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.

75-Train-NK-014a

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’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.

96-BlueHeronFlying-NK-1

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.

MY BRIEF CAREER IN ANIMAL CONTROL

I live in a small town. Just under 13,000 people call Uxbridge home. The village, or as we say around here, “downtown,” has a classic brick town hall, circa 1879, an elegant old library, and several other historic buildings.

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

1893 Thayer Library Photo: Garry Armstrong

Our closest neighboring town, Millville, makes Uxbridge look like Metropolis.

Their town hall is a unit in an old condo building. The center of town is a sub shop. There’s no sign to indicate you are in Millville, so it’s easy to miss. When you get there, it will be closed anyway. The following notice is posted on Millville’s website:

Due to budget constraints, effective immediately the Town Clerk’s office will only be open on Mondays from 9am-1pm and Wednesday evenings from 6pm-8pm for public assistance.  If you cannot be at the Municipal Center during these scheduled hours, please call the Town Clerk’s Office to schedule an appointment.

There are approximately 3100 people living in Millville, spread out thinly.

Downtown Millville.

Perhaps 7 years ago — I don’t remember exactly — the town of Millville decided they needed a Deputy Animal Control Officer. I don’t remember how I heard about the job. It may have been a tip from our local animal control officer who knew I liked animals and needed part-time work.

This was about as part-time as a job could be. The pay was $1200 per year, payable semi-annually. Before taxes.

Millville already had a Senior Animal Control Officer who was theoretically in charge, but passionately fond of golf. I suspect he also had a full-time job elsewhere too. So, in exchange for $600 every 6 months, I would have the official title of Deputy Animal Control Officer and would be on call 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.

I’m basically an optimist. I figured Millville is tiny. How many calls could there be? I took the job. I was sworn in, just like in the movies, hand on the Bible. I promised to protect and serve.

A mere couple of hours later, I got my first call. A homeowner had found an almost dead skunk by their trash bin and wanted it taken away. Since it was my first call — and a weekend — my “senior officer” thought maybe he should come along, show me the ropes as it were. Luckily, the skunk did the right thing and went from nearly dead to absolutely dead while I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was informed by my erstwhile boss that the skunk had probably been rabid and I should not touch it. If the skunk had not died on his own, I would have been obliged to shoot it.

Me: “Shoot it?”

Boss: “Yes, shoot it. With the rifle.”

Me: “Rifle? What rifle?”

Boss: “Oh, didn’t I mention that? We have a couple of rifles in the office. When an animal is behaving suspiciously, you have to shoot it.”

Me: “Behaving suspiciously?”

Boss: “You know, approaching people rather than running away. Acting weird. Most of the animals you’ll get calls about are rabid. There’s a lotta rabies around here so you don’t want to get close. Just shoot’em.”

Rabies. Shoot the animals. $100 a month. I was getting that creepy feeling I get when I think maybe I’ve signed up for something, the implications of which I had failed to fully grasp.

After we bagged the skunk — literally, using gloves and shovels provided by the town of Millville — to send to the Worcester county animal medical examiner, I promised to go to city hall as soon as they reopened to discuss guns and the other equipment I would need, like shovels, leather gloves, heavy-duty plastic trash bags (the non-human version of body bags), tags for the medical examiner. Forms to fill out. Oh, and where to put the corpses. Turns out, you can’t just stack them up in city hall.

My boss was unconcerned I’d never handled a weapon other than a Red Ryder Daisy BB rifle. I’d never shot anything currently or previously alive. I was puzzled about what I was supposed to do if I got a call, actually needed a rifle, but it was locked up at city hall which was pretty much always closed. Would the offending animal make an appointment for a more convenient time? Or wait for me to call someone, get them to unlock the gun cabinet, then hang around while I drove over to get it, then drove back to shoot him? Are the rabid animals of Millville that cooperative? Was I supposed to keep the big hunting rifle in my house in case I needed it? The rabies thing had me spooked, too.

When I was finally able to get to city hall, I demanded a rabies vaccination. No way was I going to handle rabid animals without a vaccination. They pointed out rabies vaccinations are expensive and I was only the deputy. They suggested I pay for it myself.

Me: “How much will it cost?”

Clerk: “Around $450.”

Me: “That’s four and a half months pay.”

Clerk: “Well, we don’t normally pay for it.”

Me: “I’m not doing this unless I’m vaccinated.”

It turned out that the animal medical examiner could provide me with the appropriate vaccination, so Garry — who had begun to look alarmed – drove me to the doctor. While the doctor prepared the inoculation, we got a rundown of exactly how common rabies is in our neck of the woods. “Why,” he said, “Just the previous week they found a deer with rabies. Chipmunks, skunk, fox, coyotes, squirrels, deer … even possums get rabies.” The only exceptions are rabbits who are naturally immune. Go figure.

The following day, I got another call. A really big snapping turtle had wandered into the road and was blocking traffic. It didn’t sound too threatening, so armed with my shoulder-high heavy leather gauntlets (no rifle), I drove to the site and met the snapping turtle from Hell.

A common snapping turtle.

Keep in mind that there is water everywhere in the valley. Not only the Blackstone, but all its tributaries, feeder creeks, lakes, brooks, ponds, pools, and swamps. Snapping turtles are called common for good reason. They live just about everywhere you find water. Undoubtedly, the big snapper had wandered into the road, lost his bearings. Someone needed to grab the turtle and carry him back on the river side of the road. That someone was me.

This turtle was not in the water, not docile. His beak was sharp. His neck was extremely flexible. Not my kind of nature pal.

