We don’t get lots of visitors here, probably because we aren’t a major city and we aren’t — any longer — a place for tourists. But oddly enough, this was a tourist area not all that long ago. At some point, it was too close to Boston and became exurban rather than “tourist.” That being said, it’s a beautiful valley and for those who are interested in what country living is like — with access to major cities too — this is a pretty nice place to be.
Welcome to the Blackstone River Valley.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, mill owners on the Blackstone 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.
All those 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 major player on the international scene.
Now, it’s a peaceful, quiet valley. The mills are gone, the river remains, rolling down from the hills in Worcester through Rhode Island to the sea. Come visit. We are still beautiful.