SLAVES TO SPINNING ALONG THE BLACKSTONE:

Today is Patriot’s Day. Here in Massachusetts, this day commemorates – and re-enacts — the battles of Lexington and Concord and the beginning of our Revolutionary War. And we have a marathon too … in Boston.

But this post is about the other  revolution — the American Industrial Revolution — which took place around the same time … and had perhaps even more profound effects on our world.

America: Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won the revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy was dependent on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but Great Britain turned those materials into goods for the world’s markets.

Battle of Lexington and Concord revolution

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 had hoped 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 battle, most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. Nor was the yearning to breathe free burning in every heart. What the colonists of North America wanted was simple. They wanted the rights of free Englishmen. We wanted seats in British Parliament. We wanted the right to vote on taxes and other policies that affected colonial life. A deal should have been reached, but George III was not a sensible, reasonable or judicious king.

The result was war, the staggering loss to England of their wealthiest colonies and birth of a new nation.

That we won the war was astonishing. We had little in the way of arms and no navy. We were sparsely populated. Existing militias were untrained, undisciplined, little better than rabble. That George Washington was able to turn this into an army was no mean feat. No wonder they wanted him to be the first President.

French military support enabled us to beat the British. It was a loan, not a gift. We agreed to pay it back, so the French revolution was an unexpected and deeply gratifying development. It was like having the bank that holds your mortgage disappear taking your mortgage with it. It vastly improved our debt to income ratio. When Napoleon came to power and suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What debt?”

Our shipping industry was in its infancy. We had few ships or sailors, minimal access to world trade. The British ruled the seas and being soreheads, refused to share it with us. It would take many years before we could challenge their ascendancy on the seas.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum.

If you who think slavery was an entirely southern institution, you’re wrong. Although slaves lived mostly in the southern colonies, they were brought to these shores by New England sea captains, held in New York, Boston, and other northern cities, sold to slavers at markets in the north, then sent south to be sold again to individual owners. The entire economy of the nascent country was based on slaves and their labor. The institution of slavery could not have persisted had it not been supported by business interests in the north.

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 industry were slaves.

Although there was an abolitionist movement, it was tiny, more sentimental than real.

North and south, slaves made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but other people. North and south, fortunes were made selling human beings, then profiting from their labor. When it came time to write the Constitution, to turn a bunch of individual colonies into one country, the Devil’s compromise was needed. Abolishing slavery would doom any attempt to pass the constitution … so slavery became law and the groundwork was laid for the bloodiest war America would ever fight.

It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains with us today and probably always will.

So How Come We Didn’t Find a Better Way?

Question: If our Founding Fathers were so smart, how come they didn’t see that slavery would come back to bite us in the ass?

Answer: They knew it was wrong and knew that it would result in civil war. In other words, they did knew it would bite us in the ass. They could keep slavery and form a strong nation — or eliminate slavery and end up with two weak countries, one slave, one free. They chose what they thought was the lesser of the two evils.

Was it the lesser evil? Hard to say and it’s a bit late to second guess the past. It was clear from the get-go there was no way we were going to form a nation if slavery was made illegal. From private writings by members of the continental congress, it’s clear they knew the issue of slavery would eventually be resolved by war. Long before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. So “The Great Compromise” was put into place, the Constitution was approved and a later generation fought the war.

Right went head to head with the bottom line and lost.

Eighty years later, 630,000 lives (more or less) would be the butcher’s bill for the compromises made in 1789. An ocean of blood would be the cost of ending America’s traffic in human lives. Many more years would pass before this country’s non-white population would see anything resembling justice, much less equality.

When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

So About Those Mills …

Slaves, rum, and sugar — the triangle of trade that kept America’s economy alive — was profitable for plantation owners, sea captains, and other slave traders, but it didn’t generate a whole lot of entry-level job opportunities for average working people. A lot of people needed work, even more needed trade goods and dependable sources of income.

Most people didn’t own ships and if they did, were disinclined to take up slaving. It was never a profession for “nice folks” and a fair number of people found it distasteful. Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but the actual process of buying and selling human beings was more than they could stomach.

So as great political and legal minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds were seeking ways to make money. It’s the American way.

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

The Crown and Eagle Mill today, renovated into elderly and affordable housing.

