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Posts from the ‘History’ Category

The Pull of History

One of my favorite books of all time was Time and Again, by the great Jack Finney.  The book tells the story of a young man who with a bit of assistance from the government (clandestine of course) was able to engage in time travel.  No equipment required though.  All he had to do was make himself open to the experience.  Time passes but it doesn’t really pass.  It is still there if we know how to relate to it.  The book’s star was residing, at the request of his coconspirators, at Manhattan’s famous Dakota building.   After quite some time trying to figure out how to be open to the experience, and many false starts, he simply woke up one morning, went outside and it was the later 19th century.  He had taken up the past’s invitation to visit.

It  reminded me of what I try to see when visiting a place with the past.  I do wish I could visit it for real (of course, I’m sure I would have no idea how to cope but what fun is it to think about that). Sometimes you can find a door or at least a window to the past, an object, an artifact, a story, a book.  Walking along what was once the Blackstone Canal ins Uxbridge, MA it’s easy to hear history’s rumblings.  In the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Park you’re walking along the towpath after all.  A team of mules pulled the canal boats along the journey from Worcester to Providence.  If it’s quiet, it is easy to ponder what it was like when the towpath was actually in use, in the early 1800’s.  For me, one of the windows into that state of reverie are the intense reflections that can be seen there on a calm day..  They are intense enough to be disorienting and I offer you a small collection here.  I resisted the temptation to turn them upside down.  You’re welcome.

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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.

Along the Blackstone River – Worcester to River Bend Farm

The Blackstone River project continues though I have no idea where it will lead.  Researching an idea and then getting out in the field is definitely an exciting experience.  The more I find out about the River then more intriguing it becomes.  It makes up in Worcester, the industrial heartland that it helped to create.  This view of Beaver Brook is less than half a mile from my home.

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The white object in the upper left is a mattress.  Fairly random I know.  Beaver Brook joins forces with Middle River about two miles away, to give genesis to the Blackstone itself.  As you can see, there isn’t terribly much left that is natural about Beaver Brook.  Where we’re standing is where the Brook comes out from below ground.  It is tunneled in for around a mile, reappears in Beaver Brook Park off Chandler Street in Worcester and then disappears again.  It would seem that civilization has trumped nature, in this case.  That is the story here I think, the tension and synergy between nature and civilization writ large.

As I said in the previous post, the Blackstone is one of the most polluted Rivers in the U.S., which is saying something.  It was indeed the home of the industrial revolution and it’s 400 plus foot drop from Worcester, Massachusetts to Pawtucket, Rhode Island meant water power.  At Pawtucket, a Mr. Slater founded the first Cotton Mill in the United States, the very first one.  The impact of that bit of industrialization on the entire country cannot be over-stated.  More on that to come.

Nature has reasserted herself though along the way.  Just a bit of research pointed us toward River Bend Farm in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, less than twenty-miles away.  River Bend is actually a state park, managed by the Massachusetts Division of Conservation and Recreation, though it is affiliated with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor which is  under the management of the National Park Service.  It is perhaps ten to fifteen miles long.  It runs along a stretch of the Blackstone River and the Blackstone Canal itself, parts of which at this location are still clearly visible.  This is an image of the Canal from new the Visitor Center there.

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The Canal Barges were propelled, or rather pulled along, by horses that trod along the tow path you can see to the right. In places, the Canal and River intermingle, as seems to be the case here at the Arch Bridge approximately half mile north.

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But what about that 400 foot drop from Worcester to Providence?  The Canal required a series of locks to make the journey possible.  Here is the Goat Hill Lock, one of the few remaining that is still largely visible.

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A barge would enter the lock and a door shut behind it.  There was also a door shut in front.   Water would be pumped out or in to the lock depending upon the direction the barge was heading.  The water level would reach that of the next leg of the journey and the door in front would open, allowing the barge to carry on.  This lock is ten feet wide.  That is not the pathway for flowing water, that is the entire lock, meaning that the barges were all less than ten feet wide.  All that, and it was still cheaper than sending goods over land, evidently considerably cheaper.  The barge then moved ahead into an area of the Canal or River such as this.

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Obviously, no passing in the lock.  However, on the good side, very little need for a GPS.  More to come.

