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History of Westerly High School

Westerly High School History: My, How We’ve Grown

Researched by Nathaniel Burge, Class of 2020 (for his Senior Project) and Marianne Mirando, WHS Librarian

Written by Marianne Mirando


Four hundred years ago there was no State of Rhode Island and no Town of Westerly. The Pequot and Narragansett Tribes lived on the land without the presence of white settlers from Great Britain. As legend tells it, in 1637 a young couple (John and Mary Babcock) eloped because Mary’s family did not want her to marry John. The two left Newport, Rhode Island and boated down the coast until they reached the mouth of the Pawcatuck River. They  came up the river and settled in the quiet Mastuxet Cove where they built a life for themselves with children and a farm.


Life continued for their ancestors and many other families in Westerly. There were captains, farmers, merchants and ship builders.Then came the textile mills. They brought people and prosperity. 

Originally, the area was made of several small villages but by 1661 they joined together as a municipality and Westerly became an official town. Business was good and the  town continued to grow. It wasn’t long before the townspeople saw the need to educate their children. So in 1814 they built a place for students to get some academic instruction on the “knoll in the center” of town or Union Street.  They didn’t stay here too long because parents were concerned about the dampness of the building and the health and welfare of their children. So, in 1837, a group of citizens came together to build the Pawcatuck Academy. 


Strictly speaking, the Pawcatuck Academy  can’t be called an official “High School''. Students of all ages were taught here over the years. But this wasn’t the only place where education took place; Individuals took it upon themselves to teach the basic skills to children so although it wasn’t completely organized, instruction was happening in Westerly in an organic way.


Finally in 1857 the first single building dedicated to being a High School was built “on High Street near the Railroad depot”


As the population grew, so did the need for a bigger school. A red brick structure with a bell tower was built at the corner of Elm and School Street. Although the Westerly High School outgrew this building once again, the building still remains; it is now St. Pius X elementary school. But when the hurricane of 1938 blew, the building lost it’s lovely bell tower.


Things were prospering for Westerly. A granite industry was developing and that drew a lot of Italian immigrants who came to the town to work with the granite. Some worked in the quarry and the craftsmen worked carving the stone. Westerly’s pink granite became well known and now stands in tribute in many cities on the east coast.


As the population grew, so did the need for yet another bigger school. Mrs. Harriet Wilcox, a wealthy and generous member of the community, donated a lovely piece of land downtown at the corner of Broad and Granite Street. She would also donate the land abutting the school to be a public library and memorial as well as a park. It was 1870 and times were changing. This new structure was classic Colonial style with top of the line technology to teach woodworking to the boys and home economics to the girls. It even included labs for science.

Although the building no longer exists, if you look closely, you will see a plaque in the grass beside the public library at the front of the park. 


By 1935, there were grumblings about needing a new school. Classrooms were overcrowded and there was a greater need to offer more classes for students. Finally, in 1936 they broke ground to erect a new and bigger school at 23 Ward Ave. The structure was completed and ready for the business of learning by the following year and  Westerly High School opened its doors in April 1937. In September 1938, The Great Hurricane came to the Eastern Seaboard. The first brick building built for the High School lost its lovely bell tower. The Colonial style building at the park, vacated the previous year,  was used to store bodies found in the aftermath of the hurricane.


Westerly High School’s present building has undergone several transformations since 1937: There was a new wing added and several other renovations. In the past decade (1996), the high school grew to become a campus. There are now two buildings connected by a tree-lined walkway and teachers who were once students here make references to days gone by. But through the years, the building has remained stalwart and beautiful. In fact, in 2017 it was named The Most Beautiful High School in Rhode Island by Architectural Digest. 


Mary and John Babcock may no longer be here, but they would be amazed to see what grew out of the dream they planted.