Just a few months ago, an anniversary of sorts here in our fair town was reached. For it was 215 years ago, at the end of November, that the region’s first bank, the Narragansett Bank of Wickford opened its doors to the public for the first time. It was located in a building owned by its President Benjamin Fowler, which still exists to this day, as a private home on Main Street. Fourteen years later in 1819, Judge Daniel Champlin and Pardon T. Hammond received a charter for a competitor to the Narragansett Bank and opened the North Kingstown Bank of Wickford in a portion of the substantial brick home of the Noel Freeborn family. For decades after that, these two well-capitalized and soundly managed institutions operated as the only games in town. All that changed at the halfway point of the century, as North Kingstown, along with the rest of southern New England, raced into the industrial age, riding the coattails of the rapidly expanding textile industry.
Before you knew it, banks were spring up like daffodils in April, all over the region. Here in North Kingstown, the Farmers Bank of Wickford, the Peoples Exchange Bank of Wickford, the North Kingstown Exchange Bank of Wickford, and the Wickford Savings Bank all opened within seven years of each other and attempted to compete with the two already well established institutions. As you can imagine, six banks all operating within the confines of one small, albeit robust, village was more than the market could bear, and they began to fall by the wayside just as fast as they formed. The first to go, in a rare instance of state intercession in an industry loosely regulated at the time, was the North Kingstown Exchange Bank of Wickford. The state pulled its charter one year after issuing it after it was revealed that the bank had no actual capital and was preparing, as all state chartered banks had a right to do at that time, to issue its own currency in the form of banknotes. Soon after that, the Peoples Exchange Bank of Wickford, relocated to less crowded pastures when they opened in Wakefield as the Exchange Bank of Wakefield. The worldwide financial crisis known as the “Great Panic of 1857” claimed the Farmers Bank of Wickford, opened four years earlier by Euclid Chadsey, his prominent farmer brother A. B. Chadsey (who lived in what is now the Cranston/Murphy Funeral Home on West Main St.), and their father, well-known entrepreneur and farmer Jeremiah Chadsey, whose house and farm were also located on West Main Street. These types of things were occurring, not only here in North Kingstown, but all over America, and each time a bank failed, was closed or relocated, local folks were impacted, savings were lost, lives were ruined.
Finally in 1865, the US government stepped in; enough was enough. Sweeping banking reforms were begun and individual local banks were no longer allowed to issue currency. The banks that remained were required to comply with certain national standards and in order to survive, often were required to merge where practical.
When the national banking reform dust settled here in North Kingstown, only two financial institutions remained. One, the Wickford National Bank, formed by the merger of the original Narragansett and North Kingstown Banks of Wickford operated out of a wooden bank building at the intersection of Main, West Main, and Brown Streets. That building, which burned in 1870 during a bungled bank robbery, was replaced by the building that once housed the offices of the Standard Times and now operates as a retail space. The second bank remaining was the Wickford Savings Bank, operating out of the same Noel Freeborn house that once contained the North Kingstown Bank. The Wickford Savings Bank used as its symbol, an image of the Wickford Harbor lighthouse as a part of its letterhead.
The rest of the banks of North Kingstown all fell by the wayside. But we can remember them in the form of the occasional individual banknote that shows up from time to time. These intriguing slips of financial history are physical reminders of an age when choosing your banking institution was a risky business indeed.