Will evidence of Valley Falls coal mine cave-ins affect BV Prep school project?

Will evidence of Valley Falls coal mine cave-ins affect BV Prep school project?

Site engineers indicate that concerns are unwarranted, as state Rep. McLaughlin questions student safety

CUMBERLAND - State Rep. Jim McLaughlin continues this week to press concerns about abandoned 19th-century coal mine tunnels thought to crisscross underground in the general location of the newly approved Blackstone Valley Prep elementary school.

Cave-ins through the years have opened gaping holes in Valley Falls, and the town's own installation of a sewer line on Chase Street uncovered a void in 1978 that McLaughlin says took 45 truckloads of dirt to fill in.

McLaughlin is now pushing the U.S. Department of the Interior for more information even though Town Council members approved the zone change on Sept. 18 that permits construction of the new three-story charter school. Their action was followed on Sept. 25 by the Planning Board's preliminary approval of the site plan.

His fear, said McLaughlin, is that building a three-story school atop an abandoned tunnel could trigger a cave-in that jeopardizes children's lives.

At the same time, the firm that will build the school and then lease it to BV Prep, Civic Builders of New York, had completed its borings and soil sampling before approaching the town for the zone change.

David Umbansky, chief executive officer of Civic Builders, told The Breeze this week that Pare Engineering of Lincoln is aware of McLaughlin's worries but "so far everything has been looked into and we've not had to change our course. There's nothing that calls for any concerns," he said.

This is the second elementary school for Blackstone Valley Prep. Designed to replace rental space at Our Lady of Fatima Church, it will serve 400 children in kindergarten to grade 4 from Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cumberland and Lincoln.

Its approval was accomplished during several lengthy hearings that saw questions focus on the loss of the playground at Currier Park on Broad Street, as well as traffic and parking concerns in this part of town.

Among the compromises offered, BV Prep secured extra parking spaces at the nearby Cadillac Mills, it agreed to open its play area for neighborhood children after school hours, and set up a staggered busing schedule to keep buses from backing up on Broad Street. It will also contribute to the relocation of the current playground, Umansky told the Town Council.

It will be the town's building commissioner, Neil Hall, who has the final word about safety issues as he oversees inspections on this building that's virtually across the street from Town Hall.

Civic Builders will be eligible to pull a building permit once the Planning Board completes its review of the site plan, he said.

Meanwhile, Richard Greenwood, deputy director of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, put together a map of the approximate locations of cave-ins at McLaughlin's request.

Greenwood described the documents as "information that had been sitting in our files but hadn't been summarized before."

Along with providing a short history of Valley Falls coal mining operations that spanned from about 1830s to 1880s, a map he produced locates the new school site and approximate locations of cave-ins.

He notes the 1978 sewer line cave-in on Chase Street, a 1979 sink hole that some say was on Titus Street, and a 1981 cave-in at the Club Juventude Lusitana soccer field and parking lot.

Additionally, a Providence Journal story in January of 1984 details a secondary cave-in at the Lusitana Club that happened while the state Department of Environmental Management was working to stabilize and fill the 15-foot sinkhole of 1981 estimated to cover some six to eight acres underground.

A $230,000 grant had initially been allocated to that project, an amount augmented by an added $200,000 when officials discovered the void was larger than expected.

According to Greenwood, two coal mines were operated in southern Cumberland.

The first was the Dexter or Roger Williams mine on Dexter Street from about 1807 to 1850s. It's depicted on the town's 1838 map at the corner of today's Dexter and High streets.

The second was the Valley Falls Mine, later Blackstone Coal Mining Company, that operated from about 1847 when Samuel Chace, while digging a cellar for a house or a well, hit coal.

Chace owned the sprawling Valley Falls Mill, where the Heritage Park is located today, and was likely erecting mill housing for his workers when he struck coal, historians surmise now.

His private home sat where today's Town Hall parking lot at Lusitania Avenue and Broad Street is, next to the school site. The Currier mansion was next door, where today's Currier Park will be replaced by the new charter school.

Chase Street, although spelled differently, is named for Samuel Chace, whose descendents own the Berkshire Hathaway mills that attracted billionaire investor Warren Buffett. The Valley Falls Mills Chace family is not related to the Samuel Chase who owns today's Ann & Hope store.

In 1853, a geologist describing the coal operations describes shafts that extended some 375 feet vertically, with tunnels leading from them that followed the veins of coal. One nest of coal was found 30 feet square.

According to Greenwood, coal in this region had been deposited from South Kingstown to Mansfield, Mass., with operations in Portsmouth, the Garden City area of Warwick among the most active, along with Valley Falls.

