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Mill No. 4, 1911

All over the valley, they are remodeling old mills and turning them into office space, housing, places for crafts and shopping. This mill is in North Smithfield Rhode Island.

The clock tower from the side.

It bears the name of Mill No. 4, 1911. I haven’t been able to find out more. Yet.

Tower from the front.

I’ll keep searching, but meanwhile, Mill No. 4 is now an office park. Not bad.

The tower looms at certain angles.

Behind the façade, bits of the old mill are still visible. I guess that’s why they call it a façade.

Behind the façade.

 

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1771 – The First Quaker Meeting House

Conveniently located at the corner of our street and that other road, just short of a mile from our front door, you can see the historic first Quaker Meetinghouse in Massachusetts, built in 1771. It’s right on the Rhode Island border (as are we) and only the happenstance of the way the lines were drawn prevented it from being in Rhode Island like most of the historic Quaker Meeting Houses are in New England.

It isn’t in weekly use any more, but services are held there on Thanksgiving morning and many people arrange for weddings and other important celebrations to take place there. I think we will have our 25th anniversary vow renewal there. It will be our 3rd renewal. Just 2 years to go! If we all stay healthy, come on down!

The church is unheated. They’ve rigged up a sort of warm air blower to take the worst of the chill off, but even at Thanksgiving when deep winter hasn’t arrived, it’s cold inside. You need an overcoat.

It’s spare, plain, and simple inside, as you would expect. And beautiful, as you would also expect.

Located at the intersection of Rt. 146A and Rt. 98, if you find it, you've almost found us. Let me know if you'll be in town!

Located at the intersection of Rt. 146A and Rt. 98, if you find it, you’ve almost found us. Let me know if you’ll be in town!

It is a registered national landmark and is well maintained. You cannot get inside unless it’s one of the special occasions when it’s open to the public, but you are always welcome on the grounds. Hard to get a good angle on it since it’s awkwardly placed on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, its own road, and the intersection of Rt. 146A and Rt. 98, but I’m going to try it again with the widest lens I have and some close-ups of windows and doors … if it ever stops raining here.

Off to Connecticut today to pick up a car that friends are passing along to us as they got something ever so much spiffier. It will be good for us as it’s an all-wheel vehicle that will serve us well in the upcoming winter.

Funny about living here. It’s not yet the 4th of July, full air conditioning season. But thoughts are already turning to winter. Warm weather is brief in New England. This year, as soon as May ended, it turned into the monsoon season, nothing but torrential downpours, 100+ temperatures, followed by more rain. Interspersed with tornadoes, thunder and lightning. It’s the green time of year. Not just leaves. Everything is green with mold from dampness.

My gardens are drowned. My two baskets of fuchsia are still doing okay and one begonia is trying to hold on to life, but there’s been no sun. Plants can’t live in mud. There’s no air in mud and our soil is clay and hard. It doesn’t drain. So summer’s been a washout. Literally.

I hope we manage to squeeze in a few glorious weeks of autumn between season and season. It’s our reward for surviving the rest of the year and maybe it will stop raining long enough for the leaves to change color before they are washed away!

Lost in Rhode Island

I used to commute from our house in Uxbridge, Massachusetts over 100 miles to Pfizer in Groton, Connecticut. In a desperate and hopeless attempt to find a shorter route, I experimented with various combinations of back roads. There was no truly direct route and it was such a long drive, I didn’t think I had much to lose.

GrotonToUxb1

I have been lost for most of my life. I’ve been lost all over the United States, England, Wales, Ireland and Israel. GPS technology was relatively new and while some people had them, most didn’t. Including me. I had an atlas, but whatever road I was on never seemed to be on the map.

One evening, at the end of my long drive home from work, I got lost in Rhode Island.

I wasn’t a just little bit lost. I was completely turned around, totally confused. It was dark; I was low on gasoline. I didn’t recognize anything; it all looked the same.  Eventually I realized everything not only looked the same, it was the same. I was driving in circles.

Rhode Island Road

I called home. At least my cell phone worked. It didn’t help. Since I didn’t know where I was, I couldn’t tell anyone how to find me. I was much too embarrassed to call 911.

I drove around for what seemed forever hoping to find a familiar road or see some kind of landmark by which I could orient myself. Eventually — tired, hungry and humiliated — I found my way home. I had been no more than a few miles from my house. The following day, I bought my first GPS.

There’s a moral in this story, but I have no idea what it is.

