Roads and highways have crisscrossed the Blackstone River Valley for centuries. From the earliest Native American settlers in the region until modern times, transportation has always played an important part of this area’s story. People in the Valley have relied on new modes of transportation, but they have also been innovators, changing how people move, and what heights they can reach.
The Native American tribes of the Narragansett, Nipmuc, and Wampanoag used river crossings and game routes to travel great distances. These tribes, part of the greater Algonquin peoples, maintained trade routes and communication with people as far west as modern-day New York. Numerous river crossings along the Blackstone provided the easiest means of crossing Narragansett Bay.
English settlers adopted many of these Native American highways for their own purposes. Providence, Rhode Island and Pawtucket, Rhode Island were both built at along important trade routes. Many of the earliest English settlements were located at key river crossings.
By the late 1700s, people needed more established roads, so Rhode Island and Massachusetts created turnpikes. By the early 1800s, these routes served as major highways for trade and communication across the Blackstone Valley. The Great Road, the Louisquisett Pike, and the Providence and Douglass Turnpike were some of the early roads that linked the area.
Travel on this early road system was slow. These routes were poorly maintained and expensive. By the 1820s, it cost the same price to transport goods from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence by road as it did to ship the same amount of goods from Boston to London, England.
As early as the 1790s, Providence merchants advocated for a canal to link Worcester to Providence. However, Boston officials repeatedly blocked these efforts fearing Boston would become nothing more than “a fishing port,” should a canal be built. By 1825, with increased industrial production in the Blackstone Valley, even Boston authorities agreed a canal linking Providence and Worcester was necessary. Construction of the Blackstone Canal began later that year. In October 1828, the Blackstone Canal was finally open for business.
Two horse teams pulled each canal barge. Going about four miles per hour, canal barges could make the trip from Worcester to Providence in two days. This increased speed via an artificial waterway greatly helped the mill owners along the river transport raw materials and finished goods up and down the length of the Valley.
The canal faced several setbacks and was especially threatened by the introduction of the Boston and Worcester Railroad (1835) and the Boston Providence Railroad (1835). The Blackstone Canal Company floundered for another 13 more years. The final blow came with the opening of the Providence and Worcester Railroad in 1847. The following year the Blackstone Canal went out of business.
Goods could be moved much faster on a railroad than on a canal barge. A two-day trip on the canal turned into a two-hour trip by train. By the 1860s, trains moved at upwards of sixty miles per hour. At this rate, the trip between Providence and Worcester was little more than an hour, about the same speed as people driving in a car today. Also, unlike the canal, the railroad operated all year long. Floods, droughts, or ice would no longer hinder transportation. The Providence and Worcester Railroad remains in operation today.
With the advent of the automobile, people once again looked for new and improved road networks. Throughout the early to mid-twentieth century, a highway system enabled the reliable transportation of goods by automobile.
Another major innovation in transportation came on the heels of the automobile: space travel. Owens-Corning Fiberglas Company purchased the Ashton Mill in Cumberland, Rhode Island in the 1940s. This company played an important role in the production of beta cloth. This unique fiberglass cloth is heat resistant up to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The people of the Blackstone Valley helped humanity soar to new heights when this cloth made at Ashton Mill was put in the exterior of the Apollo Mission space suits. It was also used to cover electrical panels in the spaceships and to make bags for astronauts’ personal belongings. This mill played a pivotal role in enabling human beings to land on the moon.
In a little over a century, the residents of the Blackstone Valley went from using the same types of transportation available to Julius Caesar to watching their fellow citizens land on the moon. The Industrial Revolution was a catalyst for such dramatic change. The Blackstone Valley, the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, was also at the center of transportation revolution that took humanity to the moon.
People, Places and Stories
Last updated: July 17, 2021