Humans have profoundly affected the environmental conditions of the Blackstone River Valley. The Industrial Revolution left a lasting and often harmful legacy in local waters through the construction of dams, canals and the use of waterways as dumping grounds.
There are still many dams along the river today. Human-made dams created impenetrable barriers to the anadromous fish who used the Blackstone and its tributaries to spawn. Anadromous fish, like Atlantic salmon, herring, and shad, live most of their lives in the ocean, but swim up fresh-water rivers to lay their eggs before dying. Dams blocked passage to these fish. As a result, anadromous fish have not visited the Blackstone River for well over two centuries.
But these dams are not all bad. Behind the dams are mill ponds. A mill pond is a pool created to provide water for a mill. These bodies of water are also an ideal habitat for many fish, bird, reptile, amphibian, and mammal species. Another example of humans unknowingly creating a new habitat is the surviving sections of the Blackstone Canal.
The Blackstone Canal in modern Lincoln, Rhode Island has a different negative effect. At Quinnville, the Blackstone Canal leaves the Blackstone River. About four miles south, it enters the Moshassuck River dumping water from the Blackstone. This never happened naturally because the two watersheds are separated from each other. They are now linked, meaning that some of the pollution from the Blackstone enters the Moshassuck. It also means the natural flow of one river is reduced while the other is increased.
People also used the river as a dumping ground. The dumping of dyes in the river created the longest lasting impact. A mordant is a substance that helps dye bind to fabric. Mordants used in the Valley typically contained heavy metals like chromium, copper, iron, tin, or tungsten. When mills dumped these dyes in the river, the coloring flowed downstream with the water, but the heavy metals stayed and sank into the riverbed. Heavy metals move up the food chain. They transfer from the riverbed to the aquatic plant life, to the fish that eat those plants, and then to the larger mammals and birds that eat the fish including humans. Aside from the runoff from roads and lawns, these heavy metals remain the biggest environmental problem the Blackstone River faces to this day.
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Last updated: December 14, 2021