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

Moses Brown had been fighting his own war. He was battling the Blackstone. With a 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 this size would normally generate.

It invited development. The question was how.

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, but as the end of the 1789 approached, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed more people and especially people with industrial skills. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Moses Brown.

Slaterville Mill -- oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

Slaterville Mill — oldest mill in the Blackstone Valley

In December 1789, Samuel Slater – a new immigrant from England — began working for Brown. Slater had spent years working at an English textile mill. He recognized that Brown’s machinery was never going to work. Slater had fine engineering skills. In under a year, he’d redesigned and built a working mill on the Blackstone River.

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 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.

The Blackstone Canal

On the Blackstone, mill owners urgently sought a better way to move their goods.

The features that made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made 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.

blackstone canal locks

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.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

Mills brought employment to the north. It created a real industrial base that would give the north the ability to fight the civil war … and win. It started with a river, continued with a canal, expanded with the railroads. Which is why the Blackstone Valley is a National Historic Corridor and known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution … a revolution that brought the U.S. into the modern world and positioned us to become a top dog on the international scene.

Building the Canal

The Blackstone Canal took 4 years to build, from 1824 to 1828. The main canal runs alongside the Blackstone. In some places, the canal and the river are one. There is an extensive network of small canals, many on 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 places not immediately on the Blackstone. Small barges could move cargo between towns and mills.

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle

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 going downstream.

The canal system remains largely intact. Trails along the canals where horses towed barges have become walking paths. The barges are gone, but small boats can enjoy the open stretches of canal and river.

Railroads

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.

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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.

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Pollution

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’re still cleaning up. Although not as polluted as it was, the watershed has a long way to go. The river’s tributaries are less polluted than the Blackstone itself because against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from a 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.

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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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BLACKSTONE CANAL, SEPTEMBER AFTERNOON

A couple of hundred years of polluting the river nearly killed it. How fortunate for us that nature is resilient. Today, The Blackstone Canal is in recovery but it’s slow. The fish are back, though weather or not it’s safe to eat them is a matter of controversy.

Blackstone river and canal divide

This is the early autumn, mid-September. Barely a breeze. The canal is as smooth as glass and reflects like a mirror.

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A Little Canal

The Mumford is one of the major tributaries of the Blackstone. It, as well as the Blackstone, run right through the middle of Uxbridge. Can you spell flooding? Between the main Mumford and the old Bernat Mill runs a tiny canal. It has its own locks, even though it is no more than a dozen feet wide along most of its length.

 

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American Roads In Worcester

This was our first time shooting in Worcester. It is just “down the road” from us, less than half an hour. It’s the capital of Worcester county. I was pleased to see how many new restaurants have opened since we last visited. We are culinarily-challenged in this region. I’ve worked in Worcester and everyone in the Valley has done business there. It’s our nearest city. Not quite a throbbing metropolis, but it has aspirations.

Worcester is an old city. It’s relatively small by urban standards, but sprawling. Like most cities in this region, it consists of distinctive areas and neighborhoods and a highly diverse population.

You can find parking in Worcester. Free. It’s accessible and architecturally interesting. Located at the top of the Blackstone River, it marks the northern end of the Valley and was the head of the Blackstone Canal, much of which is now buried under Worcester’s streets.

During the 1800s, in the heyday of the mills and factories on the Blackstone River, Worcester was bigger and much more prosperous. When the mills and factories closed and moved south, Worcester (pronounced Wour-ster) saw hard times, with a shrinking population and a sadly diminished tax base.

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Although it has improved a lot from its worst days, it still has a long way to go. Economic times are rough, but the city of Worcester has new hospitals, convention center and an updated downtown. It has come a long way. We all harbor high hopes for a better future. This region could use a little prosperity. It’s been a long dry spell.

Now, if only we wouldn’t get quite so much snow!

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Dock at River Bend Farm

The simplest of floating docs. A place to sit on a summer's day.

The simplest of floating docks. A place to sit on a summer’s day.

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Along the banks of the Blackstone River in the heart of the Blackstone Valley, everything, everyone waits for spring.

