I love the Blackstone River and the canal. It is beautiful, breathtaking, but despite the many years since the mills closed, it is still too polluted for swimming and fishing.
Against all logic and reason, the town of Worcester continues to pour raw sewage into the Blackstone River from their waste-water facility in Millbury.
Why? Renovating the facility and stopping the pollution would cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars, an average of $100 per year per Worcester homeowner. That adds up to less than a $2 per week per household. To continue to pollute the river, the aquifer, and the ecosystem of which the Blackstone River is a critical component, is insane. Especially considering that the cost of ending the problem, even in a poor economy, is not high.
I and many others cannot fathom how the so-called “public servants” of Worcester can claim that pouring raw sewage in our river — a direct health hazard to everyone in the Valley — is an acceptable choice to renovating their sewage plant. The health of tens of thousands of people are directly affected by the stupidity and short-sighted political agendas of these “officials.”
The good of the majority is ignored to save a few people paltry pennies per week. It is so dumb it leaves me speechless. And that just doesn’t happen!
How It Began: The United States, Broke at Birth
America was born bankrupt. We won the war, but lost everything else. Our economy had belonged to Great Britain. French military support that helped us to beat the British had been given as a loan, not a gift.
Americans thought it a great stroke of luck when France’s revolution eliminated the government with whom we’d cut the original deal. When Napoleon suggested we repay the war debt, we shrugged our collective shoulders and said “What debt?”
Our shipping industry was in its infancy. The British, the big soreheads, ruled the seas and were disinclined to share it with us and it would be a long time until we could challenge them.
The new-born United States of America was lacking elements that are generally viewed as essential to a nation. Missing were factories, a central bank, money, credit, a constitution, and a central government. The slave trade thrived because it was highly profitable.
From north to south, slavery made people rich … not the slaves, of course. The other people. such as New England sea captains and southern plantation owners. They profited hugely and it’s not hard to see why they were reluctant to do the right thing and give it up. Parting the rich from the source of their wealth usually involves guns and military maneuvers.
Slavers, rum, and sugar, in what was known as the “triangle trade” was the most profitable form of capitalism available at the time, but it didn’t generate job opportunities.
While great minds debated the constitution, everyone else was hunting for a way to make money. The Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789. Simultaneously, the American Industrial Revolution began along the banks of the Blackstone River.
Moses Brown was fighting his own war, battling the Blackstone River. With its 450 foot drop over its 46-mile course — an average of about 10 feet per mile — the Blackstone River is a powerhouse. Its sharp drop in elevation combined with its narrowness and meandering path give it far more energy that you would expect a river of that size to generate. It invites development.
All through 1789, Brown wrangled the river, trying to build his cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at the falls on the Blackstone River. Despite his conviction that he could harness the river to power his mill, as the end of the year approached, the score stood at Blackstone River 1, Moses Brown 0.
America still had her welcome mat out. Immigrants were welcome, which was fortunate for Moses Brown. In December 1789, Samuel Slater, newly immigrated from England, began working for Brown. Slater had spent many years working at an English textile mill. He immediately recognized that Brown’s machinery would never work. In less than a year, he’d redesigned and completed the mill.
By 1790, Slater’s Mill was up and running, the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States. Slater’s Mill proved you could make money in New England doing something other than whaling, fishing, or running rum and slaves.
Entrepreneurs hopped on the idea like fleas on a dog. Mills were an immediate popular success. New England was inhospitable to agriculture, but fertile for factories.
Mills grew along the Blackstone from Worcester to Providence, then sprouted by the Merrimack in Lowell, and eventually, throughout New England. Wherever the rivers ran, mills and factories followed.
On the Blackstone, mill owners urgently sought a better way to move their goods. The same features that make the Blackstone a natural for generating power make it useless for shipping. The only other choice — horse-drawn wagons — was slow and expensive. the trip took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads from the northern part of the valley to Providence.
When the weather turned bad, the trip would be impossible. Which led to what turned out to be temporary fix, the Blackstone Canal
The Blackstone Canal took four years to build, from 1824 and 1828.
The main canal runs alongside the Blackstone and in some sections, the canal is the river (or maybe vice-versa). There is also an extensive network of small canals, many on larger tributary rivers like the Mumford. The main canal was designed to handle large barges. It travels in a relatively straight line from Worcester to Providence.
The smaller canals allowed mills to move goods to many places not immediately on the Blackstone. These small barges could move smaller amounts of cargo between towns and from one mill to another.
The big barges were faster and cheaper than horse-drawn wagons. A single barge could haul as much as 35 tons of cargo and only needed two horses, presumably going downstream.
The canal system is intact. Trails along the canals where horses towed barges have become walking trails. The barges are gone, but small boats can enjoy the open stretches of canal and river.
Ultimately, railroads were the game-changer. As soon as rails from Worcester to Boston, and Worcester to Providence were built, the canals were abandoned. Business boomed.
The Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories at the end of the 1800s. The Blackstone supplied the hydro power and in return, the river was used to dispose of industrial waste and sewage.
By the early 1900s, the Blackstone River in Massachusetts was grossly polluted. Fortunately for the river, though not necessarily for the valley’s residents, this was also the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast.
As of 1923, the majority of nation’s cotton was grown, spun and woven down south. Without its mills and factories, the valley’s population began to shrink.
In 1971, the Blackstone River was labeled “one of America’s most polluted rivers” by Audubon magazine. It was a low point for the region.
It was time to clean up the mess. We are still cleaning up and will have to continue for a long time to come. Although no longer as polluted as it was, the watershed has a long way to go. The river’s tributaries are less polluted than the Blackstone because against all logic and reason, waste-water is still discharged from a big sewage treatment plant in Millbury. The fight never ends.
The good news? The herons and fish have returned. American eagles nest in my woods. There is food for them in the rivers and streams. The river is alive despite our best efforts to kill it. Everything will improve if we stop dumping sewage in the river. We can eventually even eat the fish we catch!
- National Park Guide: Rhode Island’s Blackstone River (travel.usatoday.com)
- Blackstone River cited in Washington (wpri.com)
- A Bright Sunday Afternoon in June (teepee12.wordpress.com)
- The Watershed (teepee12.wordpress.com)
- Worcester Boneheads to Sue EPA over right to pollute Blackstone (teepee12.wordpress.com)
- Blackstone Canal – View From a Bridge (teepee12.wordpress.com)