The Spragues and Sprague Mansion
The most famous and important of Cranston's industries was the Cranston Print Works, owned by the Sprague family. It was the hub of an industrial empire that, by the 1860s, reached from Maine to North Carolina. The Print Works began in 1807 when William Sprague decided to convert his gristmill on the banks of the Pocasset River into a small cotton mill for carding and spinning yarn. Eventually, Sprague and his son, William II, installed water-driven power looms on a large scale, lowering production costs and increasing output. The Spragues were the first in the nation to print calico, and they also pioneered in chemical bleaching.
Upon William's death in 1836, his two sons, Amasa and William II, took over the business. While each brother was elected to the state legislature, Amasa concentrated on running the family business while William II devoted most of his efforts to politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, Governor and United States Senator. His political career was cut short by Amasa's murder on December 31, 1843. William II resigned from the Senate and returned to Cranston to manage the company.
At the heart of the Print Works Village was the Sprague family's mansion. The original, 2 1/2 story, 5-bay, gable-roofed house, built about 1790, was expanded eastward by two bays in the early nineteenth century, likely after the family's first success with textile manufacturing. The original window caps were copied on this addition, and all the sash in the house was changed. The doorway, with its segmental transom and sidelights, probably dates from this enlargement; the entrance porch is twentieth century. In 1864, at the height of their fortunes, the Sprague family erected the 2 1/2 story, 3-bay addition to the south. The addition, surmounted by a belvedere, is higher than the old house, and entry to the original building is through the landings of the new stairway. The addition includes a double parlor and dining room on the first floor and two bedrooms on the floors above. The new stairway has a handsome mahogany railing and each principal room has a simple Italianate marble fireplace.
At the time of the addition, the large brick carriage house was erected on Dyer Avenue, and formal gardens laid out behind the mansion. After the collapse of the Sprague empire, the mansion was sold and used variously as a boarding house or foreman's residence. The threat of demolition in 1967 activated the Cranston Historical Society to acquire the property and it is now open to the public. The building houses furniture from the Carrington Collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society. As the center of one of the largest nineteenth-century industrial empires in America and the residence of Cranston's most famous family, the Sprague Mansion is the best known historic structure in the city.
Local legend has it that the Sprague Mansion is haunted. Amasa Sprague left his stately Cranston home one day in December 1843 to travel to Johnston. The following morning, his bludgeoned body was found beside the road, almost within sight of his mansion. A man suspected of the murder was tried and hanged, but evidence later proved his innocence. John Gordon was the last person executed in Rhode Island, as public indignation led to legislation abolishing capital punishment. The actual killer was never found.
An astral presence still manifests itself in Sprague Mansion. The apparition is most often observed descending the main staircase or is felt as a passing breath of icy air in the wine cellar. A seance held to determine the ghost's identity revealed the agitated spirit of a subsequent owner's butler, who had expected--but had not received--an inheritance. The seance was hastily concluded when the Ouija began to move violently, spelling, "My land! My land! My land!" One wonders, though, could Amasa Sprague or John Gordon be making mischief? Or, as the Ouija board claimed, did the butler do it?
The Spragues are the best known family Cranston has produced. Neither before or since was there such an accumulation of wealth, power and influence in Cranston. A dominant force in the development of Rhode Island for three generations, the Spragues' economic, political and social positions were of national consequence. The physical evidence of their empire is impressive in size, scope and quality. Cranston is fortunate to retain so much of this nationally important legacy.