The Silver Boom: Life at Gorham & Providence Steel and Iron

Mar 13, 2013

The Gorham complex abandoned in place on Adelaide Ave in Providence in 1998.
Credit Erik Gould

In less than 20 years, a quarter of the state’s population will be older than 60.  In a series we call “The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island” we’re looking at how the state will take care of this expanding older population and how Rhode Island benefits from its older residents.  For example, they are the memory keepers, the informal historians of the state’s rich past. 

The Gorham Manufacturing complex reduced to rubble in 1999.
Credit Erik Gould

Gorham Manufacturing

Through much of the 20th Century, Gorham Manufacturing was one of the largest makers of silver flatware and tea sets. Hundreds of workers filed into the massive plant in Providence making some of the most coveted silverware and bronze casting.

The old plant was demolished nearly 15 years ago, but the memories remain in the people who worked there.

Rhode Island Public Radio’s Catherine Welch talked to three former employees about their lives at the Gorham plant, and here are their stories.

Paul MacDonald and Don Milner both worked at Gorham Manufacturing and for the union that represented workers.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

Paul MacDonald

Paul worked in the maintenance department, so he walked the whole plant fixing equipment that was made by Gorham. As he made his way through the Gorham complex, he witnessed the conditions scores of employees worked in every day. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and conditions were often dangerous. While working in the maintenance shop, Paul made his way to president of the union representing Gorham workers.

Don Milner

Don started at Gorham doing grinding work. He would get thousands of spoons, forks and knives and grind them down to make them smooth. He did that for ten years. Don then moved to the foundry where he made urns. Like Paul MacDonald, Don moved up the ladder of the union representing Gorham workers.

Bill Smith

Bill Smith was let go the year he would have marked 25 years with Gorham. He now works for the Rhode Island Foundation.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

Bill started working at Gorham when he was 19-years-old. He spent his first 20 years on the line with the drop presses making spoons. It was a dangerous job, and Bill feels lucky to have all ten fingers. He spent his last five years at Gorham in management, a transition he is most proud of. Bill lost his job six months after buying his first home.

Providence Steel & Iron Company

The Providence Steel and Iron Company appeared on the scene in the early 1900’s. The complex included offices, rooms for drafting and pattern making, a steel shop and the steel yard where workers would grind and drill and punch holes into massive beams. This work went on until the company shut its doors and sold its equipment in 2003. Paul Ianelli was there when the last piece was sold, and tells his story about his 50 years at the Steel Yard.

Paul Ianelli 

Paul Ianelli has worked one job or another on the grounds of the old Providence Steel and Iron for 50 years.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

Paul worked at Providence Steel and Iron Company for 41 years. He was there until the end, when the last piece of equipment was sold and moved off the premises.  If you visit the property today, you’ll see Paul  roaming the grounds. That’s because he’s still there working, he’s now the grounds keeper of The Steel Yard, a place where the arts and craftsmanship meet.

Listen to the Series:

You can find all of the stories in this series here: The Silver Boom: Aging in Rhode Island

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