The Blackstone River Valley spans two states, from Massachusetts to Rhode Island and goes through 24 cities and towns. At the center of this historic area of our country is the Blackstone River. The river runs from Worcester, Massachusetts to Providence, Rhode Island. What makes this river so special is that it powered the first industrial mill in our American history known as Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
The Slater Mill was named after Samuel Slater who knew the mechanics of the water powered textile mill machinery. He had come from England with the knowledge of their machinery in Europe and when coming to America, he recreated an American version of the milling machines from England. The endeavor was a success and the first water powered cotton spinning machine was produced in 1790. Thus, the industrial age in America was born. This began the development of industrial mills and mill towns throughout the Blackstone Valley. The first mill community born in America was (and still is) named Slatersville in northern Rhode Island.
The mill towns spread along the Blackstone River from Massachusetts through Rhode Island. These mill towns were communities that housed the mill workers and their families. There were not only houses, but schools and churches for the community to enjoy as well. As the textile industry grew in the valley, the need for more powerful and automated machinery also grew. Two towns in Massachusetts led the way in the making of these textile machines. The towns of Whitinsville and Hopedale produced the most advanced textile machinery of their time and as a result the machines were shipped all over the world. The Whitin Machine Works (Whitinsville) and Draper Corporation (Hopedale) were the two major companies producing these machines.
During the boom of industrial revolution, the mills needed a quicker way to move cargo from the port of Providence to mills along the Blackstone River. So, in 1828, the Blackstone Canal was created to accommodate large boats carrying needed cargo to the mills. This allowed 35 times more cargo to be shipped than by horse and buggy. Eventually, the canal became obsolete with the creation of the Worcester and Providence Railroad.
During the 1920’s the textile industry had begun to decline. Later, the business from the World Wars kept some of the mills alive but by the 1970’s the mills along the river were no more. Although many of the buildings stand today, some have been turned into condominiums or other types of housing. As you drive through this national corridor between Massachusetts and Rhode Island, you see the remnants of a period in our American history and the towns and villages that remain from the birth of that era.
The current name of this area is the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor named after the Rhode Island senator. My parents spent all their lives in one of these Blackstone Valley mill towns and I spent my childhood there, but only now do I appreciate the historical significance of that area and the extraordinary impact it has made in our American history. It is definitely worth a visit when traveling through New England.
Directions to Visitor Centers:
In order to help visitors navigate through this national corridor, there are seven visitor centers throughout the valley. In Worcester, Massachusetts you have the Worcester Historical Museum and Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary/Mass Audubon Society. At the other end of the corridor you have the Roger Williams National Memorial in Providence, Rhode Island. In between these two cities there are four more in the towns of Pawtucket, Lincoln, and Woonsocket in Rhode Island. In Massachusetts, you will find a visitor center in Uxbridge along with the two in Worcester.
Worcester, MA (Broad Meadow Brook Wildlife Sanctuary/Mass Audubon Society) – From the Mass. Turnpike (Route I-90): Take exit 11 (Millbury) and go left onto Route 122 north. Turn left onto Route 20 west. Turn right at the traffic light onto Massasoit Road.
From Route 290, take exit 14 (Route 122 south/Grafton Street). Bear right at the rotary and stay on Route 122. At intersection, bear right onto Massasoit Road. Follow Massasoit Road past playground and park on left and the Sanctuary entrance is located past the park on the right.
Providence, RI – From I-95 north, take exit 23 for State Offices. Take a left at the light and follow it to the end of Orms Street, then at the light take a right onto Charles Street. Continue straight through one light, and then take a quick left into the memorial lot.
From I-95 south, take exit 23, Charles Street. Take the first left and continue through three lights; after the third light take a quick left into the memorial lot.