LINCOLN – A fast moving six-alarm fire destroyed a significant portion of the historic Lonsdale Bleachery Mill complex Thursday night as scores of firefighters from Lincoln and surrounding northern Rhode Island communities did their best to contain it.
The fire came in as a box alarm from the mill complex at 5:12 p.m., according to Police Capt. Phillip Gould, and could be seen erupting from windows of a largely vacant mill building along the Blackstone River as fire companies arrived on scene.
At least one firefighter was reported to have hurt his back in the effort to fight the fire and was transported to the hospital to be checked out, according to firefighters.
Gould did not know of any other injuries from the fire, but said a number of rescues had been staged near the mill as a precaution while the effort to fight the blaze continued.
Coming as it did on Halloween, the fire prompted some talk of a possible vandalism cause among residents and the curious watching from Front Street or Lonsdale Avenue.
“That would be total speculation at this point,” Gould said. “Right now we have the fire marshal on scene and once they have the fire under control, they will start doing an investigation of the cause, but I have nothing on that at this point.”
From the hillside of Lonsdale Avenue overlooking the mill complex, a Cumberland resident said he had spotted the fire as he drove to the Stop & Shop supermarket near the 1 Mendon Road senior apartment complex. The whole right side windows of the lower mill building were engulfed in flames as he approached, the resident, who declined to be identified, said.
“There was fire coming out of every single window,” he said. The fire appeared to be near a section of the multiple-building complex where the RYCO Lace Co. and Blackstone Valley Outfitters also operated. It could not be determined Thursday night if those structures of the complex were involved or had been spared by the work of the responding fire crews.
Firefighters could be seen using high aerial lines to shower a tower section of the complex with sheets of water while apparently holding back the flames from a long section of vacant mill space running up the hill along Front Street.
Marion Lafontaine, a resident of Cumberland familiar with the Lonsdale neighborhood, said she heard about the fire on the scanner while at home in Cumberland Hill and decided to go to Lonsdale and take a look at it.
“Flames were coming out all along the mill. I don’t know what to think,” Lafontaine said.
One section of the complex was reported to be owned by the Jerome London LLC, and still another by FDS Industries.
A Lonsdale Bleachery Redevelopment plan commissioned by the town, the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Corridor Commission and the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation described the site as semi-abandoned, with about 50 percent of its mill space redeveloped and still in use by a number of small companies.
The complex abuts both the Blackstone Valley Bikeway and the Lonsdale Drive-In Marsh/Wetlands Restoration Project. The complex, along with the nearby Lonsdale Mill Village, is all part of a state Historic District and nationally registered. The plan also noted a need to demolish some of the more deteriorated structures at the complex to increase parking areas and access. The 30-acre site includes a portion of a mill complex begun in 1831 after construction of the nearby Blackstone Canal along the Blackstone River. Newer buildings of the Bleachery complex were constructed over sections of the old canal after its closing in the 1840s and through 1895. By the turn of the century, approximately 24 industrial buildings were located at the complex.
As the fire in the riverfront section of the mill complex continued to burn Thursday night, Mitch Paulin of Lincoln, a former Cumberland firefighter, said he had spotted the flames in the mill as he drove across the Lonsdale Bridge on Route 122 and pulled over to watch the calamity.
“You could see the fire right across the river from the bridge,” Paulin said while showing some of the photographs he had taken.
“There were a lot of people watching from the bridge, and when I got there the mill was totally engulfed along the back end of the building. The flames shot high into the air as the roof of that section collapsed inward and one portion of the outside wall sparked another outburst of flames and cinders when it toppled down,” he said.
“Every window was engulfed in flames,” he said. Firefighters could be seen putting water on the Blackstone Valley Outfitters building, and Paulin said he hoped they had been able to save that business.
“This is a site that goes back over a hundred years,” Paulin said while noting the impact of the fire on the historic district in the area.
Anne Robitaille, of Manville, said she was bringing her daughter, Reanna, to her friend’s house to go trick or treating and could see a faint outline of smoke against the sky.
The family members soon learned from Facebook that the mill complex was on fire, and Robitaille went down to see it.
She wondered if vandalism might have been involved. “I don’t know. It’s practically a coincidence, you know, Halloween. I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Paulin agreed. “With these old mills anything can happen,” he said. “You never know.”
After living in the neighborhood for many years and even working for a machine shop in the complex, Kirk Cyr felt saddened by the fire. “Its over a hundred years old and there is history behind it. It’s too bad,” he said while talking with reporters about his memories of the area.
The RIKO building appeared to be across the street from the fire and he hoped that had been saved, Cyr said. The portion of the structure running along Carrington Street, did appear to have been destroyed, he added. “The roof is already caved in the walls collapsed, it’s pretty serious,” he said. Recalling how the Peterson Puritan Co. had operated in a building already demolished, Cyr said the fire could have been worse if that section still existed. “It would have had aerosol products,” he said of the potential danger that could have resulted. As for the cause, he also wondered about vandalism. “It’s Halloween night, who knows,” he said.