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The Dams of the Blackstone Watershed

The Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island was, and still is, very heavily dammed.  Counting its tributaries it’s easy to find a dam nearly every mile or so along its path down to the sea.  The River falls nearly 500 feet along the way and was the river of choice for textile mill builders in the late 1700’s and 1800’s.  It is considered to be the energy for the dawn of the industrial revolution in the U.S. (beating the Merrimack River by a couple of decades).  I’m currently teaching a course titled “Unintended Consequences:  at the Interface of Business and the Environment,” at Babson College.  I’m very fortunate to be joined in this effort by Professor Joanna Carey, an environmental scientist.  It became very clear early on that she sees a river in a very different way than I, even though I’m also an environmentalist.  To her, a river if far more alive and dynamic.  The dams of the Blackstone River and watershed play a crucial role in the course.  They have changed nearly everything about our landscape.

I wanted to capture a bit of the sense of these dams for our students, most of whom have never set foot in the Blackstone Valley, though we’re about to bring them out.   I initially thought I should really have used a drone for this, but there’s a problem with that approach.  I don’t fly drones.  Then I realized that there is something about these dams that is particularly New England, at least to me.  Their scale is different.  In spite of their impact, which is massive, they tend to be much more approachable, more intimate.  T’hey remind me in some ways of the dams at the Quabbin Reservoir which though massive, are also very approachable.

If you’re on a mobile device the embed may not work.  You can see the video here.

These dams powered numerous textile mills, changed the landscape, and created beautiful ponds.  Some played a role in the expansion of slavery (for another post, but yes, it’s true).  Most impeded the work of the rivers involved by stopping the movement of sediment, and fish.  Some will be removed, though I suspect many won’t.  It’s just too costly.  Dam removal impacts both property values and in some cases can release centuries of pollution.  Perhaps what’s done is done.  Human impacts can be irrevocable.

Under the Highway

People don’t tend to know what’s going on under the highway.  Neither did I.I had driven over this location for nearly twenty years before I looked. I’ve mentioned this area before, this is near the head of the Blackstone River in Worcester and Millbury, Massachusetts.  The River winds, looking rather tepid at times, along beside the Providence and Worcester Railroad tracks and under Route 146, the main highway that also, like the River, goes from Worcester to Providence.  Beside the River there also winds a Bikeway, part of the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor.  The Bikeway is lovely in most spots, down here, it is more interesting.  Here’s a short journey.  (My apologies, if you are on a mobile device, you probably can’t see the embedded video directly.  However, go here, and you’ll be able to have a look.)

I’m grateful to have found my way down there, with Chris’s accompaniment of course.  FYI, the sounds you here are the combination of falling water and the echo chamber effect from the semi’s going by overhead.

I find this location to offer a powerful look into the quandary that is our relationship with nature.This is in fact a very beautiful river further south.  It has its own beauty here.But, it also been abused for several centuries.  Now there is a real interest in cleaning it up, and that is happening.  But you can’t go back in time, you can’t reset the clock.  The question is I think, what can we learn from our shared experience?

Working with Color Infrared

This is a technical post, which I never do, so apologies in advance.  I’m actually fairly enthusiastic about some recent developments that I wanted to share.  I have never enjoyed my only rather mundane efforts with color infrared images.  They never looked right to me, only somewhat “cooked” in digital photo parlance.  As such, I typically convert them to black and white and sometimes am pleased with the results.  I”ve been working with a new process for the past several months, and actually published a few results on my previous Earth Day blog.  I have continued to experiment and been relatively happy with the results so I thought it might be useful to share a few details.

The story begins with an e-mail from Kolarivision (my new Infrared camera conversion company with which I am quite pleased) regarding a course they were recommending.  Perhaps bored at the time, I thought I’d give it a try.   The name of the course is Creative Light and Infrared.  You can find out the details about the course here.    I’ll stress up front that I am not a paid endorser for this group, F64 Academy, have never met them, nor talked with them, ever.

The course offers an in-depth exploration of the digital infrared post production process, along with several  accompanying and quite useful tools.  If you’ve done any infrared photography, you know that there are a few significant challenges you face in post production, particularly with color.  The biggest one is that the white balance setting you use in the camera likely won’t hold once you bring an image into your average photo editing program.  It goes all red or at least mostly so.  Worse yet, most photo editing programs don’t have enough range in their white balance settings to be able to fix the problem.  Second, if you’re interested in color infrared images it can be most helpful to effect a “channel swap”, coverting the red channel to blue and the blue channel to red.  I’ve known that for years, but like many photographers was never, ever satisfied with the results.  Adding insult to injury, if you get an image to actually work for you, it is hard to replicate it.

