This Is the End: The Death of the St. James Hotel, 1986

WOONSOCKET, Rhode Island — This hamlet on the Blackstone River, like other New England mill towns, once rattled around the clock with a populace hard at work and play. Huge buildings—factories, residences, hotels, recreational facilities—sprang up at the river’s edge and along the main streets. But by the 1970s most of the city’s industry had moved South or overseas. Neglected, the buildings turned into tinder. Periodically they burst into flames.

The multistoried St. James Hotel clung to its former glory longer than many of the nearby mills. It had been a gathering place and dance hall for the classy elite of the town. That was in the days before the suburbs drew them away. But even in the 1980s, the hotel clung to its reputation as a classy place. At the bar, men still wore ties and women their finest perfume.

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But the St. James’ fading destiny could be seen in the people who called it home. Its rooms no longer housed wealthy travelers and well-kept women. Fallen into disrepair, they were rented at a cut rate to people whose lives, for the most part, had also fallen into disrepair.

Sadly, few could see that, behind the classy reputation and fresh paint, the St. James Hotel had also turned into tinder. Fire roared through the building on a cold, rainy November night in 1986, turning every board and brick into ash. At least two residents never made it out alive.

I had just moved to Woonsocket. It was the first mill town I’d ever lived in, my first full immersion in a hardscrabble, blue-collar world where Canadian French was as common as English, where bars outnumbered churches ten to one, where people quit school as soon as they found a job. I was a Boston-area boy, a sheltered son of an engineer raised in the secure shade of expensive schools and historical preservation societies. In the foreign land of Woonsocket, I felt like an anthropologist.

Every day I would read The Woonsocket Call, the local newspaper, to help me understand my neighbors. I also perused the help wanted ads every day, as I had lost my job during a messy divorce. I could sympathize with the people I met who were struggling to make ends meet. When I saw The Call’s front page the morning after the St. James burned, something struck a chord. I wrote the following piece over my morning coffee.

The moonlight showed the world what they were doing
Echo of a scream in scorching ruin
Ghosts of ninety years fly from the doorway
If brick could speak you’d hear it say

This is the end

The paper told the world what they were doing
They sifted through the ash and smoking ruin
Looking for the lost among the losers
What they’re finding seems to say

This is the end
No other side
This is the end
When we have died

One man sits
A silent heap
It’s two a.m.
And he can’t sleep
Three doors down
A woman weeps
Four blank walls
Keep out the sleet
And five alarms
Announce the heat

This is the end
No other side
This is the end
When we have died

Your eyes are telling me what you remember
A sacrifice to mark the days
Your hopes were still inside that cold November
We watched them as they burned away

Some things last for years and then retire
Some things pass before their day
The purest kind of gold is made in fire
But nothing made is here to stay

This is the end
No other side
This is the end
When we have died

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5 comments

  1. Very nice! Loved it! I dont remember it, but I am sure being 7 I heard about it and no doubt talked with my parents and or grand parents about this.

  2. Ed Archambault · · Reply

    I remember it well. Played with the Bobby Shannon Group in the seventies.

  3. Paul Menard · · Reply

    I remember it quite well , you tell it all very well

  4. Jamie carlson · · Reply

    I was 11 when that hotel burnt down….imagine if it was still there today

  5. Diane Harisenko · · Reply

    I remember the St. James Hotel and it was a classy place. They used to have live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. I was 22 when it burned down and was very sad to see it go.

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