July 31, 2018
The Story of the Warren River
by Luther H. Blount
At the confluence of the Warren and the Barrington Rivers was located in ancient times the Indian town of Sowams, now called Warren. Sowams was the Indian capital of New England and the Indian chief Massasoit, in 1620, controlled all the land east of Narragansett Bay and north as far as New Hampshire. The Warren River, thus, gained prominence primarily because of its geographical location in that it afforded protection from weather and from enemies and abounded in all sorts of fish and shellfish.
The White man came and settled, although in Warren they first settled over on the other side of town on the Kickemuit River, but it wasn’t long before they were settling in deeper on the Warren side of the Warren River just above where the Blount Shipyard is now. In fact, there is a large engraved stone at the foot of Baker Street where the marker there says, “Massasoit Spring.” Shipbuilding started there and ran from the all the 1600’s, all through the 1700’s, up to a good way through the 1800’s, although some of the shipbuilding in the mid-1800’s was done further north up the river as far as Bungtown because the trees were bigger there.
As the inhabitants built ships they found that they were able to make the most money by sailing out of Warren with a cargo of any equipment that could be easily made of homespun manufacture right here in Warren, so there would be included barrel shooks, clapboards, dried eel-grass for insulation, big pine timbers, and shooks of split shingles (the trees were so large they could be split into nice big shingles), etc. They would sail away to Europe to sell what they had and under certain circumstances, they would keep the barrel shooks and with some of the cash they would buy a lot of trinkets and then sail down the coast of Africa and they would trade the trinkets to a chief there for some of his people, in which case, they then would sail back over to the West Indies and trade the people they had aboard for molasses. Hey would fill the barrels with molasses and then sail back to Warren with the molasses. When they got back here, by that time there had been started many rum distilleries. In fact, there were something like 18 rum distilleries in Warren, Rhode Island at the turn of the century (1700’s to 1800’s).
The people of Warren had learned to make a very good rum. This enterprise gave them a real purchasing power because they had some really valuable cargo. They would take the rum in the barrels over to the Continent and they would keep the shooks and deposit the rum in the buyer’s barrels; you can take a wooden barrel apart and reduce it to shooks; so then they would hide the shooks and take the money, buy some trinkets and so forth, go down to Africa and get another load and then back to the West Indies and trade for molasses, come back here, make the rum, and so forth. This is what was called the “Triangle Trade.” Unfortunately, the Blount’s didn’t get here from Cape Cod and Long Island until after the Civil War; by then all the ghastly trade was over! Of worthwhile mention was the China and coastal trade which a good many Warren ships were engaged in. It seems that even in those days the Warren ship owners were not adverse to selling their craft and returning home to build another.
Meanwhile, since Warren had so many rum distilleries, and while everybody in Warren in their own peculiar way, was very upright church-going people who did not drink, etc., on the other hand, if they launched a boat or erected a house, that was one moment by tradition they could imbibe. And so, the term “Warren River Punch” came to describe the liquid refreshment at parties when they launched a boat or erected a house or barn. They always had some hot rum on a cold day, or even fruit rum punch in the summertime. That is how the Warren River Punch derived its name.
Years later, oystering began on the Warren River. Many oyster companies were located along Water Street, one named Buckingham & Co., located where the Wharf Tavern is today and the Eddie B. Blount & Sons Company which was located where the Blount Marine Corporation shipyard is now. As the years have gone by the complexion of the Warren River has changed, however there are still to be found many sea-oriented businesses along Water Street—sailboats, sails, shipbuilding, shellfish, a seafood processing plant, and at least five restaurants, featuring, of course, freshly-caught seafood. Also there are several second-hand and antique shops, and a luggage factory located in a former mill, where at one time there was a tide mill. This was located at the bridge connecting the town of Warren to the town of Barrington. At one time, from the late 1600’s to the early 1800’s, there was in existence a ferry that ran several times a day across the Warren river from the foot of Baker Street on the Warren side to the foot of Ferry Lane in Barrington.