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Posts from the ‘Blackstone River Valley’ Category

Holding Back the Waters

With every tick of the clock it seems our ignoring of climate change becomes more menacing.  Climate change isn’t coming of course, it’s here.  At this rate, it appears that we may well not act in time to prevent the rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change from significantly altering our shores and our lives.   At the risk of sounding quite pessimistic, what’s known as “mitigation,” lessening the impact of climate change rather than preventing it, will almost certainly have to play a role.   Who will likely play a critical role in that event, at least in the U.S.?  You may or may not like the answer:  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a leading contender.  We heard a lot about them during the lead up to and recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Their presence in the South and along the Mississippi is well known, but what about New England.? Much like climate change, the Corps of Engineers isn’t coming, they are already here, big time.  Their role is largely focused on helping to prevent serious flooding.  Their surprisingly heavy, in my view, involvement in just the Blackstone Valley may offer some insight into what their activities will look like.  Keep in mind that that these examples are just a few out of many many activities in which the Corps is engaged.

The Blackstone River travels from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island.  Along the way, it falls about 500 feet.  That fall involves the release of a considerable kinetic energy.  It can easily turn a mill’s water wheels and provide sufficient power for major industrial activity.  The Blackstone was the site of America’s first textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The River also floods, routinely.  Some of those floods have been extremely damaging, resulting in the loss of life and tremendous loss of property.  That’s been the focus of much of the Corps work.

The impact, present and future, of their work was brought home to me when we visited Woonsocket Falls dam, in November of 2018.  To begin the story, here’s what we saw on a previous visit, in July 2017.  hunt_170716__1000279-edit

Suitable for fishing though I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  Actually the image below is from August 2016, same location.  Our friendly heron was taking her time, the water was very low, just the right height for a relaxed afternoon fishing expedition.

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Fast forward to November, it looked like this (the video is 45 seconds):

If you’re looking in on a mobile device and don’t see the video click here.

A bit more impressive, you’d have to agree.  The River is capable of significant variations in its height and flow.  This was after a wet fall, but it can, and may become, a whole lot wetter.  This dam was built after a serious, life threatening flood in 1955.  The volatility of the River has drawn the interest of the Corps of Engineers all along it’s route.  The gates you see can be raised or lowered to control the flow of the River.  The dam cleverly also supplies hydroelectric power.

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Just a bit north of the dam, you can see how the River was “channeled” by the Corps.  The channeling also helps maintain human control of the River.  However, channeling also inhibits the natural exchange processes between the River and the shore, processes which can help restore a river, among other things.

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The channeling runs through the City of Woonsocket, as well as in quite a few other populated  and industrial areas.

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At the other end of the River, in Millbury, Massachusetts, you’ll see the large Diversion Channel.  The Channel connects with the River and which normally looks like this (below).  It was dug in the late 1940’s again in response to flooding in the City of Worcester and surrounding towns.  Normally its nearly empty.

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After our wet fall in 2018, it looked like this (below).  The Channel acts like a temporary reservoir, a place for excess water to go rather than flowing into city streets.

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Diversion strategies like this take a lot of land.  There’s a larger diversion area along one of the tributaries of the River, the West River, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

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If the River moves toward flood stage, flood gates in the dam below are closed storing water, allowing the water level to fall gently over time.

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The dam itself is 2500 feet long.  Behind the dam is a large stretch of protected land, over 500 acres that is largely managed as a park (by the National Park Service).

It is striking how many resources are already going into holding back the water.  Again, this is only a small fraction of what is taking place, largely unnoticed.  That is not to criticize the work done by the Corps.  Much of it, at least in New England, is done to protect life and limb. If you’d like a more comprehensive run down, click here.

But, this is a big deal, one that is very expensive.   The projected budget for 2019 is on the order of 4.75 billion dollars.  Intervening in nature can also be very problematic, as the citizens of New Orleans and environs know.  The management of the Mississippi River is perhaps even more problematic.  We may be headed for the need to greatly expand their work, by a very large margin.  Prevention or mitigation?

I’ll close with a couple of images from a “wall,” also constructed by the Corps, that actually does some good.  These are the massive hurricane wall and gates that protect the City of Providence from flooding.