Mineral-rich Cumberland also boasted of gold mining in the Bear Hill area, silver mining on Staples Road and copper mining off Tower Hill Road.

Another coal mine is also depicted on the town's 1838 map near the corner of Diamond Hill and Little Pond County roads.

As Greenwood describes it, coal in Valley Falls was a loose term that really referred to veins of anthracite so hard it was virtually impossible to burn. Instead it was crushed into a powder that could be used by iron foundries making castings from sand molds. The powder was sprinkled inside the mold to assure the iron piece would slip easily from its mold.

The coal was so difficult to burn, in fact, that Cumberland folks reportedly would joke, "When the angel should sound his trumpet and the earth be enveloped in one grand conflagration, that they would preserve themselves from the ravages of the fiery elements by perching themselves upon a heap of Cumberland coal."

One account notes 100 barrels of facing a week "shipped to every part of the United States."

Greenwood noted that while coal mines in Pennsylvania have been preserved as historic sites, Valley Falls' underground caverns, if any exist, offer no historic appeal.

He would, however, like to see the old rock wall and steps that led up to the old Currier mansion preserved by Civic Builders as part of the "neighborhood character."

Umansky said he wasn't aware of the wall but would be willing to talk about retaining it.


Seems to me that there is an awful lot of controversy regarding the building of another BVP Mayoral Academy, especially where it is to be build....very unfairly and inconsiderately so taking away the only playground in the Southern part of our town.

I tried to point out a couple of weeks ago, in a letter to the Breeze that serious consideration should be given, if in fact a 2nd-school is really needed, to building it on the remaining acreage at the old Ephata House property at the bottom of Manville Hill Road.

This location would be ideal as it would finally put to good use, in the Cumberland Hill section of town (on the town of Lincoln's border whom send students to BVP) a piece of property that was once OPEN SPACE and then destroyed by Mayor McKee and left to rot, as he has done and tried to do (still trying to do) with many other pieces of property, such as the proposed Currier Playground site!

AlfaRacer: You should probably ask BVP about this. Noone who is reading the Breeze knows the answer.

This might have been one of those times that the town council had done a little research before giving their "OK", given the real possibility of impending mayhem. Most of the time, decisions are drawn out and delayed for the stupidest reasons. This time, their foregone approval could have devastating circumstances. I'm hoping that someone with some sense will put construction on hold until this issue can be investigated and confirmed as being safe to build. Call me crazy, but I'd hate to have a school full of students swallowed into a sink hole.

I meant to mention (My wife reminded me) that when Maureen and I were moving to up here on Old Reservoir Road, from 37 Eddy Street, just around the corner from McKee Oil, back in, about, 1974...there was a good sized cave in on Eddy Street right in front of our house!!

So, obviously there are tunnels, shafts, mines spread somewhat around the entire area. many I am sure not known of?

Hey..love all this na-saying. Kind of backing the whole neighborhood into a, umm tunnel..sorry I mean corner.

IF all this nonsense is true...wouldn't that call for an immediate evacuation of the entire neighborhood? Close down the Club Juventude Lusitana, close all the businesses...heck close the Town Hall...

Rep. McLauffy ... can you please come up with the billions that will call for the testing and fixing of any problem that you say is there? Or are the other neighbors not that important? Just as long as your fight against education improvements goes on..

This is a joke and sorry to even see so much ink used on this non-story.

The facts prove this is a safety concern. And, given those facts, an expert should be brought in to make sure, BEFORE ground is broke. It's pretty simple...a "NO-BRAINER"!

The professionals have been in and have done their job....that's why a foundation, with the backing of Bill Gates, has approved the construction. Again, IF the facts have proven a safety concern...Why isn't EVERYONE calling for an immediate evacuation of the surrounding 10 blocks?????? Please get off BVP. (Of which I have no children involved in or connection to.) OR get on saving the entire neighborhood...but that would cost too much money.

I think they wanted a site in Pawtucket last year that was contaminated. They exercise poor judgement in schoolsiting. Sparce for schools is sparce. They can't find space in Central Falls or Pawtucket.

Not sure I understand...if they wanted the site in Pawtucket, but didn't go for it or get it because it was contaminated, then they didn't choose the site. They walked away...all be it they had to. This "mine" thing is being push by a state rep who is against improving education. If it were a REAL issue, why isn't the surrounding neighbors going out of their minds??? Why isn't the great state rep doing something for them?

Why would you even consider a site that possibly is contaminated?