As the Industrial Revolution began in New England, it became clear that a better way to transport goods was needed. Turnpikes were built between 1800-1820 to make it easier for wagons and carriages to travel long distances. These new roads connected town centers. Turnpikes were good for moving people and mail, but they did not make shipping goods cheaper or faster.
The solution was to build a canal. Providence merchants wanted to build a canal along the Blackstone River as early as 1790. They were unable to get the Massachusetts Assembly to agree at first. Construction of the Blackstone Canal finally began in 1825. It was dug with shovels, pickaxes, and spades. Irish immigrants made up most of the workforce.
The Canal was 46 miles long connecting Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. There was a 450-foot elevation difference between Worcester and Providence. Forty-eight stone canal locks were built to raise and lower the barges. Canal barges were 72 feet long, 9 ½ feet wide, and could carry about 35 tons of cargo. Two horses pulled each canal barge at about four miles per hour. The canal was an improvement over the turnpikes. Canal barges made the journey between Worcester and Providence in only two days and saved about $3.80 per ton.
The canal had some problems though, especially water. Using water meant the canal was affected by the weather. Floods, droughts and ice all caused the canal to shut down sometimes. These problems, combined with construction cost overruns and fighting with mills for water rights, made it difficult to run the canal.
In 1847, the Providence and Worcester Railroad opened for operation. The next year the Blackstone Canal went out of business. The railroad was faster and cheaper than the canal. It could also operate all year round. Railroads and steam-powered mills allowed for the development of giant industrial empires in the Blackstone Valley.
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Last updated: July 17, 2021