Tuesday, September 2, 2014

ALCO, UNFI, and the Woonasquatucket River

The beautifully landscape riverfront near the old ALCO factory.
On a recent walk, we went searching for as many bits of the Woonasquatucket River as we could see from the street--from where the river leaves the confines of Waterplace Park and before it broadens out in the area of Riverside Park. While the river can be kayaked, much of it is hidden from the road (and pedestrians) since it flows between high walls or alongside the old factory buildings.

I was particularly looking to see how complete the proposed Woonasquatucket River Greenway and bike trail was, since I was hoping for the ability to walk along the river from Waterplace Park to Olneyville. While there are some lovely segments, there are many gaps. The bikeway is officially marked however, since it's easier for the bikers to go off-trail in the road in the areas where the trail has not been built. Click here to see a map of existing and proposed trail segments.

The Woonasquatucket traces its commercial roots to the early 1800s. After Slater Mill, the first successful textile factory in America, was built in Pawtucket on the Blackstone River in 1790, the Woonasquatucket was identified as a prime factory location due to its narrow size and swift descent. Many factories and mills were constructed along its length for the manufacture of tools, textiles, rubber goods, jewelry, steam engines and locomotives. You can still see the course of the river today by looking for the old mill buildings, many of which are abandoned, and many of which are being, or have been, restored as businesses and residences.

In the course of our investigation, we came upon the old American Locomotive Company (ALCO) complex, now home to United Natural Foods (UNFI).

The ALCO neon sign.
This led us to a lovely riverside walk, and a subsequent investigation of two companies I knew nothing about. And something that should have been obvious to me--I can see the American Locomotive Company neon sign from my living room window, but never made a connection to the river, to a particular space, or to the company's manufacturing history.

American Locomotive

ALCO was formed through the 1901 merger of Schenectady Locomotive Engine Manufactory, and seven smaller companies, which included the Rhode Island Locomotive Works in Providence.

At its peak, ALCO was the second largest steam locomotive builder in the US, and it produced over 75,000 locomotives. They also manufactured the first commercially successful diesel-electric engine in 1924. During World War II, ALCO built munitions for the war effort, and after the Korean War they entered the oil production equipment and nuclear power plant markets.

In 1906, all locomotive manufacturing had ceased in Providence, and a brand new factory was built here for the manufacture of automobiles. ALCO produced cars designed by the French company Berliet until 1908, when they began manufacturing cars of their own design. Their cars were built to the highest standards, and each one took a year and a half to make.
A 1912 ALCO automobile.

An ALCO won the Vanderbilt Cup in 1909 and 1910, and competed in the first Indy 500 in 1911. But there were not enough buyers at the $6-$7,000 price point, and the low volume meant they lost money on each vehicle; car manufacture in Providence ceased in 1913.

What makes me sad about ALCO is that they did so many things well and produced such great designs--and then the company just faded away in the 1970s/1980s. Bad decision making and bad management have to be the cause, because the products were first rate. Interestingly enough, the locomotives are still being used all over the world, and still being manufactured to ALCO designs in Canada, Australia, and India. So they could have a huge multinational presence today in locomotives if they'd stayed in business!

Along the river walk behind the UNFI corporate HQ.
Redeveloping ALCO

In 2006, Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse announced plans for the redevelopment of the old factories which previously housed ALCO, Nicholson File, and U.S. Rubber. These properties comprised 1.7mm square feet, and were intended to create a commercial, residential, and development mecca on the West Side of Providence. There were to be offices, condos, affordable housing, restaurants, a hotel, and a restored river walk.

The first spaces to be renovated were two ALCO buildings occupying 53,000 square feet, and the major tenant was to be United Natural Foods (UNFI), who was persuaded to relocate their headquarters from Connecticut to RI with the promise of generous tax credits from the state. They brought 181 employees with them in May 2009, with plans to staff up to about 250.

United Natural Foods

UNFI is the leading national distributor of natural and organic foods, specialty foods, and related products in the US and Canada. They were founded in 1996 by the merger of two regional distributors: Mountain People's Warehouse (founded in 1976) and Cornucopia Natural Foods (founded in 1977). Their US revenue is about $6 billion, and they have 7,700 employees. 
In keeping with their mission to distribute natural and organic products, they are also committed to sustainable development and green/clean in other aspects of their business. They try to pursue LEED certification in all of their buildings; the Providence site achieved silver certification.

Recycling and trash containers at UNFI made out of old
RR spikes and other parts from the ALCO factory.
But Now….

The grand plan of Struever Bros. for the West Side ended in foreclosure. The company cleared out of Rhode Island in 2009, after the real estate market crash. The proposed development has been largely on hold since then. In October, 2013, Foundry Associates (developers of the The Promenade apartment complex along the river, close to Providence Place) bought the old ALCO property (11.8 acres, 200,000 square feet). Unfortunately that represents only a small portion of the proposed redevelopment site.  However, we did notice some work being done on some of the other factories further down the river. I'll be keeping an eye out for information on what's happening at these sites, and will post again if and when I learn anything.

Illustration Credits and References

Photo of  1912 Alco originally uploaded by DougW at en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Other photos by author.

More information about the ALCO vehicle can be found here.