The year was 1912.
The doomed RMS Titanic steamed across the icy North Atlantic.
Buck O’Brien threw the first pitch in Fenway Park, the new baseball stadium that became home to the Red Sox in Boston.
And Coca-Cola arrived in Providence, when 921 barrels of concentrated syrup arrived at a new bottling plant on Fountain Street.
The beverage had been in the city — and around the state — before, available at soda fountains, where it would be made to order one soda at a time. But 1912 was the first year that Coke syrup was mixed with carbonated water and put into bottles in Rhode Island for mass distribution, according to John Holahan, general manager of Coca-Cola Beverages Northeast’s Providence facility.
Thirst for the sugary, bubbly liquid exploded, and the company moved to Smith Street in 1917.
In 1937, the company announced plans to build a state-of-the art facility at West Park Street and Pleasant Valley Parkway. The building was estimated to cost between $200,000 and $300,000 to build.
By the time it was equipped and opened in 1938, it was touted as a “million-dollar plant.” (A million dollars then would be worth about $19 million now.)
Inset into bricks on the side of the building, “Coca-Cola” is carved into stone in the company’s familiar Spencerian script. Flanking the famous logo, also carved in stone, are two six-ounce Coke bottles in the patented “hobble skirt” design.
(Yes, people were once satisfied that a single serving of coke was six ounces, not the 20-ounce bottle widely preferred in the 21st century.)
Windows along the side of the building allowed passersby to watch the seemingly never-ending line of bottles moving through the production line.
And Rhode Islanders of a certain age will fondly recall school field trips that ended with a free sample. (Teachers will probably be less fond of memories of the bus ride back to school with kids amped up on sugar and caffeine.)
Bottling operations ceased in Providence in 1986, when plastic bottles had joined the classic glass ones, according to Holahan.
But that didn’t mean the Providence plant was mothballed. Just the opposite.
Around the same time, the company nuilt an addition, increasing warehouse space from 28,000 square feet to 105,000 square feet.
That’s enough to hold 370,000 cases of beverages. And it’s not just Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola Beverages Northeast, which acquired the Providence facility in 2017 during a nationwide realignment and consolidation of Coke franchisees, distributes 150 brands from this warehouse. That includes top sellers such as Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero, Sprite, Orange Fanta, Dr. Pepper and Vanilla Coke.
Other brands distributed from there include Monster Energy, Smart Water, Powerade, Vitamin Water, Body Armour, Canada Dry, Gold Peak Tea, Honest Tea and Yoo-Hoo.
The warehouse even carries what is a region favorite, primarily popular in Maine: Moxie.
“Moxie may be one of the slower movers,” Holahan said.
The warehouse holds a 9- to 10-day supply during slower months; about a seven-day supply during the summer.
The warehouse distributes to the Providence area, which Holahan defined as Rhode Island Coventry and north, and Massachusetts north to Bellingham and East to New Bedford and Fairhaven. Southern Rhode Island is served by a facility in Connecticut.
The Providence territory historically was smaller, when bottling plants operated in Woonsocket and in New Bedford.
“The territories were generally how far a horse could deliver on one day,” said Holahan, who added that Coca-Cola reverted to horse-drawn wagons to deal with the rationing of World War II.
Coca-Cola Beverages Northeast distributes to New England and Upstate New York. It is headquartered in Bedford, New Hampshire.
The Providence facility has 213 employees, a number that has not fluctuated much during the coronavirus pandemic, Holahan said. As restaurant sales slacked off during lockdowns, sales at grocery stores and other markets kept pace with the difference, he said.
The day starts early at the warehouse, as 25 to 30 truck drivers prepare to cover their delivery routes.
“Trucks are on the road every day at 5 a.m.,” Holahan said.
Twenty or more trucks arrive throughout the day, delivering beverages bottled at plants in Londonderry, New Hampshire; Hartford, Connecticut; Northampton, Massachusetts; and New Jersey, beverages that will be distributed in the Providence territory.
Barcodes on each arriving pallet of beverages — a pallet holds 96 cases of 12-packs — are scanned so workers can track where they are stored and can find them in the event of a recall.
When its time to load cases onto trucks, the barcodes will be called into service again as workers who are “picking” products will be guide via headset to aisles and bins where the beverage needed to fill an order can be found.
Each afternoon, the trucks return from their routes. They are swept out and loaded with more beverages to be ready from the morning.
The day ends with a sense of accomplishment, plus a little more, Holahan said.
“It’s a feeling of continuity, knowing you get to do it the next day,” he said. “We’ve always felt that we’re entrusted a responsibility to keep the brand going.”