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A Most Beautiful Battery

From art back into history and the environment….

As we dig into the story of the Blackstone River and Canal a bit more, it becomes that much more interesting. The Canal ran parallel to the River for most of the River’s length and only actually utilized the River as a resource in those places, few in number, where the River was navigable. The Canal ran from Worcester, MA to Pawtucket, RI and was a key means of transportation at a time when transportation was more than a bit challenging.  However, the Canal itself only operated for a relatively brief period of time, from 1828 till 1848, twenty short years.  Canal transportation was disrupted as a technology by the new high tech rage:  the railroad.  The trains began to run from Worcester to Providence in 1835 and in just a few short years the Canal was no longer financially viable.  That is a relatively short life cycle for such an expensive engineering project, costing at it’s construction $750,000. The Canal fell into disrepair in relatively short order.

One of the best places to see the Canal is the River Bend Farm, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, now operated by the National Park Service.  When we first visited, the still water was striking, offering some of the best forest reflections I’ve ever seen.

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It is really quite stunning all along the old Canal.  It is also, however, quite pristine, leading to the assumption that it had been spruced up by the National Park Service.  That’s true, but there’s more to the story than that.  The Canal had been repurposed in the early 20th Center, converting it into a rather significant source of stored energy, a giant battery if you will.  About one mile north of the visiting center is a Dam diverting water from the River into what was at that a time a rebuilt Canal. The height of the walls was increased to allow for the storage of more water.  Moving further south from the Visitor’s center, about one mile, one finds evidence of it’s alternative purpose.

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These turbines are part of a complex power generation scheme designed ultimately to run the Stanley Woolen Mill in Uxbridge.

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Water from the Canal ran directly into the factory to turn the looms and related machinery.

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It must have been an impressive project, suggestive of some very visionary thinking, along with some very deep pockets.  The Mills continued on at this location until 1988, a much longer run than the Canal.  The story is an interesting tale of entrepreneurship.  Entrepreneurs often create products or services that are intended for one thing, but end up being far more valuable for another.  Think iPhone turns into camera.  Certainly not what I would have predicted.  The Canal was intended for transportation but it ended up facilitating the industrial revolution in the United States.  This of course involved massive exploitation of resources resulting in wealth creation, jobs, and environmental damage.  Note that this source of energy was, in fact, renewable.  That’s good right, but in fact damming a river even for useful power also has its consequences.  The owners of the Mill created a giant and now beautiful battery, but the truth remains.  There’s no free lunch.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sandra #

    Very beautiful and interesting. I had a Blackstone River bus tour with our Audubon class, and this collection helps me remember the importance — especially to the industrial revolution, I think — of this river. Thank you.

    May 25, 2015
  2. Thank you Sandra. It’s another one of those places that doesn’t draw much attention, though it should.

    June 8, 2015

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