All images from Broadmore, Audubon Society, South Natick, Massachusetts, Fall 2017.
I want to thank my friends at the Art and Frame Emporium in Westborough, Massachusetts for hosting a small exhibition of my series, “Lost in the Water” through November 8. You’ll also be able to check out a very affordable folio of images from the show. If you need direction, hit the link above.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The former homes of the families who worked in these mills are still readily apparent along the River.
Parts of Woonsocket are quite nice, but the city payed a high price for the experience of boom and bust.
Further north, in spite of the rock channeling, nature is making a comeback as it always does when left to its own devices.
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.
I’m honored to have had two images chosen by the Blackstone Heritage Corridor and National Park Service for inclusion in their 2018 Calendar. Both are from the River Bend Farm National Heritage Corridor in Uxbridge, Massachusetts. I’ve mentioned this location before. This portion of the National Heritage Corridor explores the Blackstone Canal, which was constructed in 1827-28 running from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. The Canal was open for only two decades and was considered a business failure. Inspired by the success of the Erie Canal in New York, the Blackstone Canal was to provide relatively inexpensive and fairly rapid transportation along this developing corridor. It’s history turned out to be torturous as it was initially thought to be a boon for the growing cotton mill industry along the Blackstone River. Soon however, the Mill owners were suing the Canal owners over the use of water from the River. This on the heels of the conflicts between the areas farmers and industrialists over water use.
This section of the Canal has been restored. The tow path runs along the Canal and was used by Ox and Mules to power the boats that navigated the canal. For July:
Both of these images show an unusually wide portion of the Canal which was for the most part extremely narrow. For November:
The work of the National Park Service as well as the states of Rhode Island and Massachusetts here in the Blackstone Corridor helps us to try and grapple with the very complex intersections between the natural environment, entrepreneurship, social policy and social justice that took place and still are in play in the Corridor. As I’ve pointed out, the Blackstone River was one of the Rivers that actually provoked the Clean Water Act, signed by that noted environmentalist, Richard Nixon…(hey, he signed it, so good for him). The lessons from the Corridor are lessons that evolve over hundreds of years. It is not easy for us to understand those lessons for that very reason, but by holding the discussion, we can perhaps make progress.
Yesterday, we had the pleasure of attending the second annual Biodiversity Festival hosted by the Corridor, in Lincoln, Rhode Island. It was inspiring to see so many people, including our wonderful daughter Molly, who are engaged in trying to protect our environment. Molly works at the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District. These folks engage in a wide variety of environmental and educational activities with the goal of protecting the drinking water for a large number of Rhode Island citizens. Drinking water….kind of important I think. One lesson is clear: protect that which is essential to our lives.
The U.S. Clean Water Act was inspired in part by the Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. It was really the home of the industrial revolution in the U.S. because of the 500 foot drop in the River’s elevation between Worcester and Providence. It was dammed no less than 49 times along the way, to create water wheels and power for the many, many mills that began to populate the region in the early 1800’s. That was a long time ago of course and the mills have largely disappeared, chasing cheaper labor first to the south, and then globally. Meanwhile, the River, which was once known as the hardest working river in the U.S. became known as the most polluted. Keep in mind that the Clean Water Act was signed into law by a Republican President. There were other equally polluted rivers of course, but the Blackstone was up there.
Things can change. Out in the River, “rebranded” the Seekonk River at this location for some reason, just south of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, with the RiverTours Blackstone (highly recommended by the way, hit the link if you’re interested) we could see evidence of the change all around us……fish and lots of them. Hard to see at first because of the sand stirred up by the boat, and the fact that I didn’t have a polarizing lens with me to cut down the glare in the water, but they were there.
Their relative invisibility however, was also defensively useful. They were far from alone. The bird activity was intense and impressive. I’m not a bird photographer, but though I’d share a few examples.
The fish now face the challengers that they have always faced, as it should be (I’d include fishermen and women on that list as well, but not yet. You’re not supposed to eat fish from the River, yet.)
During these extraordinarily difficult times I think it’s very important to keep in mind a few successes. We can make things better, if we care to. The Blackstone River is getting cleaner.