In the area from Providence, Rhode Island to Worcester, Massachusetts, Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor tells the story of industrialization in America and the transformation of a river from a source of food to a floating highway. Growth and change in this region is also the story of thousands of people who came from across the globe looking for work. Many still come today, creating new communities and adding to the diversity of the area. Visitors to Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor have the opportunity to explore over 300 years of American history at this birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution that is a dynamic landscape of historic and natural sites to see.
William Blackstone and Roger Williams were among the earliest European settlers in the Blackstone River Valley. Blackstone helped to found Boston and then came west to around present-day Cumberland, Rhode Island in 1635. Roger Williams helped to settle the Providence, Rhode Island area. Initially, most of the settlers were farmers. Following King Phillip’s War in the late 1600s, life in the valley began to change.
Towns rebuilt after the war embraced new technological developments including the widespread use of waterpower and mills for manufacturing. In the late 1700s, Moses Brown, a merchant from Providence, and Samuel Slater, an Englishman, established a successful loom manufacturing company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island at Slater Mill, America’s first textile mill. The company set the standard for the development of mills throughout the Blackstone Valley. Today, visitors can visit Old Slater Mill as part of the Slater Mill Museum and learn more about life in the mills.
The need for a faster, cheaper way to move goods from the mills to markets and to bring in raw goods led to the construction of the Blackstone Canal that runs along, and sometimes in, the Blackstone River. Completed in 1828, the canal enabled mills to spread throughout the valley from Providence to Worcester. Canal boats pulled by horses transported products and passengers for only about 20 years, after which the railroad replaced boat traffic. In that time, the valley changed dramatically. Irish laborers built the canal, which was responsible for bringing immigrants to the United States. Between Providence and Worcester, visitors can bike along portions of the towpath, canoe, or kayak, and explore the history of the canal at a number of museums and historic homes by taking these Blackstone Valley Canal Tours.
The Waters Farm in Sutton, Massachusetts is a good example of the farms that dominated the region before mills. The Waters family built the first part of the farm in 1728. They produced apples and apple cider to earn a living, but commercial trade was not a major part of life on the farm. Instead, the Waters family made and maintained the goods they needed on the farm. At one point, the farm had its own blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, barn, and cider mill. Visitors can tour the farm and learn more about pre-Industrial life in the river valley and the Waters family, who lived on the property from the early 1700s to the late 1900s. Visitors can also explore the historic town of Sutton which, like much of the valley, grew more industrialized over time.
Later, larger mill construction took place in Chepachet Village, part of Gloucester, Rhode Island, one of the earliest towns changed by the Industrial Revolution. Visitors today can see an early mill constructed in 1814 to take advantage of the water that runs through the village. This mill, the Stone Mill, is one of a number of downtown buildings that date from the early 1800s. Agriculture and family businesses that dominated the area beginning in the 1600s began to give way to other types of commerce. In Chepachet, a mill, a Masonic Hall, a tavern, and a grocery store made the town a center of commercial activity. Larger mill buildings from a later period are also in the town.
By the mid-1800s, the larger mills needed more employees, which led to the growth of mill towns. In Georgiaville, part of Smithfield, Rhode Island, Zachariah Allen established a particularly successful mill in 1853 that became the basis for the life of the community. Mill housing still lines Stillwater Road. In this company town, the mill provided both a paycheck and a place to live. Workers and supervisors lived in separate employee housing. At Georgiaville Pond, visitors can look out over a landscape changed for the mill where dams on the Woonasquatucket River created ponds that helped ensure a constant water level so that the mill could always run.
Founded in the 1840s as a Utopian village, Hopedale, Massachusetts is another good example of a mill town. Here, as in Smithfield, the mill and its owners shaped the town. The Draper Corporation constructed houses and institutional buildings. At the time, the company thought that by providing workers with good homes and other amenities, employees would work harder and the company could attract better prospective employees. The Draper Corporation became the largest manufacturer of equipment for the production of cotton textiles in the country. Workers came from all over to work the factory, including men and women from England, Scotland, Canada, Ireland, and Italy. By 1916, roughly 1,700 people worked in the factories; this number grew to almost 3,500 by 1951.
In the 1920s, mills began to decline in the United States, as manufacturing in the Northeast weakened. Life in the Blackstone River Valley is much different now than it was when Samuel Slater and Moses Brown teamed up to establish the textile industry in the United States roughly 130 years ago. The presence of the textile industry has diminished, though its impact has not. The area is still home to a rich mix of peoples. Until most of the mills closed, French-Canadians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Swedes, Poles, and the Portuguese were among the largest immigrant groups to come to the valley looking for opportunities. Today, new immigrants come from South America, Cambodia, Laos, and Viet Nam.
The John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor brings alive the story of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. In its historic mill towns and other sites, visitors can learn firsthand what drew so many diverse peoples to the promise of opportunity there.
John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, part of the National Park System, is located in the Blackstone River Valley in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. A number of organizations partner with the National Park Service to support the Heritage Area. Seven visitor centers throughout the valley provide information on what to visit. The visitor centers generally have films or exhibits on life in the valley. Click here for a list of the visitor centers with addresses and hours of operation. Walking tours of mill villages and seasonal ranger led tours are available as are other opportunities to explore all that the Blackstone River Valley offers. For more information on destinations and activities, see the brochure series by clicking here. For more information, visit the National Park Service John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor website or call 401-762-0250.
The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor is also the subject of an online lesson plan, Mechanics Hall: Symbol of Pride and Industry. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.