American industry: Born on the shores of the Blackstone

Broke at Birth

America was born bankrupt. We won a war, but lost everything else. Our economy had been completely dependent on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but it was Great Britain that turned these materials into commodities for the world’s markets.

Not merely did we depend on the British to supply us with finished goods we could not produce ourselves, we depended on British banks, British shipping, and British trade routes. Everything has a price and we had no money. We hoped for a long time that we could reach an agreement with England short of war and had there been a less intransigent monarch on the throne at the time, we might have been able to do so. Despite the Massachusetts “Sam Adams faction” who were hellbent for war, most other colonists felt a continuing allegiance to their mother country. There was no “American identity” yet nor was the yearning to be free burning in every heart.

Most colonists did not want to be “Americans.” Firstly, because there was no such thing. But they did want the rights of free Englishmen. Colonial Americans wanted seats in the British Parliament. They wanted the right to vote on taxes and other policies affecting life in the colonies. A deal should have been easy to reach, but George III was not a sensible or reasonable man, nor a judicious king. The result was war, the huge loss of the richest of its North American colonies for England and the creation of a country by unready colonists.

That we gained independence was a miracle of sorts. We had little in the way of armaments, virtually no ships … certainly no war ships. We were thinly populated and were unlikely to be able to support an army for an extended period. The existing militias were untrained and undisciplined, hardly better than armed rabble. That George Washington was able to turn this bunch into an army was no mean feat. No wonder they wanted him to be President. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The French military support that enabled us to beat the British was a loan, not a gift. We were supposed to pay them back. It was, from our point of view, a great stroke of luck when France’s revolution knocked off the government with whom we’d cut the deal. It certainly improved our debt to income ratio. Later, when Napoleon came to power and suggested we repay the war debt, we shrugged our collective shoulders and said “What debt?”

Our shipping industry was in its infancy. We had few ships or seaman and little access to the rich trade around the world. The British ruled the seas and seemed disinclined to share it with us. It would be many years before we would be in a position to challenge them.

River Bend Farm dates back to the late 1790s. It’s on the river, of course. Everything is.

The new-born United States had, for all practical purposes, no economy. We were pre-industrial when European countries were well into the modern industrial period. We had no factories. We had no national bank, currency, credit, courts, laws or central government. Our only thriving business was the slave trade. The sugar-rum-slave triangle of trade was our economic pillar … and more than a few people were not thrilled about that.

Although there was a nascent abolitionist movement, it was more sentimental than effective force in the late 1700s. From north to south, slavery made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but other people. New England sea captains and southern plantation owners alike made their fortunes selling human beings. Thus when it came time to design our Constitution and try to turn this polyglot of individual colonies into a functional nation, it was the Devil’s choice: to get the Constitution passed into law, slavery could not be abolished because none of the southern states would support it.

From private writings of various members of that continental congress, it’s obvious our founding fathers knew that the issue of slavery would ultimately be settled by war. It was already the main polarizing issue even before the break from England. So “The Great Compromise” was put into places and the Constitution was approved in record time … leaving a later generation to fight the bloody battles. Morality had met the bottom line and lost. Eighty years later, 620.000 lives would be the butcher’s bill that paid for the compromise. An ocean of blood would flow before trade in human lives would end. Even more years would pass and lives lost before persons of color would see anything resembling equality.

Crown and Eagle Mills – Uxbridge, long gone. Late 1700s or early 1800s.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

Renovated into elderly and affordable housing, the old Crown and Eagle mill in Uxbridge is beautiful today.

Slaves, rum, and sugar, however profitable, didn’t generate job opportunities for enough people. Americans needed work, goods, dependable sources of income. Most people didn’t own ships and even if they had, they might well have rejected slaving. It was never considered a profession for “decent people.” Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but the ugly process of bringing them in from Africa and selling them as chattel was distasteful and ungentlemanly.

So, as great political and legal minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document on which a nation could be built, other great minds were seeking ways to make money in socially acceptable ways.

In one of the peculiar coincidences of history, the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789 as the American Industrial Revolution took shape on the banks of the Blackstone River.

Slater’s Mill, 1920s or thereabouts.

Moses Brown had been fighting his own war, battling the Blackstone. With its 450 foot drop over a 46-mile course — an average drop of about 10 feet per mile — the Blackstone River is a powerhouse. Not a wide river, its sharp drop combined with its narrowness and meandering path give it much more energy than a river of that size could be expected to generate. It invited development. The question was how to get it done.

Mill buildings, Hope, RI, 1810 – 1850

All through 1789, as the Constitution was gaining approval throughout the former British colonies, Brown wrangled the river, trying to build a cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at the falls on the Blackstone River. He was sure he could harness the river to power his mill, bit as the end of the 1789 approached, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

Named after Samuel Slater, this was the first “planned” mill town. It’s over the RI border, on the same road as my house. It’s a bit nicer now.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We urgently needed more people and especially people with skills, training in various industries. We weren’t picky about who they were. Whatever your origin, immigrants were welcomed. This turned out to be fortunate for Moses Brown.

In December 1789, a new immigrant from England by the name of Samuel Slater began working for Brown. Slater had spent many years working at an English textile mill. He immediately recognized that Brown’s machinery was never going to work. Slater had the soul of an engineer, and the skills too. In under a year, he’d completely redesigned and finished building a working mill.

Slater’s Mill, today, preserved and restored.

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.

Mill lodging along the Merrimack River.

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.

Locks on the Mumford River, one of the small canals used to move goods between mills. It’s destination was Bernat Mills.

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.

Old horse pulling the barge. These were very big horses.

When the weather turned bad, the trip was impossible. All of which led to the building of the Blackstone Canal. Meant as a long-term solution, it actually turned out to be no more than a short-term temporary fix … but it was an impressive undertaking.

Building the canal, 1824 – 1828.

Building the 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 Blackstone Canal in Uxbridge. The old horse trail is on the left and is now a walking path for people and their dogs. No horses allowed. This is the main canal, big enough room for full-size barges.

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.

Barge and horse.

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.

And then came the Railroads

The Providence and Worcester line continues to use this trestle  The tracks adjoin the Mumford. Though the train still runs (infrequently), it passes through town without stopping.

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.

1850 – Railroads of the US.

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.

West Dam by the West River

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. It’s hard to fathom what reasoning, if any, those who favor pouring sewage into our river are using. The fight never ends.

The good news? The birds and fish are back.

American eagles nest in my woods. Herons and egrets wade in the shallows to catch fish that breed there. The river is alive despite man’s best efforts to kill it.


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