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Local History

Discover the beautiful towns of Westerly, RI and Stonington, CT.

Westerly Sun Column

On February 12, 1830, Stephen Wilcox was born to a modest family in Westerly, Rhode Island. He showed talent as an inventor at a young age, and by the age of 23 he held his first patent: for a hot-air engine that would produce fog signals for lighthouses. He quickly turned his attention to boilers, and patented a safety water tube boiler with inclined tubes in 1856. Over his lifetime, Wilcox patented close to 50 inventions.

George Babcock met Stephen Wilcox when his family moved to Westerly. The two were reacquainted years later when Babcock became chief draftsman at Hope Iron Works in Providence, Rhode Island, where Stephen Wilcox worked improving boiler designs. In 1867, they established the Babcock & Wilcox Company, which is now a “global leader in energy and environmental technologies and services for the power and industrial markets, with operations, subsidiaries and joint ventures worldwide”, and is celebrating its 150th Anniversary. Of note: the two invented the non-combustible steam boiler, which Thomas Edison purchased and used in a public demonstration of incandescent lighting. Edison was so impressed that he later wrote that the Babcock & Wilcox had "the best boiler God has permitted man yet to make”. B&W boilers soon paved the way for the development of high-pressure, high-temperature power plants for electricity production. They were also used to power U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine ships, beginning a relationship that continues today.

Around 1870, there was a momentum by local librarians and directors for a true public library. Between 1870 and 1891, five offers were made to the Town for a public library; at the same time, the town was considering a Civil War Memorial for Dixon Square. On October 29, 1891, Stephen Wilcox announced that he had purchased the Moss property, and would contribute additional funding for a Civil War Memorial and Public Library if the people of the community would raise a $25,000 match. By September 1892, the money had been raised. On October 7, 1892 the fundraising committee and Mr. Wilcox became the Incorporators of the Memorial and Library Association. Architects Longstaff & Hurd were secured by the Association’s first meeting on October 22, 1892, and the building open its doors just two years later.

Unfortunately, Mr. Wilcox passed before the library was completed. He was described not only as an industrialist-inventor, great benefactor, and philanthropist, but also “a wise counselor”, “progressive, persevering, and faithful”, and as having great “thoughtfulness of the welfare of this community”. Mr. Wilcox never wanted the “living memorial”, which he established, to bear his name. In 1898, his wife, Harriet, donated Wilcox Park’s original parcel of land in memory of her husband, Stephen. She envisioned a walking park to be enjoyed by the hardworking citizens of Westerly and Stonington.

Mr. Wilcox’s legacy lives on throughout the world, but, most importantly, in this town, and in this library, which he gave to this community.

By Brigitte Hopkins, Executive Director