Blackstone River Valley, Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution

Blue river with short waterfall in foreground. Two mill buildings (one stone, one yellow wood-sided) across river. Blue skies.
Slater Mill in Pawtucket, RI, which harnessed the roaring Blackstone River to power the first cotton spinning mill in the United States.

National Heritage Areas Program

Did you know you can visit the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and see the first mills that sparked one of the greatest societal changes ever seen? Throughout the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, the Industrial Revolution comes alive.

Here, you can experience the Industrial Revolution by visiting sites throughout the corridor such as Slater Mill, the nation’s first cotton spinning mill. Most of the sites are located on the banks of the Blackstone River which runs from Worcester, MA to the Seekonk River north of Providence, RI, on Nipmuc and Narragansett tribal lands. The many extant mill villages include Slatersville in Rhode Island, and Hopedale and Whitinsville in south-central Massachusetts.
Coursing river with wooded banks. Sunset over horizon above river.
The Blackstone River, headwaters of the Industrial Revolution, at Blackstone River Gorge in south-central Massachusetts

National Heritage Areas

The Heritage Corridor was designated by the US Congress in 1986. It has functioned over the past many decades by collaborating with a wide variety of partners. Visitors can learn about the history of the region at the many museums and visitor centers in the area focusing on different themes. These include the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which tells the story of French-Canadian immigrants who left Quebec to come to work in the mills and factories, River Bend Farm Visitor Center in Uxbridge, MA, and the Blackstone Valley Heritage Center in Pawtucket, RI, located near Slater Mill.

Another part of what makes this National Heritage Corridor unique is the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park, which emerged from a National Park Service study of the resources within the heritage corridor and was designated by Congress as a unit of National Park Service in December 2014. The park focuses on telling the nationally significant story of industry in the Blackstone River Valley, the nation’s first heavily industrialized region. It includes sites within the Heritage Corridor such as Blackstone River State Park in Lincoln, RI, home to the Captain Wilbur Kelley House Transportation Museum.
Yellow wood-sided colonial-style mill building facade, brick sidewalk and river to right.
Slater Mill, built by Samuel Slater

National Heritage Areas

As Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Ranger Mark Mello says, “there is no denying that the region tells a story of national significance, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America.” The story begins with Samuel Slater’s building of his shop on the Blackstone’s banks and the opening of his mill in 1793. The Industrial Revolution shaped the America we know today. Everything from the clothes we wear and the phones we click on, to labor systems and myriad contemporary social issues can all be linked to the incredible history that happened at this place in the eighteenth century. From textiles to tech to trade unions, the Industrial Revolution’s DNA is interwoven in today’s society through and through.
Grey stone mill with red trim and large central tower.
Slatersville Mill

National Heritage Areas

The Heritage Corridor’s features are not only historical, though—they also include exciting recreation opportunities, especially for those interested in cycling. Those visiting the town of Lincoln, Rhode Island can get there via the Blackstone River Bikeway, which is part of a network of bikeways in the Corridor along the Blackstone River Greenway that will soon connect to form a 48-mile long trail. It begins at the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Center in Worcester, MA, which opened in 2018, and will go all the way to Providence, RI-- connecting New England’s second and third largest cities. The Blackstone River Bikeway will make up part of the East Coast Greenway, which extends all the way from Florida to Maine.

Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Supervisory Ranger Kevin Klyberg notes how special and unique it is that and the entire Heritage Corridor’s treasures are open, accessible, and lived-in today, not roped off. “If you explore places like Hopedale, Manchaug, and Worcester’s Green Island,” he says, “you can still see these mill villages.”
Many of these villages stand today as they did originally, as does the Slater Mill National Historic Site in Pawtucket. The 1793 mill housed the machine cotton spinning loom invented by Samuel Slater, an immigrant from England who took what he learned from English inventor and industrialist Jedediah Strutt to the U.S. The Slater Mill Historic Site also houses the beautifully preserved Wilkinson Mill (1810) and Sylvanus Brown House (c. 1758). NPS recently acquired all three of these buildings, as well as the section of the western bank of the Blackstone on which they stand.
Close-up of facade of red colonial wooden clapboard house with plaque that reads "Sylvanus Brown House, circa 1758
Sylvanus Brown House, c. 1758

National Heritage Areas

These exciting developments are part of changes over the past fifteen years that place a national spotlight on the region. Klyberg (who, prior to his time at NPS, worked at the Blackstone River Valley NHC for 18 years), is thrilled that this nationally significant story is getting the national attention it “so richly deserves”. He underscores the importance of connecting these historical resources to the communities that surround them, and have the people in the region be involved in the planning for the park and its future.

Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park Ranger Mark Mello describes the joys of the park within the Corridor as a truly sensory way to experience history: in the mills, you “smell the machinery, and the oil sunk into the wood, and then there are the sightlines in the building, the way light comes in, the proximity to the river and the way you really feel the power of the water”.

Currently, Park staff are getting the Wilkinson Mill’s water wheel up and running, and soon visitors will be able to see this breakthrough technology working today. Prior to the present pandemic, you could tour all three of these landmarks inside and out when you visited. Today you cannot go inside but instead take a stroll around these fascinating architectural gems or sit by the river for a scenic lunch break.
Black and white portrait of older eighteenth-century man with white hair (left); diagram of water-powered mill with wooden water wheel
Samuel Slater (left) and diagram of a water-powered mill

National Park Service

Large grey stone-sided mill with white trim and black metal machinery in front on yard.
Wilkinson Mill (1810) at Slater Mill National Historical Site

National Heritage Areas

The Park is also currently running an excellent Winter Lecture Series together with Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, titled Revolution in the Air. The lectures are led by park staff and leading scholars, and the virtual format means that attendees can tune in from across the country and around the world. You can access these programs every other Saturday this winter at 2PM EST, with registration open to all for free.

The National Historical Park and its programming are one of many integral parts of the Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor, along with an array of partner and affiliate sites. Other Heritage Corridor sites include the Roger Williams National Memorial in Rhode Island, as well as affiliates Worcester Historical Society and Brood Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary in Worcester, MA—the list goes on and on.
Poster with test reading: "Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. Revolution in the Air. Saturdays @ 2 P.M. Virtual Series" with silhouettes of two human profiles
Revolution in the Air Virtual Lecture Series

Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park

Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park

Last updated: March 9, 2021