MUSE: FOLLOWING THE RIVER

I fell in love with the Blackstone River when we moved to the valley fifteen years ago. The birds that nest along its length, its canals, tributaries, bridges, ponds. Even the swamps make this one of the most beautiful places in the world. In the autumn, the trees are magnificent.

We have swans and geese, ducks and herons. Turtles, beaver, fishers, and trout — they all live along or in the river. It is a rich and fertile world. Beautiful and ever-changing.

MANCHAUG – THE DAM

Manchaug September 2011

Manchaug is a favorite place. It’s a beautiful piece of the river and an elegant, high dam. The tiny town of Manchaug — technically, it’s part of Uxbridge — is a jewel.

They open and close the dam depending on rain fall and water levels. When it’s full and flowing, you can be sure we are not in drought conditions.

THESE HONORED DEAD

The cemetery is in the center of the town, across from the dam and just a hundred or so yards from the river itself. It’s up on a hill, so it never floods, even when the rivers rush over their banks. The people who created that cemetery knew about the rivers. And flooding. They picked a beautiful spot, but dry and safe for the bones and memories.

Downtown Revolutionary War Cemetery Uxbridge BW

An old cemetery, dating back to the early 1700s. It contains traces of many generations of those who lived and died in this town, this valley. Folks who lived along the Blackstone and its many tributaries, fished in its lakes and streams. They fought in our wars and are buried here — Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War veterans as well as those who fought in all the American wars since.

Every Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, the cemetery blooms with bouquets and flags. The schools bring the children here, so they will remember too and traditions will be maintained. They bring bouquets of wild flowers or from the back garden. Lilacs and lilies, scarlet poppies … and always a miniature American flag. Even if there’s no special holiday, the cemetery always shows signs of caring, remembering.

Maybe it’s easier to remember here, with such a small population. Is that it? Or it’s just part of the air, the character, the history. Remembering is what we do in the Valley.

The cemetery is one of my favorite places. We’re newcomers after all, only living here 15 years. Our ancestors — Garry’s and mine — come from Sligo, Antigua, Minsk, Bialystok … from tiny villages in Ireland and the West Indies and the shtetls of eastern Europe.

Valley people have been here longer. Many came from French Canada in the late 19th century to work in the mills. Another large group formed the dominant Dutch population. They built churches, businesses and factories, dairy and truck farms, shops, horse farms and sawmills. Their names are prominent wherever the rivers run.

Newcomers, like us, aren’t rare anymore but far from common. We have no ancestors in the cemetery, at least none about whom we know. Anything is possible in America.

The valley is the only place I’ve lived where the majority of families have lived in the town or in a nearby villages for three, four, five generations. “We’ve always lived in the Valley,” they say, meaning as long as anyone can remember. If gently prodded, they may recall at some point, long ago, they came from somewhere else … but some can’t remember when or if it’s true.

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I point out they must have come from somewhere because unless they are Native American, they came to this place, even if a long time since. They get misty-eyed trying to remember old family stories handed down when they were young. Hard to remember, they tell you. “You know, that was 75 years ago … a long time.” We nod, because it was a long time ago, longer than we’ve been alive, and we aren’t young.

So another year passes and little flags and flowers bloom in the old cemetery in the middle of town.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG

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Spring has well and truly sprung. A month ago, it was winter. Now, it’s summer. Air-conditioning and all. Oh, and did I mention the pollen? The pollen is in hyper-drive. Everything is coated in green, from the cars to the windows. Everyone is sneezing. Runny eyes. Coughs. Congestion.

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That’s way spring arrives in New England. It seems like it will never come … then it bursts, full bore and everything blooms at the same time.

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Today was so beautiful. A perfect spring day with just the beginnings of leaves on the trees.

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RIVER OF DESTINY – BORN ON THE BLACKSTONE

BORN ON THE BLACKSTONE: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Born Bankrupt

America was born bankrupt. We won a revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy depended on Great Britain. We produced raw material, but England turned materials into goods.

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, shipping, and trade routes.

Everything has a price and we had no money. We hoped we could reach an agreement with England short of war and had there been a different monarch on the throne, we might have been able to. Despite the Massachusetts “Sam Adams faction” most colonists felt at least some allegiance to England.

We had no “American identity” because there was no America with which to identify. What colonists wanted were the rights of free Englishmen. A deal should have been reached, but George III said no. It was war. England lost their wealthiest colonies and we were born.

