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Posts from the ‘entrepreneurship’ Category

Further Up the River: Boom and Bust

Readers know that the story of the Blackstone River has been a major focus of my work over the past year or so.  Much like the Quabbin Reservoir area, I find the mix of nature, history and environmental struggle compelling.  For first time callers, the Blackstone River runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island, a span of just under 50 miles.  The fact that it falls 500 feet along the way created the story of the River as resource, place of exploitation, place of growth, place of social change, place of pollution, place of neglect and place of beauty.  That’s quite a list I know, but I do believe it is actually a rather conservative list.

The Blackstone River was the home of the industrial revolution in the United States, beginning just after the signing of the Constitution.  Entrepreneurs powered mill after mill with the falling water.  The landscape changed from agrarian to industrial.  Massive numbers of workers and their families came to work in those mills from all over the Europe as well as Canada.  Times were good for many.  Global competition intervened and the factories moved.  Jobs were lost and the river was left as a dumping ground.  It became a poster child for the Clean Water Act and since the Act’s signing, the quality of the water is improving, albeit slowly.  To those of you who have read the same material before, sorry for the review session.  Now we move on.

We recently took another journey with our friends from Blackstone River Cruises, this time along the stretch of the River that runs through northern Woonsocket, Rhode Island.  The era of the mills began south of here in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but this is where that era exploded, before imploding.  The River as it runs through Woonsocket was home to some of the largest mills in the United States.  The River also flooded here, repeatedly, sometimes with devastating results.  As you cruise along the River, you can see the history of nature and man and their impact here.  I think it’s useful just to absorb the scene before drawing conclusions, so I start with the River itself.

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The River is quite lovely, especially on a day like this.  In the background you can see the industrial past and present.  Looking more closely, you’ll see that the River has been “channeled.”

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Rock has been placed along long stretches of the river bank on both sides by the Corps of Engineers.  That river bank is not supposed to move in the wake of a flood event.  Other actions by the Corps, the opening and closing of flood gates, are meant to control the water level.

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The abandoned mills pre-date the rock channeling, but not the flooding.  When a mill is flooded, jobs are lost, sometimes thousands of them.  The Alice Mill was once the largest rubber factory in the world, built in 1889 and continued to function as a rubber factory until the 1960’s with a few interruptions.  After its main activity ceased, efforts were made to repurpose the building, but it burned, as abandoned mills tend to, in 2011.

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The former homes of the families who worked in these mills are still readily apparent along the River.

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Parts of Woonsocket are quite nice, but the city payed a high price for the experience of boom and bust.

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Further north, in spite of the rock channeling, nature is making a comeback as it always does when left to its own devices.

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One problem we face is understanding the impact of actions that can take hundreds of years to play out.  We’re not terribly patient as a rule.  Boom and bust appears from this vantage point to be a hard way to go.

Photoessay: The Blackstone River and Route 146

I’ve mentioned here that my current project focus is on the Blackstone River.  For those who don’t know, the Blackstone flows from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island.  It’s strategic importance as a source of power led to rather extreme levels of both entrepreneurship and exploitation spanning nearly two hundred years.  It remains in content with humanity even as interest in its natural potential grows.  That tension is most acutely visible, to me at least, along a two mile stretch of the river in Millbury and Worcester, Massachusetts. There the River contents with a super highway and a very active freight railroad line.  Being in the city, it also contends with city life and the best and worst that the city existence has to offer.  Here’s a portfolio of images from my travels there over the past year.

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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.