Following the Blackstone River

Despite hundred of years of industrial pollution, the Blackstone River Valley survives.

A complex of rivers, tributaries, wetlands, forests, lakes and streams., the Blackstone River Watershed contains more than 30 dams  in its 46-mile length. This does not include dams on tributaries and other waterways, only those on the Blackstone itself.

West Dam

The watershed links two states and 24 communities. Over time and with the demise of the mills and disappearance of the factories, the dams created marsh and wetlands that have become critical to the ecosystem.

Mumford River, Uxbridge

Mumford River, Uxbridge

Several lakes are part of the system, including Webster Lake and some big ponds that seem to be nameless. They are just there, by the road, sometimes with boat slips or docks, occasionally having little beaches where you can swim, if you can find them.

The Blackstone River‘s levels rise and fall with the seasons, with heavy rain and melting snow, and with periods of drought.

About Those Dams 

Depending on who you ask, there are at least 30 dams on the Blackstone, but there many more dams if you include tributaries and large streams. In fact, there are dams just about everywhere if you look for them. They create waterfalls and exquisite ponds, as well as wetlands.

Manchaug

Dams would typically be associated with a mill, but many now appear to stand alone. Probably, there was a mill there once. But it’s gone.  The dam lives on in the middle of nowhere. Figure there was something there  – maybe a gristmill for local farms or something like that. Some  of these old dams are works of art.

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Old Stone Fences

Speaking of the middle of nowhere, a lot of land around here was cultivated but has returned to forest. Our home is on former farm land. Many clues about the history areas in New England can be found if you can find the stone fences.

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Our modest acreage is crisscrossed by stone fences. These walls mark the edges where fields were. Now, they’re the middle nowhere, which of course is just where I live.

Finding Places

Most of the good stuff is invisible until you get out of your car and take a walk. I look for areas where I can safely stop and park (the definition of what is good enough changes depending on terrain and how badly I want to stop). With narrow roads bounded by close-growing woods and wetland, it’s good to be cautious when you take your vehicle to an unpaved area.

Often, patches of ground that look like weedy, slightly muddy ground are the edge of the marsh. I use the “if it looks wet but it hasn’t rained in the last few days, don’t go there” rule. That generally works. I am not as intrepid as once I was . The problem is always to find a safe place  for the car that still puts me within modest walking distance from my target area. I should mention that I can’t walk too well these days. My goat-girl clambering years are past.  I’m not surefooted and my hip joints and I have a deal: I let them alone and they let me walk.

Swans_20 - Marilyn Armstrong

I look for little sandy pull-off areas that appear to adjoin a dirt road, and if possible, near an overpasses. An overpass tells me that the river is right under me, so whatever I’m looking for is not far. When you see a pull-off next to a dirt walking trail, that means other people come there. Not instructional and surely not on any map, but for this area, pretty good. Unlike the suburbs, rural areas don’t have signs telling you what you can or cannot do … or where you are. They figure you know where you are or ought to, and you’ll do whatever you came to do.

On the up side, you’re unlikely to have anyone yell at you that you’re not allowed to go there. For that matter, if you fall in the rapids and drown, it might be a while before they find you. I have adjusted my roaming accordingly. I try to bring a friend who can call 911 if I do something dumb.

If these places have names, there’s no sign. Rhode Island is better about signage than Massachusetts, where the attitude is “If you don’t know where you are, why are  you here?” Rhode Island is more densely populated, maybe because it is so tiny.

Here, in south central Massachusetts, there’s a lot of open areas that don’t seem to belong to anyone and it’s rare to bump into other people. When you do, they aren’t chatty. You don’t go to places no one can find to converse with strangers. Thus, most places I go  places are unmarked. No road signs, nothing to tell you which piece of river, lake or dam you’ve found. If you don’t find it amusing, you’ll spend all your time grousing, so you might as well laugh.

Photograph by Garry Armstrong. Aldrich tributary.

Photograph by Garry Armstrong. Aldrich tributary.

When I’m shooting, I roam. I often have no idea how I got to wherever I landed. Sometimes the GPS helps, but many places are off-road and not on the map. There are places I’ve been once, but never found again. Off a path by a bridge along a side road near a farm, maybe in Massachusetts, perhaps Rhode Island. I have always loved going wherever the road took me.

I’m especially fond of the old low stone bridges that I call “keyholes” but probably have another name. A lot of them are also now in the middle of nowhere, on paths that are long gone and not even accessible by foot.

