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Posts from the ‘History’ 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.

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.