History of the Blackstone River – Widely credited as the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, the Blackstone River is where America shifted its’ attention away from farming, and on to manufacturing. Virtually any eastern seaboard river could have served as the location for the first textile mill in America. However, it was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that the combination of innovation, funding, skilled manpower and mechanical expertise facilitated America’s progress towards industrialization.
The Blackstone Riverstarts in Worcester, MA, where Mill Brook and the Middle River merge. Then, it takes a southeasterly route through Sutton, Millbury, Northbridge, Grafton, Millville, Uxbridge and Blackstone, all Massachusetts towns. From there, it carries on to Rhode Island and passes through Cumberland, Woonsocket, Central Falls and Lincoln ̶ eventually reaching the Pawtucket Falls. Next, the Blackstone River turns tidal and takes on a new name: The Seekonk River. Additional rivers flow into the Blackstone River along this route, like the Branch River (in North Smithfield) and the Mumford River (in Uxbridge).
Moses Brown, a merchant from Providence, was trying to construct a new cotton spinning factory at Blackstone River falls, during 1789. Traditionally, as well as being a water power source, Pawtucket had been used as a base for machine and tool makers. Brown had the funds to spend on the venture. Nonetheless, after several months, only limited progress was made. Brown employed Samuel Slater at the end of 1789. Slater had recently immigrated from England, and had worked for years previously in an English textile mill. Here, he had been promoted to the role of Mill Construction and Machinery Overseer. Slater decided, upon his arrival in Pawtucket, that Brown’s equipment was unfit for use. However, Slater believed that he could adjust it, so that it would work correctly. He began work and twelve months later, at the end of 1790, this pioneering mill was up and running. This was America’s first ever water fueled cotton spinning factory, and it marked the dawning of a new industrialized era.
Other businessmen were encouraged by the success of this mill, so they started constructing mills themselves. Initially, this was done across the Blackstone River. However eventually, others followed suit throughout New England. To fully maximize the benefits of water powered sources, mill communities were constructed where forests and fields used to stand.
In addition to mills and factories, entrepreneurs built schools, churches and homes for their staff in these communities. Consequently, a new generation of mill staff experienced some significant lifestyle adjustments. In farms, the working day is governed by the sun and the seasons. However, in the new mills, the constraints of mother nature were overidden by the sounding of factory bells. Time was regarded as an asset, which was valued and purchased for an agreed fee. The farmer’s produce, or craftsman’s expertise, was not deemed to be as valuable as the quantity of time that staff spent tending to their factory machines.
Throughout the nineteenth century, bigger mills were built, so new labor sources were required to operate them. Immigrants from Ireland were some of the first new staff to take these jobs. Most of these immigrants had arrived during the 1820’s, to build the Blackstone Canal. In the 1870’s and 1860’s, mill managers started to employ French speaking Canadians, who left their Quebec farms to become Blackstone River mill staff. Other workers arrived soon afterwards, from countries like Sweden, Portugal and Poland. To this day, the Blackstone River attracts immigrants, who travel from regions like Cambodia and Central America, to gain employment in the mills that are still there.
Once these new workers arrived, Blackstone River changed in numerous ways. New dialects were abound, as diverse cultures integrated themselves into the valley. One prime example of this was Woonsocket, which essentially became a French city. The new workers attempted to combine their traditional culture with the American way of life. The Industrial Revolution brought with it a requirement for transport solutions, to move heavy materials smoothly and affordably between Providence port and the river mills. Big boats could not sail on the Blackstone River, and horse drawn carts were too costly and impractical.
Initially, the answer to this problem came in the form of the Blackstone Canal, which was built between 1824 and 1828. This was quicker and more cost effective than road transport. All canal barges could move up to thirty-five tons of goods, pulled by a couple of horses. The 1847 P&W line and the 1835 Worcester to Boston line enabled farm products, raw materials and finished goods to be moved quickly and affordably, between the Blackstone River villages and the Boston/Providence ports. Once the 1870’s arrived, the railways had enabled valley textile mills to be converted to steam power. The cumulative effect of all these developments (and the diligence of those involved) was that Blackstone River became an industrial and economic behemoth.
Due to the Blackstone River’s long industrial history, it has also become synonymous with pollution. The Blackstone River was officially regarded as polluted in 1900, with the Public Health Department in Massachusetts describing its’ condition as “offensive”, throughout the route from Worcester to Blackstone state line. The department also advised that the river’s condition was likely to worsen, unless “effective measures” were implemented to get rid of the pollution that had accumulated in it. However, for seventy-two years, not much was done to address this issue. It was only once the Clean Water Act was passed, that Federal Government and States started to take some remedial action, to improve the polluted streams and rivers. One weekend in 1972, 10,000 volunteers, removed 10,000 tons of river-choking debris in the first of annual river cleanups from Pawtucket to Woonsocket, which helped to change the attitude of thousands of Rhode Islanders that the Blackstone River could be transformed from a public waste-water nightmare to a beautiful necklace of linear parks that are strung together by a bikeway. However, progress has always been slow and, even in 1990, the US Environmental Protection Agency pronounced Blackstone River to be the country’s most polluted river, in terms of toxic sediments. It was said to be the main cause of pollution in Narragansett Bay.
These days, the features that secured the legacy of this tranquil valley as an industrial super power are still evident. The canal, the river, the agricultural land, the mill communities and several mills still exist. Together, they all serve as a testament to the rich history of the
Blackstone River Valley