From Slaves to Spinning: Born On the Blackstone

America: Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won the revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy was dependent on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but Great Britain turned those materials into goods 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 had hoped 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 battle, most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. Nor was the yearning to breathe free burning in every heart. What the colonists of North America wanted was simple. They wanted the rights of free Englishmen. We wanted seats in British Parliament. We wanted the right to vote on taxes and other policies that affected colonial life. A deal should have been reached, but George III was not a sensible, reasonable or judicious king.

The result was war, the staggering loss to England of their wealthiest colonies and birth of a new nation.

That we won the war was astonishing. We had little in the way of arms and no navy. We were sparsely populated. Existing militias were untrained, undisciplined, little better than rabble. That George Washington was able to turn this into an army was no mean feat. No wonder they wanted him to be the first President.

French military support enabled us to beat the British. It was a loan, not a gift. We agreed to pay it back, so the French revolution was an unexpected and deeply gratifying development. It was like having the bank that holds your mortgage disappear taking your mortgage with it. It vastly improved our debt to income ratio. When Napoleon came to power and suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What debt?”

Our shipping industry was in its infancy. We had few ships or sailors, minimal access to world trade. The British ruled the seas and being soreheads, refused to share it with us. It would take many years before we could challenge their ascendency on the seas.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum.

If you who think slavery was an entirely southern institution, you’re wrong. Although slaves lived (mostly) in the southern colonies, they were brought to these shores by New England sea captains, held in New York, Boston, and other northern cities, sold to slavers at markets in the north, and then sent south to be sold again to individual owners. The entire economy of the nascent country was based on slave labor. The institution of slavery could not have persisted had it not been supported by business interests in the north.

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 industry was the slave trade.

Although there was an abolitionist movement, it was tiny, more sentimental than real.

North and south, slaves made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but other people. North and south, fortunes were made selling human beings, then profiting from their labor. When it came time to write the Constitution, to turn a bunch of individual colonies into one country, the Devil’s compromise was needed. Abolishing slavery would doom any attempt to pass the constitution … so … slavery became law and the groundwork was laid for the bloodiest war America would ever fight.

It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains with us today and probably always will.

So How Come We Didn’t Find a Better Way?

Question: If our founding fathers were so smart, how could they didn’t see that turning this gigantic ugly wrongness into law would come back to bite us in the ass?

Answer: They knew it was wrong and knew that it would result in civil war. They had a choice: keep slavery and form one reasonably strong union, or try to eliminate slavery and end up with two weak countries, one slave, one free. They went with what they thought was the lesser evil.

Was it really the lesser evil? Hard to say. It’s a bit late to figure it out. Regardless, it was clear from the get go that there was no way we were going to form a nation if slavery was made illegal.

From private writings by members of the continental congress, it’s very clear they knew slavery could be resolved only by war. Long before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. So “The Great Compromise” was put into place, the Constitution was approved and a  later generation would fight a war.

Morality and righteousness went head to head with the bottom line — and lost.

Eighty years later, 630,000 lives, more or less, would be the butcher’s bill for the compromises made in 1789. An ocean of blood would be the cost of ending America’s traffic in human lives. Many more years would pass before this country’s non-white population would see anything resembling justice, much less equality.

When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

So About Those Mills On the Blackstone River …

Slaves, rum, and sugar — the triangle of trade that kept America’s economy alive — was profitable for plantation owners, sea captains, and other slave traders, but it didn’t generate a whole lot of entry-level job opportunities for average working people. A lot of people needed work, even more needed trade goods and dependable sources of income.

Most people didn’t own ships and if they did, were disinclined to take up slaving. It was never a profession for “nice folks” and a fair number of people found it rather distasteful. Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but the actual process of buying and selling human beings was more than they could stomach.

Crown and Eagle Mills-Uxbridge

So as great political and legal minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds were seeking ways to make money. It’s the American way.

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

The Crown and Eagle Mill today, renovated into elderly and affordable housing.

In one of the stranger coincidences of history, the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789 while simultaneously, 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. He was battling the Blackstone. With a 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 this size would normally generate.

It invited development. The question was how to get it done.

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, but as the end of the 1789 approached, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed more people and especially people with industrial skills. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed. This turned out to be a stroke of luck for Moses Brown.

In December 1789, Samuel Slater – a new immigrant from England — began working for Brown. Slater had spent years working at an English textile mill. He recognized that Brown’s machinery was never going to work. Slater had fine engineering skills. In under a year, he’d redesigned and built a working mill on the Blackstone River.

