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.