What the Landscape Tells Us

I’ve been working my way through a most interesting book, The Language of Landscape, by design professor and photographer Anne Whiston Spirn.  She is on the faculty at MIT and her work is very scholarly (I like that, but it might serve as a warning to those who don’t).  I will try to capture her point succinctly, though I’m sure I’m damaging it in the process.  The landscape we see is talking with us if we know how to listen.  In fact, the landscape is telling us about itself, its history and the forces that shape the landscape, be they geological, meteorological or human.  Some such stories are authored almost totally by nature, think of the Grand Canyon telling us about the power of the flow of a river.  However, such solely authored works are harder to come by then one might image.

Humanity is often on the cover jacket as well, working with, around, through or co-opting nature as a co-author.  The hand of humanity is obvious in some cases.  The suburban office building and parking lot tell us a story about the economic intent and values of the designers and perhaps the surrounding community, albeit one we might find boring.   Such is not always the case of course.  Sometimes the story is more complex and perhaps more interesting. Sometimes design, even design by humans, can result in something quite unusual.

Thinking like this has helped me take a different approach to some of my photography over the past several years.  In particular, I’ve been hanging around the Winsor Dam and Goodnough Dike, the structures that are largely responsible for holding back the waters of the Swift River and creating the massive Quabbin Reservoir.  The Reservoir, for the new visitor, is the source of drinking water for much of eastern Massachusetts.  It is a marvelous resource that is also surrounded by an accidental wilderness, with wonderful forests and wildlife.  It was created at great sacrifice, particularly for the several thousand people put off the four towns take to create the Reservoir.  As I have said many times here, we should all be thankful for the sacrifice of others.  (If you don’t see the importance of a resource like the Reservoir, Google “Sao Paolo Drought.”  You will see a horrific story of the very rapidly dwindling supply of water in the reservoirs surrounding Brazil’s largest city.  The supply in the main ones is down to around 5 – 10%.  They may run out of water in just a few months.  Twenty million people.  There for but the grace of God and the sacrifice of others…..  But back to my story.)

So the creation of the Reservoir is a complex, sad and wondrous story.   These images were taken on or below the largest of the structures, Winsor Dam, located in Quabbin Park, Belchertown and Ware, Massachusetts.  What is the landscape saying?

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There are I’m sure many answers to the question.  I was talking with a friend the other day, a colleague at Babson who loves to fish in the catch and release area just below the Dam.  I asked him what the Dam looked like to him.  He agreed, it’s not your typical dam.  I’ve been trying to find out the motive behind such an unusual design.  There are many engineering related answers.  An earthen dam makes sense given the location.  There was appropriate soil nearby for the construction of such a dam.  You have to plant grass on the side of an earthen dam and keep trees off of the dam itself.  That part of the story seems very relevant.  But does it explain the way it looks?  In his book, From Valley to Quabbin, author J.R. Greene quotes an article from the Amherst Record, dated October 11, 1946; “This is the Quabbin Reservoir created by  man for utilitarian purposes yet so panned that a great engineering feat has been skillfully blended with nature,” (Greene, 2010, pg. 126, Athol Press).    I suspect the story the landscape here is trying to tell us has more to offer.

Reflections on the Past in Relation to the Present – Thoughts on the Quabbin Reservoir.

I’ll soon be taking down my exhibition, “Constructing Quabbin” which the good folks at the Westborough Massachusetts Public Library were good enough to host for the last three weeks.  The exhibition was sponsored by the Art and Frame Emporium in Westborough, an art and framing store I highly recommend.  In the exhibition are 10 monochrome images of the structures of the Quabbin Reservoir of the present, the Winsor Dam, Goodnough Dike and in juxtaposition, a series of color images of the artifacts of the towns lost to the creation of the Reservoir.    For those new to this blog and not familiar with New England History, the Quabbin Reservoir is a large open reservoir supplying drinking water to approximately two million residents of eastern Massachusetts.  The creation of the Reservoir involved the taking of four towns and the relocation of several thousands residents in the late 1930’s.

