WHY STUDY HISTORY? REFLECTING ON THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PAST

Posted on January 29, 2017 by Sean Munger in Authors, Books, History /

Al Mackey, the Civil War historian who runs the excellent Student of the American Civil War blog, has today put up a very thoughtful and incisive piece on a book written by another one of our blogging colleagues, Dr. John Fea. Dr. Fea’s book Why Study History? is a clarion call for our times, when understanding of the past–or even appreciation of why understanding the past is even useful–is under serious attack. The themes Dr. Fea talks about in his book, and which Mr. Mackey echoes, are similar to those I recently dealt with in my own article about the dangers of “Fake History.” Please read the whole article at Al’s blog, or, better yet, buy Dr. Fea’s book!

This is an excellent book by John Fea, Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College. Professor Fea is also a blogging colleague, blogging at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which is also the title of an earlier book of his, subtitled, Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. There he posts the normal history blog posts as well as personal reflections on current events, religion, politics, and the academic life, as well as videos. He also hosts a podcast that has already been featured on this blog.

In my opinion, everyone who would like to be a serious student of history needs to read this book. Professor Fea gives us an accessible primer on how to do history, from the obligatory “What Do Historians Do?” to “What Can You Do With a History Degree?”

So what is a historian? ” ‘In my opinion,’ writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, ‘not everyone who writes about the past is a historian. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists frequently work in the past without thinking historically.’ ” [pp. 1-2]

Is history simply the past, or is there a difference?… [CONT’D]

Read the entire original article here: Why Study History? Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

NINIANE – THE LADY OF THE LAKE

See on Scoop.itTraveling Through Time

TALLHWCH – The pursuit of history

The first mention of either the Lady of the Lake or Ninian (Niniane, Vivian, etc.) is to be found in the late work Prose Merlin.  Her character remains much the same through to Sir Thomas Malory, who simply makes the story more complex.  In all the stories that name her Ninian is a fully developed character.  She is the original owner of Arthur’s second sword and later becomes Merlin’s pupil.

However, as with many aspects of the Arthurian literary world, there are serious gaps in reasoning with her story, and these gaps suggest a very different origin for her.  For instance, Merlin somehow knows she will betray him, but teaches her anyway.  The romances explain that he does so because he loves her, but that sounds like more of a rationalization of something not understood than an historical fact that is.

The end of her story is that Niniane does trap Merlin in a cave the moment her studies are over.  He is left there, alive (again, no serious explanation).  It certainly is not out of malice for Arthur.  Ninian takes over as his counselor for the remainder of his reign and does her best to help him.  She is also one of the four women who takes him to Avalon.  That is the extent of Ninian’s literary career.  Clearly her original character and the transformation have been hidden by chance and misunderstandings.

Uinniau was a prominent ecclesiastic of sixth century Britain who may have been Columba’s teacher.  He was known as Ninian in Welsh saints’ lives or Nynia by Bede.  However, much of Scotland has place-names derived from his proper name of Uinniau.  This Uinniau was known for three things mainly.  First, he was one of the most knowledgeable persons of his age.  Second, he was a great teacher who made his monastery of Whithorn was a primary center of learning in Britain.  Finally, it is known that he would occasionally go on a retreat to a nearby cave, known as St. Ninian’s Cave, which was several miles away from his monastery.

Ninian would eventually became the form by which Uinniau was exclusively known.  In fact, the process must have been an early one.  Bede, writing in 725, knew him only by that name.  It was an unfortunate circumstance that Ninian was a Celtic name, and the romance writers who would treat Arthur on the continent spoke Germanic and Latin languages.  The unfamiliarity with Celtic would lead to confusion over his gender, and he became a she there.

Arthur was an attractive figure in the literature of the Middle Ages, gravitating all manner of figures, motifs, and stories to him.  In previous blogs I have mentioned the attraction of the Myrddin (Merlin) legend and the figure of Urien.  The same sort of fate awaited Uinniau.  Long before Arthur had become a figure of romance, Uinniau’s dominant name-form had become to Ninian.  For the Celtic speaker that was still a male name, but for continentals it was female.