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Mills and Dams – The Bernat Mill

Chris, my wife, remembers going to the Bernat Mill store in Uxbridge, Massachusetts to buy yarn.  She certainly isn’t alone.  If you were into knitting, that was what you did in this area.  At one point, the mill was the third largest yarn mill in the U.S.  (Note, the brand still exists and is in use by another yarn manufacturer, Bernat.)  The mill itself had a long and exemplary career in the Blackstone River Valley.  The first iteration of the Mill was built there in 1820 by John Capron.  Why that location?  Falling water.   This is the current dam along the Mumford River that creates Capron Pond.  It’s quite a lovely place with a very nice park, a nice place to think, or have a picnic.

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Capron evolved to the Backman Uxbridge Worsted Company.  They were the first manufacturers to utilize power loops in the U.S., a staggering change moving the industrial revolution forward.  Their ability to engage in mass production doubtlessly lead to their ability to land contracts for the production of Civil War uniforms, World War One Khakis and World War Two U.S. Army uniforms.  Those familiar with the U.S. Air Force dress blue uniform can take note, it was probably manufactured in that mill.  That blue was chosen from the Backman Uxbridge catalogue.

As it did with so many large manufacturers in the Valley, the bust stormed into town in the form of international competition, technological change and an aging plant.   In 1964 the assets were sold to the Bernat Company which refocused the mill on yarns.  As manufacturing declined, the mill was repurposed over time in what was actually a very successful conversion.  The class mill repurposing involves creating small spaces for retail, office and creative studios.  They must have worked quite hard on the conversion because by the night of July 21, 2007, something like 400,000 square feet which had been devoted to manufacture was productively employed by numerous small businesses.  Hundreds were employed there.  Unfortunately, that night and for several subsequent days the mill burned.

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Hundreds of firefighters fought the blaze.  The complex was almost completely destroyed.  Most of the businesses, worth millions, were lost.  There are I would stress still a number of businesses remaining in a portion of the mill complex, but nothing like the number there prior to the fire.

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The damage is still stunningly visible.  Government on several levels planned to help but those plans seem to have floundered.  This is of course not the first mill to burn in the Blackstone Valley.  Many of those mills absorbed a century or more of a variety of chemicals.  Some thought the fire at the Bernat Mill was almost inevitable.  The bust of an economic surge, particularly one that lasted as long as large scale manufacturing in the Blackstone Valley is extraordinarily difficult to manage.  These were very big businesses, not just for their time, but for any time.

“Under the Highway” at ArtsWorcester – Hanover Theater

I want to give a major thanks to ArtsWorcester, the cultural hub for emerging artists in Central Massachusetts, for the opportunity to present a solo exhibition of my work in the Franklin Square Gallery at the Hanover Center.  I’ve posted about the exhibition, “Under the Highway:  Blackstone River Landscapes,” recently but the opening was held on the evening of June 27th.  It was a terrific evening bringing together a wonderful combination of folks interested in the arts and the environment.  In particular, I want to thank Juliet Feibel, Executive Director who took the chance on staging the exhibition and guided everything from start to finish, Kate Rasche, Program Manager who got it done in the trenches, Tim Johnson, Art Preparator who hung the exhibition and Alice Dillon from Clark University who wrote a nice piece on the exhibition for visitors who stop by over the next four months.  The hanging of an exhibition as many of you probably know is an art in and of itself.   If the exhibition is not properly hung, including aesthetically hung, the individual pieces of art lose much of their impact.  It’s very hard work to hang an exhibition.  I know my limitations and Tim will never get any competition from me.

Typically, it’s helpful to get your name in the paper, though these days I’m not always so sure.  But there were two nice pieces in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, pre and post opening.  Press and pictures from the Opening can be seen at that link.  Nancy Sheehan from the Telegram also wrote her very interesting take on the exhibition which she titled, “What nature has given us” which you can also check out by clicking on the link.  Thanks to the Telegram for supporting the arts with their coverage.

