At the time of the big fire and for 18 years prior, Herman Dock did all his research in a house on Watch Hill Road right on the Pawcatuck River. The only surviving photograph of Herman Dock shows him in front of this house celebrating a successful test of a new rotary pump he invented with his close friend John Thavenet. The house on Watch Hill Road was torn down in 1930 and replaced by another.
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Dock married Florence Herman and they had two children, a son Luther and a daughter Thurza, both born in Westerly. In 1921, twelve years after the disastrous fire, Dock moved to Guadalajara, Mexico with his wife, possibly because of poor health brought on in part from the stress of losing everything in the fire. He died in Mexico on April 17, 1933, from heart disease at the age of 73. He was buried in the Guadalajara Municipal Cemetery, American section 4, line 7, grave 49.
So who was Herman Dock and could the great mill fire of 1909 been deliberately set? Even more than 100 years later many people think it was. Why is there so little information about Herman Dock on the internet, after all, he was a brilliant inventor.
His revolutionary engine could have changed the world and he patented at least six other important inventions. He was also an entrepreneur who started and owned numerous companies. We know he lived in Westerly for perhaps as many as 20 years. He owned a large yacht powered by one of his Dock engines. he The yacht, Lang Syne, was kept for a time at the Watch Hill Yacht Club wherein 1915 he was a commodore.
Beside these few facts, Herman Dock is an enigma. I put this story out to my readers not because it’s complete but because it’s not. Perhaps someone reading this knows more about him or the circumstances surrounding the fire and can help solve this mystery.
Everybody loves a good mystery and here in New England, we have more than our fair share. When I came upon this story it started out innocently enough. My friend Gordon and I were doing research for a story on the mills in Hope Valley. You can read the story in A Trip to Sugar Bun City. This was the first time I’d heard that the fire that destroyed the Nichols and Langworthy Mill in Hope Valley on April 13, 1909, was suspicious.
At first, I didn’t think there was much of a story there. Almost 110 years ago a mill burned down and a lot of stuff got destroyed. Old mills burned down almost as often as we get hurricanes. Then Gordon asked me if I’d heard about the revolutionary Dock engine. I hadn’t and Gordon went on to tell me that this engine was so far ahead of its time that it was going to make Hope Valley the Detroit of New England until the great fire happened. I looked into this a little more and it turns out there was a story here and a good one.
So who was Herman Dock? I saw that he had at least six patents, one for a carburetor that used compressed air; another was for a piston that used a ball and socket instead of a pin to connect the piston to the rod. He also invented a marine propeller, a grinding tool and a threading tool for lathes, a rotary pump, and the Dock engine. I did a search on the internet for Herman Dock expecting to find a lot of information but there was virtually nothing about him. Why was this?
That was my first setback on making this into a story. If I couldn’t find anything out about him how could I write a story. Then I saw a documentary video on YouTube by Joe Soares about the fire at the mill.
Joe lives in Hope Valley and is a local historian and author of 5 books. We spoke and he told me the Nichols and Langworthy Mill was founded in 1835 by Captain Gardner Nichols and was the largest mill in Hope Valley. Rumor had it that the 1909 fire might have been caused by arson, there had been a bitter 13-month strike at the mill and sabotage was suspected.
The fire that destroyed the mill started in the Dock engine shop around noon and by the time first responders arrived, it was described as a seething inferno from end to end. The heat was so intense that firefighters could not get close enough to use their equipment on the huge 240×90-foot main building. The fire quickly spread to other buildings as a brisk wind blew sparks toward Hope Valley. The original brick mill building across the river caught fire and burned to the ground.
Sparks ignited a number of dwellings but with a desperate effort only one home was lost. Many homes were saved by spreading wet mattresses and carpets on the roofs. The clock in the tower of the mill struck one o’clock and then fell into the flames. The fire was a national story at the time and it portrayed Hope Valley as being almost completely wiped out.
A few weeks later Gordon called. “I know a guy whose grandfather worked with Herman Dock and he’s got an actual Dock Engine at his shop in Pawcatuck.” This was news. Gordon filled me in on Skip Thavenet whose grandfather, John Thavenet, had worked with Herman Dock and started the Thavenet Machine Company in 1921. The engine had been sitting in a corner of Skip’s shop since 1950.
“When can we go?” I asked. I then called Joe Soares and he agreed to meet us there.
Stay tuned for part 2!