The course walks you through the process of creating a Lightroom/Camera Raw profile that you can apply to your images and effect a nice looking white balance.  In addition, the course provides a set of LUTS that layer on top of the correctly balanced image that will offer you various different channel swapped looks, including looks that are fairly photorealistic. Finally, the course ships with an extensive panel of actions for use inside photoshop, as well as detailed instructions for their use.

So enough with the jargon.  These are from my work with mills in the Blackstone River Valley of Central Massachusetts.  The first two are of the Bernat Mill in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.  The mill burned in 2007.  The last is from the Wilkinsonville Mill in Sutton, Massachusetts.  Wilkinson was an associate of Samual Slater, the first builder of mills in the Blackstone Valley.Hunt_190509__DSC0572-Edit-2Hunt_190509__DSC0576-Edit_DSC0802-Edit-2

This is still a work in process as you can see, but my interest hasn’t flagged so far.  One of the most interesting aspects of photographic work is the almost never ending opportunities for learning that you can stumble across.  Courses like this aren’t cheap, and some are duds.  This one was helpful.  Of course, YMMV.

 

Earth Day Greetings

My work in the Blackstone Valley of central Massachusetts and Rhode Island constantly reminds me of the tension between human activity and the environment.  Tension of course can lead to both positive and negative results, on occasion simultaneously.  We visited the Blackstone Gorge yesterday, and tried to picnic at the Roaring (or Rolling, depends on who you ask) Dam.  It’s a beautiful spot.  There’s been a dam here since the early 1800’s.  The purpose of the dam was to create a power supply for the explosion of textile mills built along the banks of the Blackstone River.  The mills are long gone.  The water is getting cleaner thanks to the work of many citizens, communities and various government agencies.  But the sediment, the dirt under the River, is still toxic in many places.  Removing the sediment will be enormously expensive.  Perhaps too expensive.  But we’re left with the water’s beauty.  A good deal?  Perhaps a good lesson.

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What Next?

I live in the Blackstone Valley of central Massachusetts which continues into Rhode Island.  I’ve written here about the Valley in previous posts.  I love it here for many reasons, but one of which is that history is so visible, nearly everywhere.  That’s a feeling I appreciate.  I grew up near Williamsburg, Virginia.  You could drive to the historic region there and if you could find a place to park, you could walk right out onto Duke of Gloucester St., and back into time, at no charge (then, not sure now).  By that time, the 1960’s, Williamsburg had been fixed up, restored as it were to its former architecture.  In the early 1900’s you would have seen the same buildings, but not in nearly so pristine condition.

The historical artifacts of the Blackstone Valley lie somewhere along that continuum.  Those artifacts, specifically mills, or we what might be more generally termed factories, stand out from the otherwise rural or suburban landscape.  The mills were built along the Blackstone River or one of its tributaries.  They were located to take maximum advantage of the flow of the rivers and their ability to turn water wheels.   Those water wheels connected to the machines that for the most part spun and weaved cotton and wool fabrics.  The connections involved elaborate sets of gears and belts.  The mills were usually built up, not out, in order to create a more compact operation and take advantage of the strengths of such power systems.  The industrial revolution in the United States began here, in the late 1700’s.  The textile industry boomed, creating considerable wealth.  In the twentieth century though, the industry largely succumbed to competition first from the southern U.S. and then from off shore.  The businesses located in the mills ultimately failed or moved, for the most part.  The mills and the ancestors of those that worked in them (and didn’t relocate) remained.

It can be pleasantly jarring to drive along a relatively rural street, or walk through an old New England style center of town, and suddenly come upon a mill or what is left of one.  They were frequently quite large.  Not as large as those built along the Merrimack River in northeastern Massachusetts, but impressive nevertheless.  Some have burned (one hundred years of toxins can set the stage for quite a fire).  Some sit idle and some have been repurposed to mix use or most successfully it appears, as housing.

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Uxbridge, Massachusetts

 

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Hopedale, Massachusetts

 

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Hopedale, Massachusetts

 

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island

 

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Woonsocket, Rhode Island

 

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South Grafton, Massachusetts

 

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Providence, Rhode Island

 

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Whitinsville, Massachusetts

 

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Ashton, Rhode Island

 

The mills tell a story that highlights the power of economic development.  These are just buildings though.  Obviously there’s more to the story.