I have to throw in a another more general plug for ArtsWorcester.  As a business person for too many years, my eyes and ears are always assessing how a business is run.  Do they know what they are trying to do and do they provide a well orchestrated operation for getting it done.  ArtsWorcester gets high marks on all counts even though they are not a large organization.  I’ve worked with quite a few galleries over the years, and many of them are pretty shaky on both mission and execution.  As some of you may also know, ArtsWorcester has just had a very successful fund raising campaign in a very short period of time.  When donors are willing to vote with their wallets, something good is happening.

Finally, thanks to everyone who attended.  Your support means so much.

What the River Sees, Blackstone River- 2016

“Under the Highway” Exhibition in Worcester

Falls Under the Highway, Blackstone River - 2015

EXHIBITION OPENING AT THE FRANKLIN SQUARE GALLERY, HANOVER THEATER, JUNE 27, 6 – 8PM.  ARTIST TALK AT 6:15.  REFRESHMENTS WILL BE SERVED!

I’m happy to report that an exhibition of my work from the Blackstone River will be opening at the Franklin Square Gallery at the Hanover Theater in Worcester, Massachusetts on June 27.  The exhibition is produced by ArtsWorcester and I’m eternally grateful for this opportunity.

The exhibition works were taken along the Blackstone River Bikeway, in Millbury and Worcester, Massachusetts.  The Bikeway, which is an even better walking trail, was created during Worcester’s “Little Dig,” i.e. the reconstruction of Route 146, around 2000.  I have been fascinated by the anxious beauty there since I first explored the Path in 2013.  One can see the interaction of the River, the highway and the railroad, and society in the context of an urban park.

What the River Sees, Blackstone River- 2016

The River is both beautiful and long suffering.  The bikeway was created as part of an effort to celebrate and restore the River through the establishment of the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor.  The Blackstone has enormous historical significance as the engine of entrepreneurship in the new United States in the late 1700’s.  Enormous wealth was created, thousands were employed, but the River was taken for granted.  As I’ve described here previously, the River became one of the most polluted rivers in the country.  Now, many folks are trying to help the River and the surrounding areas, but it’s tough going.  I hope the exhibition contributes to raising awareness of the hidden beauty of the River even in this seemingly hostile environment, celebrating the work that’s gone into trying to help the River and at the same time demonstrating the ever present possibility that we could take our environment for granted at any moment.

Railroad Bridge, Diversion Canal - 2015

The Anthropocene

Relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.  

Have we crossed into a new geological and biological epoch?  Perhaps.  There is some debate as to when humans began to overpower the earth, at least the surface 1% of it.  Global warming has only been on the radar screen, for most of us, for a few decades.  Some scholars though date the anthropocene from the onset of the industrial revolution, and perhaps even the dawn of agriculture thousands of years ago.

Traveling around the Blackstone River Valley of central Massachusetts, one gets the definite sense that it’s been going on for a while.  I’ve been immersed in issues related to sustainability for the past year or so as part of my work at Babson College.  This valley, where I now live, reveals an interesting story of the industrial revolution and its impact, one that I will be talking and photographing more about over the next several years.

I’ll with just a simple image of a rather iconic location in the Valley,  the dam at the Mumford River that created the mill ponds that powered Whitin Machine Works.

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The Whitin Machine Works was founded in 1831.  It ultimately became one of the largest textile machinery factories in the world, employing over 5000 people at its peak in the late 1940’s.  It’s been out of business since 1976, victim of changing business conditions.  Obviously, here, there was an impact on the environment, though nothing we aren’t used to seeing.  Perhaps not such a big deal, though we can imagine that the river was ultimately quite polluted. Consider though, courtesy of Google Earth, the bigger picture.

Whitten Machine Works

When I took the first image I was standing on the sidewalk of the roadway you see in the lower right hand corner.  Note how the dam has changed the surrounding geography, for miles.  The dam no longer provides power for the mill, but it shaped a landscape that those in the community came to accept and with which they are now powerfully linked.  The next time you see a dam, consider what’s behind it.  This is one dam.  More to come.

(I want to give full credit to my colleague at Babson College, Professor Joanna Carey, for the fundamental ideas behind this series on dams in New England.)