If you’re in the Boston area, I want to invite you to the opening of my exhibition, “Deindustrialization,” taking place Thursday evening, November 7 from 5 – 7 PM. The exhibition consists of twelve large scale portraits of textile mills from the Blackstone Valley region of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. There will be an artist talk shortly after 5, mingling, and I believe free food! The opening will take place on the campus of Babson College, in the Hollister Gallery. Directions are here.
I want to thank BabsonArts and Associate Director Danielle Krcmar for making this all possible. This work was sponsored in part through a sabbatical grant from Babson College, for which I’m also most grateful. The work was printed on metal, an amazing process, by the wonderful folks at Blazing Editions . Working with them and more specifically Juliette Pascale was a joy. The results were stunning.
On another note, this exhibition is really a bit less of a celebration and more of a remembrance. The industrial revolution in the U.S. and indeed around the world, a revolution that is still going on in many places, brought with it a tremendous upsurge in wealth. At the same time, it brought with it massive sacrifices on the part of those who did the work and the communities in which these mills were built.
The raw materials for the cotton mills prior to the U.S. Civil War were farmed by enslaved workers kidnapped from Africa. Even after the Civil War the combination of share cropping arrangements and terror enforced by organizations like the KKK imposed the most severe hardships on those involved. Working conditions in the mills, though not as bad as one would find in England at the time were extremely harsh. The environmental degradation that occurred because of the mill industrial waste and the repeated damming of the rivers of the Blackstone Valley is still with us today.
At the same time, mill employment helped to create, at least in part, a melting pot, bringing people together from much of the world, into what became in many places a real community. Some of those communities still exist today as well. The boom and bust phenomena, a phenomena which continues unabated, is ultimately a harsh developmental path for our society.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
South Grafton, Massachusetts
Providence, Rhode Island
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.