The Canal in Fall

Some of the oldest bridges are still in use, repaired and rebuilt many times, now supporting heavy traffic — cars and trucks — on roads that were designed for horse and buggy or herds of cows. Better not to think too hard on that.

One of the larger lakes that forms a part of the watershed is Webster Lake. A map from 1795 shows the name as “Chargoggaggoggmancogmanhoggagogg”. A survey of the lake from 1830 names the lake as “Chaubunagungmamgnamaugg”, which is an older name. The following year, both Dudley and Oxford, which at that time bordered the lake, filed maps listing it as “Chargoggagoggmanchoggagogg”.

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Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg or Webster Lake is probably the largest open body of water in the valley. Spelling of  this lake’s long (probably Algonquin) name varies a lot, depending on where you read about it. Since it isn’t English, it’s at best a rough transliteration anyhow. The actual meaning is conjecture. Local residents pride themselves on being able to pronounce the long name of the lake. I can’t. I just call it Webster Lake. It doesn’t make it less beautiful.

And so it goes. Hopefully there will come a day (soon!) when the pollution is gone and our river is clean. Meanwhile, the beauty is there for all of us.

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Mills of the Blackstone Valley

Not surprisingly, the Blackstone Valley is full of old mills. Some are very old, some relatively recent. Some of the oldest are the best preserved and a few have been fully renovated and put back to use as housing or shopping areas.

The Crown and Eagle mills pre-renovated.

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.

Thousands of water lilies bloom on the small canal that runs to the renovated Crown and Eagle mill.

Thousands of water lilies bloom on the small canal that runs to the renovated Crown and Eagle mill.

On the Mumford. Converted to a liquor store.

Mill on the Mumford. Converted to a liquor store.

Huge brick mill-factory on a large pond. Northbridge. Rain is falling.

Canal between the falls and the small mill, and the former Bernat Mills that burned down five years ago. Uxbridge.

Many mills have been converted to condominiums or mini malls. Some have become office space.

English: The Brick Mill, built 1826, Whitinsvi...

The Brick Mill, built 1826, Whitinsville, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many have burned down or been torn down because they presented a fire hazard. Fortunately, many others have been renovated, turned into malls, senior housing, mini-malls and other kinds of commercial  real estate.

The last standing parts of Bernat Mills.

The last standing parts of Bernat Mills.
Old Mill No. 4

Old Mill No. 4

1911 - Mill No. 4

1911 – Mill No. 4

Mill buildings converted to antiques complex.

Mill complex converted to antiques complex.

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.

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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 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.

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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.

 

There ARE stupid questions …

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Medicare Bil...

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs Medicare Bill at the Harry S. Truman Library, 1965 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let me start by saying that I thank God and Lyndon Johnson that we have Medicare because without it, I would not be sitting here and writing this. I would be long since dead and buried. For the most part, Medicare is surprisingly well-administered. You can call them any time of the day or night, 24/7 and someone will try to help you. Medicare works better than any other part of the government I’ve ever dealt with. It is easier to work with than any of the expensive private insurers I had while I was working. Moreover, the people at Medicare who answer the phones are accessible, pleasant, patient, and well-informed which is a lot more than I can say for any private insurer I had. When they say they are going to call you back, they actually do call you back. Amazing.

I spoke to them last week and they couldn’t help me with this because it’s a local thing. Supplemental and Medicare Advantage programs are available from specific vendors in designated areas. So they had to pass me on to local representatives.

You have heard it said, I am sure, that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.

That is not true.

I was trying to see if there is a less expensive alternative to my current Medicare supplement, aka Medigap policy. My goal was to reduce my monthly medical insurance costs without compromising the quality of my medical care.

I could have found what I wanted if I lived almost anywhere else. But we live out in the country and there’s not much available.  The plans would be good enough if you don’t get sick, or whatever is wrong with you is common and can be managed your PCP or a very inexperienced specialist. Definitely not a description of me.

To make things more complicated, we live close to Rhode Island, so most of the doctors that come up using all these plans’ search engines are in Rhode Island, not Massachusetts. The law governing medical care and prescription coverage varies hugely between the states. These search engines don’t know about state lines and just search within a designated radius you specify. Which makes the searches useless. Someone needs to do something about this. I can’t be the only person living near a state border who is on Medicare, can I?

Now, for the stupid questions.