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 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.

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 features that made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made 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 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.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

Mills brought employment to the north. It created a real industrial base that would give the north the ability to fight the civil war … and win. It started with a river, continued with a canal, expanded with the railroads. Which is why the Blackstone Valley is a National Historic Corridor and known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution … a revolution that brought the U.S. into the modern world and positioned us to become a top dog on the international scene.

The Canal

The Blackstone Canal took four years to build, from 1824 to 1828.

The main canal runs alongside the Blackstone and in some sections, the canal is the river (or 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.

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pollution

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

 

Garry Armstrong – Down by the Blackstone

And so we two, on what we feared might be the last best day of the season went down to the river … and thus we have a second perspective.

It’s always interesting to see how two people photograph the same location. I look at form and shape; Garry seems more drawn to reflections, color and shadow. We are in the same place but see different things. Even when we frame the same scene, the results always look quite different.

Good eyes, two separate visions.

And then, it started to rain …

English: Logo of the EPA American Heritage Riv...

Logo of the EPA American Heritage Rivers Initiative. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Talk about dancing between the raindrops!

That’s what I’ve been I’ve been doing since the season began. There’s been so much rain, sometimes lasting an entire week, that I’ve had to be ready to roll whenever the sun peeps out from behind the clouds.

Yesterday was lovely, but I didn’t go out. Today, I made sure to get to the sunshine and down to the dam. I was going on the theory that have had two dry days, I could be sure expecting a third would be pushing the envelope.

I warned Garry that, short of being near death, we were going to shoot.

I loosened Garry from his usual stuff and we took a trip to our favorite waterfall, the area of the Blackstone where it separates into  the river and the Blackstone  Canal.

I’m glad I did because guess what? It’s raining. By the time this one is finished, the leaves will have been stripped from the trees.

It ‘s not rare for rain to short-circuit our season, but I never stop regretting it when it happens. At least we got a bit of the best. Got some nice stuff today. I haven’t had much time to process anything. We went out in late afternoon, so there wasn’t much time when I got back.

This piece of the Blackstone River and Canal is in exceptionally good condition. It’s also exceptionally beautiful. The trail where once horses towed the barges is a walking or running path, great for dogs and owners.

Sometimes, if you are lucky, herons will drop by to feed along the banks. Also diver ducks and occasionally swans visit, though I haven’t seen any since the spring.

On the way home, we stopped at River Bend.  It’s beautiful, but difficult to photograph without lenses that I don’t have … or if I could, as I used to, walk down further along the river. But these days, I just can’t walk that far, so I settled for a quick few shots near the old farmhouse.

Maybe we will have another day or two of colors and sunshine, but I can’t be sure … and no one can make that promise. I’m just grateful to have had today.

Does Common Sense Stand a Chance in the Valley?

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!

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

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.

Slaterville Mill -- oldest mill in the valley and recently renovated. Picture is pre-renovation.

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.

Little canal on the Mumford

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.

Canal

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.

You might want to take a look at Dead and Buried: The Graveyard of Worcester’s Blackstone Canal.

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.

Small canal serving the Crown and Eagle, used to transport goods between sections of the mill complex, but connecting to the main canal also.

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 canal as it approaches the Uxbridge locks.

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!

Related articles

Disappearing Canal – 2005 through 2012

The Blackstone Canal didn’t last long.

Golden day, a nameless dam in an unnamed woods, October 2008

Bedeviled by financial problems, lawsuits, and right-of-way issues from inception, it took much longer to get the project underway and produce a functional canal than anyone expected.

Late October 2011, Uxbridge on the Blackstone Canal

The Blackstone River‘s 46 mile drop from its source in the Worcester hills made it a difficult canal to build and to use. Its construction required many locks, from small to quite large, as well as detours around disputed areas along the river.

April 9, 2006 – All the turtles emerged to sun themselves on the rocks along the water. Everywhere you looked, you could see thousands of turtles along the canal and river.

The naturally twisting path of the river didn’t help, nor did the lack of coöperation by the owners of the factories and mills that logically stood to benefit from its construction. Progress was slowed by court battles and cost overruns. Even when it was completed, it’s life was brief and inglorious.