How did we win the war? George Washington did an amazing job considering what he had to work with. And then, there were the French.

French military support was the key. Ships, guns, mercenaries. It was a loan we agreed to pay back. The French revolution was a stroke of luck indeed. Afterwards, when Napoleon suggested we repay our war debt, we said “What war debt?” Phew.

What Did We Have?

Slaves and land. Sugar and rum. Most slaves lived in the south, but were brought here by New England sea captains. Held in New York, and Boston, sold to slavers at northern markets, they were then sent south to be resold to individual owners. Our entire economy was based on slaves.

The new-born United States had no factories, no national bank, currency, credit, courts, laws, or central government. Even before 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies. When it came time to write a Constitution, it was obvious abolishing slavery would doom it, so slavery became law, laying the groundwork for America’s bloodiest war.

87 years later, more than 600,000 lives would be the butcher’s bill for that “deal.” It would twist and distort American history, shape our politics, society, culture, and social alignments. Its legacy remains. When you dine with the Devil, bring a long spoon.

Welcome to the Blackstone Valley

People needed work. Trade goods. If this country was going to develop into anything, it needed reliable sources of income.

Slave and rum might work for a few, but most settlers didn’t own ships. Moreover, slaving was never a profession for “nice folks.” Decent people might live off the labor of slaves, but actually buying and selling people was more than they could stomach.

As great minds gathered in Philadelphia to draft a document to build a nation, other great minds sought 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.

As the Constitution went into effect in 1789, 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 combines with its narrowness and meandering path to give it much more energy than a river of this size should generate.

As the Constitution was gaining approval, Brown tried to build a cotton thread factory in Pawtucket, RI at a falls on the Blackstone River. He was sure he could harness the river to power his mill, but at the end of 1789, the score stood at Blackstone River – 1, Moses Brown – 0.

America had her welcome mat out in those days. We needed people. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcomed, 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 was an engineer with years of experience working in English textile mills. In less than a year, he built a working mill on the Blackstone River. America’s first factory was open for business.

Slaters Mill restoration (museum)

Slater’s Mill restoration (museum)

Mills sprang up everywhere along the Blackstone. From Worcester to Providence, its banks were lined with mills and factories. More sprouted by the Merrimack and eventually, everywhere in New England where a river ran.

The Blackstone Canal

What made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made it useless for shipping. Horse-drawn wagons were slow and expensive. It took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads from Worcester to Providence.

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When winter came, the trip was impossible. All of which led to the building of the Blackstone Canal.

What Does This Have To Do With Slavery?

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

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

Railroads

Railroads were the game-changer. When rail arrived, the canal was abandoned. Business boomed.

By the end of the 19th century, the Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories. 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. This was also the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast and the beginning of mass unemployment in the north.

As of 1923, the majority of nation’s cotton was grown, spun and woven down south — and that’s where the mills went. One by one, they closed, never to reopen. Without its mills and factories, the valley’s population began to shrink.

Pollution

In 1971, the Blackstone River was labeled “one of America’s most polluted rivers” by Audubon magazine. It was the low point. Time to clean up the mess.

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We’re still cleaning up. Although not as bad as it was, the watershed isn’t clean yet. Against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from a sewage treatment plant in Millbury. It’s hard to fathom the reasoning, if any, of those knuckleheads still pouring sewage into our river.

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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 the fish who breed here. The river is alive, if not entirely well. An apt description of our nation too.

INDUSTRY OUTSIDE METROPOLIS

Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Industrial

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It’s a matter of definition. For most of my life, I lived in or around major cities. New York, where I grew up. I don’t know if Jerusalem counts as a major city, but I was there a pretty long time.

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Then Boston. Industrial in large cities is synonymous with “big.” Great brick factories belching smoke. Tall chimneys. Pollution. Cement. Traffic.

Old Mill No. 4

Yet, ironically, out here in the Blackstone Valley is where the American industrial revolution began. We are the home of the first factories.

Crown and Eagle mill transformed into elderly housing

Crown and Eagle mill transformed into elderly housing

The mills, built along the Blackstone River were where it all began. We are still cleaning up the pollution and the mills are either gone or converted to some other use.

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First they moved down south, where they could find cheaper land, labor, favorable tax laws … and they would be near the cotton fields.

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But industry remains. It’s not the way it was, yet it is industry. Small factories, cottage industry by comparison. And just as interesting as photographic subject.

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And finally, not forgetting our New England coastline, the docks and ships of our historic fishing fleets. Our first American industry!