By Asst. Chief Joseph Fusaro
November 4, 2021

As the sun began to rise over Westerly on a cool Monday November 7, 1977, people were going to be sleeping in as the nation was observing Veterans’ Day. Around 6:20 am neighbors of the Potter Hill Mill hear what sounded like firecrackers going off. Getting out of bed to investigate Mrs. Nancy Buckstael saw a great wall of flames coming from the mill. A phone call was made to the Westerly Fire Station reporting the fire at the Potter Hill Mill. Resident firemen sounded the alarm for Box 4535, Potter Hill Rd at the mill. As the first engine was leaving the station the fire was also reported to the Ashaway Fire Department by a resident on the Hopkinton side of the river. Due to the proximity of the Ashaway Fire Station, their apparatus would be the first to arrive. A fire in this building would present several problems for firefighters. First, access to the site was provided by a single narrow driveway, next the east side of the buildings faced the Pawcatuck River, the buildings on the site had been in a state of disrepair for over 20 years, and finally there was only one fire hydrant to service this area. Thankfully the river being so close, it would provide the water necessary for extinguishing the fire.

First arriving fire equipment from the Ashaway Fire Department was confronted with a fully involved 2 ½ story wooden building fully involved in fire. Built in 1923, the building housed the mill offices, the finishing department and parts of the weave shop The first Ashaway pumper proceeded to the hydrant near the mill driveway and began soaking the house next to the building involved. This building would be spared because it sat high above the mill on a hill separated by the driveway and protected by a high stone wall. Westerly Engine 3 arrived and assisted the first Ashaway pumper. Ashaway’s second engine began siphoning water from the river on the Hopkinton side near the fish ladder to supply hose lines playing them into the river side of the mill. Westerly Engine 2 arrived and was positioned on the Westerly side of the bridge where it too began to take water from the river. Engine 2 would supply three hose lines to a deluge set placed in the driveway as well as an additional 2 ½ hose line. Westerly Engine 1 setup opposite of the Ashaway pumper on the Hopkinton side of the bridge and supplies 5 2 ½ hose lines. These hose lines were used to knock down fire on the driveway side so they could advance the deluge set. Westerly Ladder 1 was stationed on Potter Hill Rd. Unable to get access to the site, its crew was used to assist in moving hose lines. The lines supplied by the Ashaway pumper proved ineffective until they were moved into the river. The fire was brought under control within a half hour but extinguishment and over all would take over four hours.

Damage to the front building was significant, it collapsed into a large pile of rubble. Since parts of the building sat over the river, firefighters were not allowed to enter. Completing extinguishment would prove difficult. Fortunately, of the 75 firefighters operating at the call no injuries were reported. Members of the Westerly and Ashaway Ambulance Corps were on standby on their respective sides of the river. Through the efforts of the firefighters no damage was done to the nearby home or the granite structures to the rear of the involved section. As the day progressed, Westerly firefighters would return to the site three times to extinguish rekindles. A driving rain later in the evening would allow weary firemen to get some rest. The cause of the fire was deemed suspicious and was investigated by the Rhode Island State Fire Marshal’s office.