That change from male to female, from independent ecclesiastic to intelligent layperson was where Uinniau became a different literary figure.  Once Uinniau was a part of the Arthurian universe, his reputation for intelligence would have drawn him to the already established Merlin; in an irony of history a lunatic (Myrddin) became the teacher of one of the best-read people of the age (Uinniau).  Once that  transformation was accomplished, the latent aspects of Uinniau’s memory easily made their way into Arthurian the tales, and Merlin was trapped in the cave Uinnau had used as a refuge.

I won’t pretend to know how Ninian became the Lady of the Lake.  However, she would not have begun her Arthurian career that way.  She would have started off as Merlin’s pupil and successor with the qualities of her historical precursor intact.  She was associated with a lake only by Robert de Boron, an author that I have discovered in my research was not one to stick with his traditional sources.  It is possible he knew of some Celtic tale which he used to enhance Uinniau’s mythology.  It is equally possible he used something more contemporary.  That part of the history of the Lady of the Lake we may never know.

Marilyn Armstrong‘s insight:

One of my favorite mysteries, leaving enough unanswered questions to hold my interest. If you have never visited TALLWCH, check it out: http://tallhwch.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/niniane-the-lady-of-the-lake/

See on tallhwch.wordpress.com

EXCESSIVE EXPOSURE CAN BE LETHAL

EXPOSURE | DAILY POST


It’s Inauguration Day. In other years, I’d be watching the festivities. This isn’t a normal year and I am not watching.

I cannot watch. To do so would feel as if I were giving credibility when in reality, I feel betrayed. I want merely to crawl under a rock and wake up to discover it was just a bad dream.

Maybe these next years will not be as awful as I expect. Maybe they will be great, but I doubt it. I’m looking at the incoming cabinet, a bunch of billionaires and sycophants with no experience and even less moral fiber.

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Maybe you can watch this travesty, but I can’t and won’t. Exposure? I will have more than enough of that in the months and years to come. I’ll skip this day. And hope it’s not as bad as I fear. Even more, I hope it isn’t worse than I can imagine.

1969 – MY FAVORITE YEAR

1969 was the year I learned to fly. The world was happening and I was part of it while everything changed.

Apollo 11

Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in July 1969. I was a new mommy with a 2 months old baby boy. Home with the baby, not working or in school. I had time to see it. We watched it on CBS. Walter Cronkite wanted to be up there too. Up there, with Neil and the rest of Apollo 11. He could barely control his excitement, almost in tears, his voice breaking with emotion. The great Arthur C. Clarke was his guest for the historic broadcast.

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Woodstock was just a month away and there were rumors flying about this amazing rock concert which would happen in upstate New York. Friends had tickets and were planning to go. I was busy with the baby. I wished them well.

There were hippies giving out flowers in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. I didn’t envy anyone. I was happy that year, probably happier than I’d ever been and freer than I’d ever be again.

I was young, healthy. I believed we would change the world, end war. Make the world a better place. I was still of the opinion the world could be changed. All we had to do was love one another, join together to make it happen. Vietnam was in high gear, but we believed it would end any day. Though we soon found out how terribly wrong we were, for a little bit of time, we saw the future bright and full of hope.

I had a baby boy and I sang “Everything’s Fine Right Now.” It made my baby boy laugh. Me too, because it reminded me of the Holy Modal Rounders. Look them up.

It was the year of the Miracle Mets. I watched as they took New York all the way to the top. A World Series win. 1969. What a year. I rocked my son to sleep and discovered Oktoberfest beer. New York went crazy for the Mets. It should have been the Dodgers, but they’d abandoned us for the west coast.

I wore patchwork bell-bottom jeans and rose-tinted spectacles. I had long fringes on my sleeves and a baby on my hip. Music was amazing and no matter how many ways I look at it, today’s music is an anemic imitation of the creative juices that ran in that long ago year.

How young we were! We were sure we could do anything, everything. We would end war and right every wrong. For one year, the stars aligned and everything was good.

