Part of the wonder of living in New England is the history that surrounds our everyday life. At times we take it for granted. Often it becomes a critical a piece of our family lore, but we forget to step back and examine it closely.
My family story was woven with the threads of the history of the Blackstone River Valley. Most of my extensive family members (with surnames of Taft, Bruce, Allen, and Higgins) were born only steps and miles from the actual banks of the Blackstone River that winds from Worcester to Providence and into the Narragansett Bay.
I was raised on stories that my mother told of the depressed towns and neighborhoods of the Blackstone Valley. The end of WWII and the rise of different industries closed the Blackstone River Valley mills and with those closures came unemployment. Young people like my mother sought better lives elsewhere. Huge brick factories crumbled and they became eyesores in the middle of cities, towns and villages. The Draper Corporation in Hopedale, Massachusetts employed several of my family members, but they too ceased operations in the mid 1970s. Since 2009, that abandoned factory in the center of a picturesque New England village has been a reminder of the heyday of American textile manufacturing.
Yet, the story of the Blackstone River Valley is simply an astonishing piece of American history. The river provided the power for the very first American factory – the Slater Mill at Pawtucket Falls, Rhode Island. The Industrial Revolution found its way from England to the United States and that first American cotton-spinning factory powered by water was completed in 1793 on the banks of the Blackstone River.
From there, 24 towns and cities hosted textile mill sites up the river through the towns of Cumberland and Woonsocket, Rhode Island and Blackstone, Hopedale, Upton, Grafton and Millbury, Massachusetts. Where once the Nipmuc, Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes lived on banks that provided fish and drinking water, hundreds of mills were constructed using the power of that water as it flowed downstream.
Before the Great Depression brought down the New England mills in the 1930s, Woonsocket, RI and Hopedale, MA and other mill towns were hubs of activity. With this industrialization also came entrepreneurial greed as the falls were channeled, power harnessed and the river diverted. New Englanders used the example of the Erie Canal to the north, and in the 1820s the Massachusetts and Rhode Island legislators voted to build The Blackstone Canal. It was created to speed the movement of both cotton and raw materials and finished goods. . By 1828, the canal was complete and connected the mill villages that led from Worcester to Providence. The railroads soon followed and with them came a community of mill workers who relocated there from all of upper New England and Canada.
The story was duplicated all over New England and on other rivers – in Lowell, in Fitchburg and in towns across New Hampshire and Maine. However, Rhode Island remained the most industrialized state in the country. The Blackstone River became one of the most polluted rivers in New England and remained so through the 1970s. In the years since, cleanup efforts and historical preservation has made the Blackstone River Valley a worthy historical landmark. In 1986, through an act of Congress, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was created to “preserve and interpret for present and future generations the unique and significant value of the Blackstone Valley.”
Woonsocket, Rhode Island hosted dozens of mills by the middle of the 19th century. The Museum of Work and Culture in downtown Woonsocket is one of the gems that often remains hidden from New Englanders, especially those of us in Massachusetts who speed by on our way to Providence or Newport or points further south. Most of us forget that the tiniest of states has one of the richest histories in our country.
In “Landscape of Industry: An Industrial History of the Blackstone Valley” (2009 by the Worcester Historical Museum), a dozen distinguished authors (historians and park service rangers) describe the changes in the landscape, the economy, and the social fabric that arrived with the Industrial Revolution as it first swept the nation in the 1800s. The essays describe the tremendous rise of the factory towns dotting the banks of the river, the migration of boys, girls, men and women to these New England towns and their struggle for workers’ rights.
In the book’s introduction, Joseph Cullon describes the rich and colorful geographic tapestry created by the Blackstone River as it winds its way 46 miles from Worcester to Pawtucket. He explains how the waters from over 500 square miles of Massachusetts and Rhode Island contribute to the river’s strength as it drops 438 feet along its way south. His essay and others in the book are accompanied by intriguing full-page maps and photographs of the restored mills as they stand today.
Some of the most interesting illustrations in this fascinating book are of town maps of Whitinsville, Mendon, Worcester and others. There are many diagrams and drawings of the mills themselves. Dozens of photographs taken in the 19th and 20th centuries accompany the essays and many of them depict scenes of the mills as they stand today – restored as homes and offices.
The pattern of New England industry – beseeching families to send their sons and daughters to work in the factories providing textiles to the world – began right here just west of Norwood and Norfolk County. A short drive past route 495 brings us to towns where many of these mills sit empty – or are restored or repurposed. A trip to some of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor historical sites is a must with out-of-town visitors. One of the best ways to travel it is on the paved bike trails – a 48-mile Blackstone River Bikeway with sections completed in Rhode Island along the Blackstone Canal. The Rhode Island Historical Society has restored the Slater Mill in Pawtucket and opens the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket daily throughout the year.
For further reading about New England mill life, one of the best chronicles of the history of the New England factories is “The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove” (2002) by William Moran. “Loom and Spindle: Or Life Amongst the Early Mill Girls” by Harriet H. Robinson has been republished by Applewood Books. Robinson describes her life as a mill girl in Lowell, Massachusetts. An interesting thesis of Robinson’s book is that the factory girls gave rise to a population of more cultured, sophisticated, independent and educated New England women.