It has been a powerful experience for me as an artist.  My artist talk on the evening of August 28 was well attended and received.  Strangely, the setup at the Library provided perhaps the most powerful experience of the evening for me.  The talk took place in the gallery space, so I was busily getting ready when an older gentleman walked in to look around.  I don’t have permission to use his name, but if he should read this, I hope he recognizes himself.  I’m grateful for our short conversation.  It turns out that he lived in one of the four towns that was lost in the creation of the Reservoir, as a child.  I’ve posted an image here of the Dana Common School House cellar hole and that image hangs in the exhibition.  He went to that School.  We wandered around the images together.  He shared some of his memories of the construction of the Dam and the Dike and what it was like to be on the land as it depopulated.  He seemed to think that it was important that the story of the Quabbin be remembered.  There are of course many other artists and historians working at just that, so I’m hardly unique.  I’ll just speak here as an artist, but to me it is clear that each photograph or image created represents something about the way the artist experiences the Reservoir, and its history.  It is a complex set of feelings.  I don’t think that the matter is every settled, at least it isn’t for me.

I remain impressed by the engineering that created the Reservoir and its apparent effort to somehow come to grips with the wonderful hills and water that provide the context for that engineering.  It is not your average Dam and Dike.

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This is from the west end of the Winsor Dam.  I often wonder about the mind-set of those who designed these structures.  What kind of signal were they trying to send about themselves and their understanding of what was happening.  It is probably worthy of note that Frank Winsor, namesake of the Dam and the Dam’s Chief Engineer, died on the witness stand during one of the many law suits that were provoked by the Dam’s construction.

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He created a beautiful park.  Was that his intention?  We will never know for sure of course.  It is almost as though there are hints if you look hard enough.  My wife and I were hiking at the base of the Dam a few weeks ago, and noticed something in a large clump of trees just to the right of the lone tree you see above.

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A stone marker.  Of course stone markers are hardly surprising in New England, they are everywhere.  Obviously, we took a closer look.  I had to use some flash to bring out a bit of contrast in the carving on the stone.

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That’s a W.  It stands for west perhaps?  On the other side, with the help of more flash and extreme cropping:

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That is an E.  East and west?  My compass app settled the matter.  It was not east and west.  It quickly struck us that this may have been a boundary marker between the towns of Enfield and Ware. (Enfield was one of the four towns that was taken and was unincorporated in 1938.  The town of Ware still exists.)  We checked at the Administration Building and sure enough, that was the case.  Why was it left there?  They didn’t know.  They speculated that perhaps it was just too much trouble to remove.  Perhaps.  This was at the base of what was at the time one of the largest engineering projects the world had ever seen.  I would guess they had the ability to take it away if they choose to do so.

It will soon be time for me to move onto other projects I think.  I wonder if I’ll ever find a project quite so compelling.  We’ll see.  I am not sure I accomplished what I had hoped, so perhaps I’ll keep trying.  The reconciliation of past and present is always a challenge.  Several years back I stumbled upon what to me is the best effort I have seen to date and it was in the form of a prayer.  The Reverend John S. Curtis offered this prayer at the Congregational Parish in Enfield as the parishioners met for the final time on June 26, 1938.

“We thank thee O Lord for these hills, from whence our strength has come.  We thank thee for the valleys that lie between the hills; and the streams and lakes that have brought life and beauty, recreation and industry to those who have dwelt here, and visitors from near and far.  We thank thee for the countryside with its farms and fruit and fertility.  We thank thee for the pleasant villages and hamlets scattered through this area.  We thank thee for the homes that have meant so much to the people who have dwelt here; and, from which have gone many to gladness, bless and enable the world far and near.  We are grateful for those who elected to stay in this valley and make its history.  We are proud of their achievements and the things that they have inspired others to perform.  We thank thee for those who have endured to the end, have not allowed religious services to cease nor faith to falter.  And now, as we look into the future, may we not allow distrust to blind us or disappointment to embitter us, but may we, with the sublime faith of the Psalmist say; ‘I will fear no evil for thou art with me.’  Amen.”

(Courtesy Ware River News, June 29, 1938 located with the assistance of author J.R. Greene.  You will find Mr. Greene’s documentation of the prayer in his book, From Valley to Quabbin, p. 45, Athol Press, Athol, MA.)