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Posts from the ‘Blackstone River Valley’ Category

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?

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.

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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