The Blackstone Canal offered a faster way to get goods to the ports in Newport, Rhode Island — a substantial improvement over slowly moving goods via horse and wagon — but like the pony express, it was short-lived.

Canal at West Bend, April 15, 2006

In less than a decade, as soon as rail offered a viable alternative, the canal was abandoned. It was not in use long enough to become rooted in culture or consciousness.

Day of the turtles, 2006, along the banks of the Blackstone at River Bend.

Today, although there are beautiful stretches remaining in a some places, the entire northern piece in Worcester has been obliterated: filled in and built over. The longest straight stretch of canal runs through Uxbridge. It is the prettiest, largest, and most open piece of remaining canal. This section with its impressive locks, was doing well, maintained by funds from the National Park system until funding disappeared along with the rest of the economy.

The the downstream end of West Dam, the river and the canal are one. March 2005

Locally, surprisingly few people are even aware of it, though they may live only a few hundred yards from it. The canal is a quiet neighbor, unobtrusive, marked only by a signs here and there, often on trails hidden by trees.

Fishing at West Dam … I hope they weren’t planning to eat the fish – March 2005

If the economy revives, the canal will survive. The nature of canals is unlike rivers. Canals need human assistance to keep “alive.”. Otherwise, the Blackstone Canal will gradually fill with silt, branches, become overgrown, and disappear into swamp.

Where the river and the canal join at West Bend, a swan drifts lazily on a warm day in early spring, 2005.

My job? Take as many pictures of it as I can before it’s no longer there to photograph. It’s part of our history and it deserves a better fate than oblivion.

Using a much better camera, here is where the river again separates from the canal. The canal runs straight ahead  through the locks and the spillway on the right takes the run-off water into the Blackstone. The absence of any significant snowfall last winter has left the water level low, so the spillway is almost dry. September 19, 2012

Will last year’s jeans fit this year’s body?

It wasn’t much, but it was something, a sign, a signal. The season is changing. The world has made that turn from summer into fall.

Flip-flops are secured to the foot by a strap ...

Flip-flops. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have put away my sandals and flip-flops, dug out the regular shoes. I’m moving the short sleeved tee shirts to the bottom of the draw, and putting the long-sleeved shirts on top.

I’m wondering if last year’s jeans will fit this year’s body.

I’m hunting through my storage containers, wondering where I put all my sweaters. I’m not even sure what sweaters I have or if I need new ones. Where is that nice green cashmere I bought at the end of last season from Land’s End? I know I had a red tunic that used to look really good on me. I’ll have to do some digging. Because it’s coming. The cooler weather is sending little warnings.

Where the river separates from the canal by the locks … some bright leaves

Down by the canal, there’s a hint of color in the leaves. Just a hint, like the soft rustle in trees, the plunk of an acorn dropping onto the driveway. At night, it’s chilly and we need a heavier coverlet on the bed. Not yet time for the down comforter, but I need to pull it out and give it an airing.

Goldenrod — bright as the sunshine

Goldenrod is gorgeous along the edge of the small canals near the big Crown and Eagle complex … and there are thousands of water lilies nearly filling the water.

So many lilies in the small canal on this sunny afternoon in September

The small mill canals are shallow, warmer than the big canals or the river. Plant life thrives in its slow-moving waters.

Ripples in the river by the bridge

It’s the beginning of the fall, the end of summer. The best time the year in this part of the world. I will need to find the jackets, the sweatshirts because the crisp days and chilly nights are near and maybe, before the month is out, here.

Big Gears On the Old Canal

It’s been a while since we visited the canal. Last night we realized that summer was running out on us and if we wanted to get some pictures, we needed to go out and shoot.

Gears for the locks. Weeds are beginning to grow there now. Until recently, they were maintained, but times are hard and money is tight.

Until recently, these mechanisms were maintained and cared for, but now, weeds are growing and leaves are gathering. The economy affects things at many levels. Maintaining historical places is not a high priority when resources are scarce. Historical sites are particularly vulnerable to losing funding when the economy is weak.

Another view of the big gears. This is the biggest of the many locks on the river.

I wanted to take a wide view of these gears, but there is no place to stand without being in danger of falling into the canal. The water is too polluted for me to risk that, though the water is probably quite pleasantly warm this time of year.

Big gear for the big canal locks.