share the relationships between the French-Canadian immigrants and the Catholic faith. Considered the “Sistine Chapel” of North America due to the similarity between the church’s frescoes and those in Rome’s famous monument, the Center also hosts concerts, events and receptions.
Woonsocket’s inclination toward cultural diversity is also an opportunity for the city to dynamically celebrate la Francophonie in Rhode Island each March. Symbolizing the importance of Quebec in the city’s history, the Museum of Work & Culture hosts several annual film screenings featuring the work of filmmakers from La Belle Province. Additionally, “Salute to Spring” celebrates the return of the beautiful season and the francophone culture in Rhode Island through music, visual arts and a Poutine event! Meanwhile, the Northern Rhode Island Council of the Arts also joins a tradition shared by many Franco-American groups in North America by celebrating Mardi Gras each year and by hosting an outdoor French Heritage Festival.
Nowadays, Woonsocket is a city that welcomes with open arms a diverse Francophone culture. While 46 percent of its population claims French-Canadian descent, communities from Vietnam, Laos and Senegal, member countries of the Francophonie, also came to reinforce Woonsocket’s unique heritage. It is this diversity and singularity, worn with pride by its citizens, that continues to attract visitors from around the world. By reviving its roots, Woonsocket says “Bienvenue” to all lovers of la Francophonie.
Woonsocket’s Franco Attractions and Sites
Discover the city’s Franco Heritage sites, along with additional attractions, including geocaching at historical sites, restaurants, accommodations, entertainment, and points of interest, by exploring the city map below.
Museum of Work & Culture
A division of the Rhode Island Historical Society, this interactive museum presents the compelling and touching story of immigrants who came to find a better life in the mill towns along the Blackstone River. With nine immersive exhibits, including a 19th century farmhouse, mill floor, and parochial classroom, visitors will feel that they are traveling through time as they learn the details of the new settlers’ lives at home, work and school.
42 S Main St, Woonsocket, Rhode Island 02895
Aram Pothier Mausoleum
The Aram Pothier Mausoleum is a massive 20 foot high granite structure in Ionic style. It was built in 1928 for Aram J. Pothier, mayor of Woonsocket from 1894 to 1896 and first French-Canadian governor of Rhode Island from 1909 to 1915 and from 1924 to 1928. During official travels to Europe, Pothier met French and Belgian mill owners whom he encouraged to open factories in Woonsocket. European investors quickly saw advantages in having a presence in New England, especially since most of the workers living in Woonsocket shared a common language: French. The success of this operation led to one of the most famous political careers in Rhode Island.
Diamond Hill Road &, Rathbun St, Woonsocket, Rhode Island 02895
St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center
Established in 2007, St Ann Arts and Cultural Center is housed in the former St. Ann’s Church, one of the first and largest French-Canadian parishes in the city. Its goal is to preserve and share the relationship between the French Canadians immigrants and the Catholic faith. Considered the “Sistine Chapel” of North America due to the similarity between the church’s frescoes and those in Rome’s famous monument, the Center also hosts concerts, events and receptions.
84 Cumberland St, Woonsocket, Rhode Island 02895
Precious Blood Church
“L’Église du Précieux Sang,” as the French Canadian parishioners called it, was the first church built for the needs of those new immigrants from Québec who were living in the surrounding villages of Hamlet, Globe, and Bernon. This Victorian Gothic-style structure made of red brick seems like a fortress as it became one of the cornerstones for the preservation of French Canadian culture in the United States.
94 Carrington Ave, Woonsocket, Rhode Island 02895
American-French Genealogical Society
The opening of the American-French Genealogical Society in 1978 sparked a craze for citizens who wanted to trace the Francophone origins of their families. With more than 10 million US citizens claiming French Canadian descent in the United States, the Society is a leading figure in genealogy, collecting and publishing vital statistics while directing valuable research on one of the greatest American’s hobbies.
78 Earle St, Woonsocket, Rhode Island 02895
Places Serving Poutine
Poutine is a French-Canadian classic that is served across Canada. It’s a hearty dish of French fries, fresh cheese curds, and brown gravy.
Adeline’s Speakeasy Kitchen & Bar
2352 Mendon Road
Cumberland, RI 02864
M: 4pm-12am; T-Th: 11:30am-12am; F-S: 11:30am-1am; Sun: 11am-12am
Handcut fries, pork brown gravy, cheese curds and scallions
42 Cherry Street
Woonsocket, RI 02895
T-Th: 4-9pm; F-S: 12-11pm; Sun: 12-8pm
Fries with melted Wright’s Dairy cheese curds, brown gravy & shaved parmesan
33 Aborn Street
Providence, RI 02903
W-F: 4:30-9pm; Sat: 12:30-9pm; Sun: 12-8pm
Fries, bbq hash, smoked curds
100 Washington Street
Providence, RI 02903
751 Hartford Avenue
Johnston, RI 02919
Daily 12-8pm (Providence location closed Sunday & Monday)
Handmade Vermont cheddar curd and brown gravy
KG Kitchen Bar
771 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906
W-Sun: 4-9:30pm; Sat & Sun: 10am-2pm
House-cut fries, bourbon gravy, Vermont cheddar cheese curds
Ming’s Asian Street Food
560 Mineral Spring Avenue
Pawtucket, RI 02860
40 Sprague St, Providence, RI 02907
Pho’tine: Hand cut potatoes topped with our pho gravy, Narragansett Creamery cheese curds, thin sliced shallots, jalapeno, fried garlic, cilantro, & lime
Bywater – served seasonally
54 State Street
Warren, RI 02885
W-F: 5-9pm; Sat: 3-9pm
Smoked venison gravy over fresh cut, triple-fried Idaho potatoes, cheddar curds, herbs, and secret sauce
Franco Historical Sites
Sites of Interest