So there I was, by the side of the road, trying to figure out how I could grab him. He was approximately 30 pounds of pissed turtle. He seemed pretty agile to me. He could move. Okay, maybe he’d lose a footrace to a rabbit, but he could trundle along at a nice pace. And he had that snaky neck and was determined to bite me.

Meanwhile, an entire construction crew, these big brawny guys who supposedly repairing the bridge, were watching. They didn’t seem eager to help. In fact, they were the ones who called in the first place.

I eventually herded him across the road. I looked at those jaws, looked at my leather gloves, did a quick mental calculation as to strength of gloves versus power of turtle’s jaws, decided the gloves weren’t all that sturdy.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Have you ever tried herding a turtle? Of course not. You can’t herd a turtle, but I did. I don’t know exactly how I got him across the road. I know there was a big shovel involved, but otherwise, it’s a blur. The next thing I remember doing after getting the turtle over to the river side of the road, was calling the clerk and resigning.

The turtle was enough for me. I figured if I didn’t get out quick, they’d have me hunting rabid coyotes with a large gun and I’d shoot my foot off.

They tried to bill me for the rabies shot. We settled for not paying me. I think I got the better part of the deal.

SO MANY MONUMENTS, SO LITTLE SPACE

Monument

Small town, overly fond of monuments has turned the town common into marble clutter. From the civil war, through all the other wars in which our soldiers have died. Perhaps smaller monuments more in balance with available space?

The photographs were taken by both Garry and I over the course of a couple of years using a variety of cameras and covering all seasons.

 

Blackstone Valley Roads – Marilyn Armstrong

These are places I pass as I go to and from the various routine errands and activities of life.  They aren’t special places … or rather, they aren’t places that I have to seek out because they are along the roads I use every day.

Built in 1779, this originally housed a forge and was the shop of a blacksmith. In the 1800s, it became a shoemaker’s shop and now stands empty on the corner of Chestnut Street, a road that runs from North Street to Route 140 in Upton.

Door to the Forge House.

It’s easy to stop noticing what’s right in front of you. It’s always there, so you don’t realize that it’s special. Then, because I’ve taken my camera, my vision changes. I notice things that are more usually background to the world in which I live.

In front of the drive in restaurant where you can get the best clam puffs … if you don’t mind a bit of accompanying heartburn … they grow sunflowers. There were honeybees on the flowers, a good sign since honeybees have come a bit scarce.

They are called sunflowers and deservedly so. Like the sunshine itself, the shine brightly and turn to the sky.

And I realize that they are indeed special or would be to others and ought to be for me, too. That’s one of the greatest boons I get from photography, that it makes me notice the things around me that otherwise just pass by along the roads I travel.

Along the road, many bushes and flowers, wild and cultivated bloom.

The pods of some wildflower about to spread itself by the wind.

These are all local roads, on the way to the doctor, on the way to the grocery, coming back from the place I sometimes purchase a scratch ticket.

The general store is on Route 16 just after you leave Mendon and enter Uxbridge. They also make great sandwiches.

These old mill buildings now house business and condos. Despite efforts to preserve them, many have disappeared, mostly due to fires. The last mill that burned lasted a full three weeks … with every firefighter in the valley working to put it out. Most firefighters are volunteers since the towns in the valley can’t afford to maintain full crews. These people come when called, work for no pay and in fact, lose money while missing their normal employment. Without them, we’d be in serious trouble.

These are the ordinary roads of the Blackstone Valley in the summer.

Image

WINTER’S LAST GASP – GARRY ARMSTRONG

75-GA-UxDam_18

We went down to the dam in the middle of Uxbridge today. It was relatively warm and there’s a lot of melting going on. Still, it’s supposed to snow tonight. Not a lot of snow. A mere couple of inches, but with temperatures dropping, it’s likely to stick. Maybe this will be winter’s last gasp — or blast.

75-GA-UxDam_32

Image

REEDS AND RIPPLES

75-BlockPrint-Glow-1

Along the river’s edge are still ponds that become swamps. These are the places that nurture babies … baby fish and birds and other small creatures that live in and along the river. Rich in insect life, it’s a perfect nursery for the young. Plenty of stuff to eat and relatively save from human intrusion.

75-Green Pool Glow-2

And it’s surprisingly beautiful. It often reminds me of Japanese block prints. This particular piece of swamp is at an intersection where the river creates a pond and a little beach (you can swim there), the green pools, a small waterfall and rapids leading to a creek and then the river. Pretty. And hard to find!

75-Wetlands-NK

Image

MORE SNOW … THE NEVERENDING WINTER

SNOWING HARD 1

I’m was hoping we’d seen the last “big one” of the season, but nope.

This storm wasn’t suppose to really hit us. It was a coastal storm, so if we got it at all, it would be no more than a glancing blow, a few light inches.

When the snow started to come down heavily this morning,  I thought “Oh, just a flurry.” But it got heavier and Garry, foregoing his shower and other normal morning activities, made a dash for the grocery store … along with what seemed to be the entire population of the town. He thought there couldn’t be any more people coming, but as he was checking out, the rest of the towns showed up … those who’d been at work, probably.

Now the weather gurus are predicting as much as 2 feet of snow along the coast. No one is aware it’s snowing in the Valley. We never make it into weather reports so I have no idea what we are expecting. Apparently a bit more than the originally predicted 3 to 5 inches. (Ya think Probie?)

snowing hard 12

So. Thirty four days by the calendar. Are we counting yet?

more snow in february 08

february snow 05