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The Scene

Marilyn is sitting in front of the big monitor in her office. A cup of coffee is on the right, partially blocking the screen, and a glass of electrolyte rich zero calorie sports drink is on the other side. I have been roaming from provider site to provider site in the hopes of finding something that might work for me. Finally, unable to obtain any meaningful results, I fill out the form asking for more information. The phone rings. It is a digital phone, so really, it yodels.

Yodel yodel eeee. Yodel yodel ooooo.

Me, picking up phone: “Hello?”

Her: “May I speak with Marilyn Arstrong?

Me: “You got her”

Her: “I believe you inquired about Health Care options with ….?”

Me: “You’re fast. I’m still on your site.”

Her: “We have a variety of programs. How can I help you?”

Me: “I have a Medigap program, but I’m hoping to find a something less expensive, preferably a Medicare Advantage program, but there doesn’t seem to be much choice in this area.”

Her: “Do you have a computer?”

(Pause.) I just filled out a computer inquiry and said I was still on her website. It was dumb, but in the name of charity, I let it pass and moved on.

…. back and forth … back and forth …

Me: “So, in short, you don’t have a Medicare Advantage program that would work for me. It wouldn’t cost less and it wouldn’t let me keep any of my doctors or hospitals. It would be a Medicare Disadvantage plan. Why are we having this conversation?”

… back and forth … back and forth …

Me: “So, you don’t have anything that meets my needs. Have I got that right?

Her: “Do you live in a rural area?”

Me: (Pause) “You could say that.”

Her: “You might be okay with a more basic Medigap policy. Do you think  you are going to be sick? Do you expect to need hospitalization?”

(Very long pause.)

Her: “Are you still there?”

I did not say that I was thinking. Wit and irony need to be used selectively. There are people on whom it is lost.

I wanted to say that I was considering a mild stroke in time for Christmas, but if they were having any specials on particular non-lethal diseases, I’d be willing to consider something heart-related, perhaps a minor infarction. I thought of saying that I was not planning any major medical incidents for at least a year, but I might, just for excitement have a medium-to-serious auto accident … but I doubted she’d see the humor. She was trying to help me. Ineffectually, but asking me if I was going to be sick? Really?

Does someone own a medical crystal ball. If they do, they should patent it because it is worth billions.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but I signed up with a different prescription carrier who I hope will save me a few bucks next year. Meanwhile, tomorrow is another day. Maybe I’ll think of something else. I hope that none of these options require that I know if I’m going to get sick. Because I haven’t a clue.

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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.

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On the street where I live …

Down the block, probably the oldest house this end of the road, Built in the late 1700. There’s an older one down the other way, built in the early 1700s.

Our street is also an interstate numbered route that run into Rhode Island about two miles south of our house. It’s an old road and still one of the least built-up areas of the local towns.

My neighbor (across the street) had a bumper crop of tomatoes this year. A few still linger on the vines.

He also grew some wonderful hot yellow peppers.

The last two peppers on the vine.

Bright vines climb on an old oak just past a driveway onto the tree farm.

Bright colored vines along a yellow tree.

At the base of the street, bright yellow daisies don’t recognize the end of their season as they point their faces at the sun.

Daisies along the fence at the bottom of the road.

Then, there are the flowering grasses …

Flowering grasses in an autumn garden.

And our flag is still there.

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Early Color — West Dam on the Blackstone

 

Today, the leaves began to change. I could see it from my office window. I had no time to plan a photo excursion, but on my way to the dentist, I grabbed my little Canon point and shoot. On the way to the office, I spotted the waterfall I’ve been looking for. I’d shot here before, but didn’t remember where. Today, I spotted it and promised myself to stop before we went home.

Further along, I saw the red barn. I’ve passed it so many and never thought much about it, but today, I remembered and stopped there … on the way home.

So many great pictures … Today, just some pictures of the early color changes at the dam, which is called Lower West Dam. The leaves change first along the water.

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

Blackstone Canal – View From a Bridge

View of the canal from the bridge in Uxbridge.

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 beginning to recover, but it’s slow. In the early autumn it is as smooth as glass and reflects like a mirror. A bright day in mid September.

Mammoth Mill in Waterford, Rhode Island in North Smithfield pictured at the turn of the 20th century by Mrs. Nelson Wright

A Tiny Waterfall

nA Tiny Waterfall by teepee12
A Tiny Waterfall, a photo by teepee12 on Flickr.

A tiny waterfall at an unnamed dam on the Blackstone River in Slatersville, RI.