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Posts tagged ‘Uxbridge’

Holding Back the Waters

With every tick of the clock it seems our ignoring of climate change becomes more menacing.  Climate change isn’t coming of course, it’s here.  At this rate, it appears that we may well not act in time to prevent the rising sea levels and other impacts of climate change from significantly altering our shores and our lives.   At the risk of sounding quite pessimistic, what’s known as “mitigation,” lessening the impact of climate change rather than preventing it, will almost certainly have to play a role.   Who will likely play a critical role in that event, at least in the U.S.?  You may or may not like the answer:  the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a leading contender.  We heard a lot about them during the lead up to and recovery from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Their presence in the South and along the Mississippi is well known, but what about New England.? Much like climate change, the Corps of Engineers isn’t coming, they are already here, big time.  Their role is largely focused on helping to prevent serious flooding.  Their surprisingly heavy, in my view, involvement in just the Blackstone Valley may offer some insight into what their activities will look like.  Keep in mind that that these examples are just a few out of many many activities in which the Corps is engaged.

The Blackstone River travels from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island.  Along the way, it falls about 500 feet.  That fall involves the release of a considerable kinetic energy.  It can easily turn a mill’s water wheels and provide sufficient power for major industrial activity.  The Blackstone was the site of America’s first textile mill, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.  The River also floods, routinely.  Some of those floods have been extremely damaging, resulting in the loss of life and tremendous loss of property.  That’s been the focus of much of the Corps work.

The impact, present and future, of their work was brought home to me when we visited Woonsocket Falls dam, in November of 2018.  To begin the story, here’s what we saw on a previous visit, in July 2017.  hunt_170716__1000279-edit

Suitable for fishing though I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  Actually the image below is from August 2016, same location.  Our friendly heron was taking her time, the water was very low, just the right height for a relaxed afternoon fishing expedition.

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Fast forward to November, it looked like this (the video is 45 seconds):

If you’re looking in on a mobile device and don’t see the video click here.

A bit more impressive, you’d have to agree.  The River is capable of significant variations in its height and flow.  This was after a wet fall, but it can, and may become, a whole lot wetter.  This dam was built after a serious, life threatening flood in 1955.  The volatility of the River has drawn the interest of the Corps of Engineers all along it’s route.  The gates you see can be raised or lowered to control the flow of the River.  The dam cleverly also supplies hydroelectric power.

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Just a bit north of the dam, you can see how the River was “channeled” by the Corps.  The channeling also helps maintain human control of the River.  However, channeling also inhibits the natural exchange processes between the River and the shore, processes which can help restore a river, among other things.

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The channeling runs through the City of Woonsocket, as well as in quite a few other populated  and industrial areas.

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At the other end of the River, in Millbury, Massachusetts, you’ll see the large Diversion Channel.  The Channel connects with the River and which normally looks like this (below).  It was dug in the late 1940’s again in response to flooding in the City of Worcester and surrounding towns.  Normally its nearly empty.

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After our wet fall in 2018, it looked like this (below).  The Channel acts like a temporary reservoir, a place for excess water to go rather than flowing into city streets.

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Diversion strategies like this take a lot of land.  There’s a larger diversion area along one of the tributaries of the River, the West River, in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

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If the River moves toward flood stage, flood gates in the dam below are closed storing water, allowing the water level to fall gently over time.

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The dam itself is 2500 feet long.  Behind the dam is a large stretch of protected land, over 500 acres that is largely managed as a park (by the National Park Service).

It is striking how many resources are already going into holding back the water.  Again, this is only a small fraction of what is taking place, largely unnoticed.  That is not to criticize the work done by the Corps.  Much of it, at least in New England, is done to protect life and limb. If you’d like a more comprehensive run down, click here.

But, this is a big deal, one that is very expensive.   The projected budget for 2019 is on the order of 4.75 billion dollars.  Intervening in nature can also be very problematic, as the citizens of New Orleans and environs know.  The management of the Mississippi River is perhaps even more problematic.  We may be headed for the need to greatly expand their work, by a very large margin.  Prevention or mitigation?

I’ll close with a couple of images from a “wall,” also constructed by the Corps, that actually does some good.  These are the massive hurricane wall and gates that protect the City of Providence from flooding.

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Mills and Dams – The Bernat Mill

Chris, my wife, remembers going to the Bernat Mill store in Uxbridge, Massachusetts to buy yarn.  She certainly isn’t alone.  If you were into knitting, that was what you did in this area.  At one point, the mill was the third largest yarn mill in the U.S.  (Note, the brand still exists and is in use by another yarn manufacturer, Bernat.)  The mill itself had a long and exemplary career in the Blackstone River Valley.  The first iteration of the Mill was built there in 1820 by John Capron.  Why that location?  Falling water.   This is the current dam along the Mumford River that creates Capron Pond.  It’s quite a lovely place with a very nice park, a nice place to think, or have a picnic.

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Capron evolved to the Backman Uxbridge Worsted Company.  They were the first manufacturers to utilize power loops in the U.S., a staggering change moving the industrial revolution forward.  Their ability to engage in mass production doubtlessly lead to their ability to land contracts for the production of Civil War uniforms, World War One Khakis and World War Two U.S. Army uniforms.  Those familiar with the U.S. Air Force dress blue uniform can take note, it was probably manufactured in that mill.  That blue was chosen from the Backman Uxbridge catalogue.

As it did with so many large manufacturers in the Valley, the bust stormed into town in the form of international competition, technological change and an aging plant.   In 1964 the assets were sold to the Bernat Company which refocused the mill on yarns.  As manufacturing declined, the mill was repurposed over time in what was actually a very successful conversion.  The class mill repurposing involves creating small spaces for retail, office and creative studios.  They must have worked quite hard on the conversion because by the night of July 21, 2007, something like 400,000 square feet which had been devoted to manufacture was productively employed by numerous small businesses.  Hundreds were employed there.  Unfortunately, that night and for several subsequent days the mill burned.

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Hundreds of firefighters fought the blaze.  The complex was almost completely destroyed.  Most of the businesses, worth millions, were lost.  There are I would stress still a number of businesses remaining in a portion of the mill complex, but nothing like the number there prior to the fire.

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The damage is still stunningly visible.  Government on several levels planned to help but those plans seem to have floundered.  This is of course not the first mill to burn in the Blackstone Valley.  Many of those mills absorbed a century or more of a variety of chemicals.  Some thought the fire at the Bernat Mill was almost inevitable.  The bust of an economic surge, particularly one that lasted as long as large scale manufacturing in the Blackstone Valley is extraordinarily difficult to manage.  These were very big businesses, not just for their time, but for any time.

Blackstone Heritage Corridor NPS Calendar

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:

Blackstone Canal and Towpath in Spring -  2016

Both of these images show an unusually wide portion of the Canal which was for the most part extremely narrow.  For November:

Dock along the Blacksstone Canal in Fall - 2016

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.

 

Winter Solstice – Griffin Museum of Photography

On display in the Winter Solstice Exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, Massachusetts, from December 8 through January 1.

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Blackstone Canal, Uxbridge, Massachusetts – 2016.

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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