Decades passed. Youth was a long time ago. The drugs we take control our blood pressure, not our state of consciousness. They aren’t much fun, but they keep us alive … no small feat these days.

These days, I worry about Social Security, Medicare,and if  I or the country will survive our incoming president. I am nostalgic about Richard Nixon, a true measure of just how much everything has changed. I know I can’t fix the world. I’ve lived a lifetime. My granddaughter is the age I was back then. I’ve lived in another country, celebrated a 25th anniversary. My son is eligible to join AARP. I moved from the city to the country, and partied with a President, but 1969 is still my year.

Source: MARILYN’S FAVORITE YEAR – 1969

STONEHENGE AND A ROMAN BATH

A Great Charter, by Rich Paschall

There are many tour operators in London.  Besides the trips they offer around town, you can go out on a day trip that will take you to one or more famous places.  On a previous visit to London I took the day trip to Oxford, then on to Warwick Castle and finally to Stratford on Avon.  Shakespeare was not home when we arrived at Stratford, but we saw his boyhood home anyway.  These trips last all day so you need to be ready for an adventure of up to 12 hours.

While you can reserve a tour at many locations in central London, we chose to book in advance before we left on our journey.  A visit to visitlondon.com and other tourist sites will link you to the leading tour companies.  We picked the Stonehenge and Bath tour and saved a little by buying in the USA and taking our vouchers with us.  Once in London we received an email saying our trip was cancelled but they would upgrade us to the Salisbury, Stonehenge and Bath tour for the same price and on the same day.  There was an additional entrance fee at Salisbury we did not have to pay, so we gained a good savings.

The modern charter buses pick up at various hotels around town and take tourists to a central location, where you board your particular tour bus and head out of town.  We got a slow start due to traffic but made our way on the road to Salisbury Cathedral.  We knew little about it, but learned a lot from our guide who explained everything to the group in both English and Spanish.

Salisbury Catherdral

Salisbury Cathedral

The first thing we noticed was the size of the structure.  The spire is the tallest one in Great Britain at 404 feet.  While the church was finish in the 1258, the massive spire was added later and finished in 1320.  It would have long since toppled without additional supports over the centuries, including tie beams designed by Christopher Wren in 1668

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The tall nave is impressive in length, with tombs filling the spaces between many of the columns.  The Diocese of Salisbury has been in existence since the beginning of construction in 1220.  The building houses one of four remaining copies of the Magna Carta, agreed to by King John and rebellious Barons in 1215, basically a peace treaty.  Unfortunately, the agreement was not honored by either side initially, but it did lay the basis for English laws in years to follow.  No pictures are allowed of the ancient document and it is protected in a small enclosure you can enter for viewing.  A full translation of the Latin document is nearby for the true historians.

Stonehenge

Stonehenge

Just 8 miles north of Salisbury is the iconic Stonehenge.  While it is thought to date back to 2000 BC, it could in fact be somewhat older.  There is a mound containing burial sites around it which dates back hundreds of years before the structure.  In front of that is a ditch which is clearly visible above.  No, they do not let you cross the mounds or go into the center, except for four times a year.  At the summer and winter solstice and Vernal and Autumnal Equinox.  If you are a Neo-Druid or Pagan that may be your time to go.  You can get rather close on one side any time.

The locals are unimpressed with our visit

The locals are unimpressed with our visit

Yes, there are sheep in the valley alongside Stonehenge.  It just seemed to fit appropriately in the countryside.  A parking lot that was formerly close by stones has been moved in order to restore the view. A visitor center opened in 2013 which is near the highway and well away from the structure.  You can walk up the road to Stonehenge, but take the visitor’s shuttle.  It is a long walk.

Bath, England

Bath, England

From there is was back on the bus to travel another 38 miles out to the town of Bath, Somerset.  Much of the architecture of the town is distinctive in it golden colored stone.  From the spot above (on the extreme right) we entered into the ancient Roman baths.

Ancient Roman bath

Ancient Roman bath

Dating back to 60 AD it is a popular tourist spot now.  Fed by hot springs to this day, the waters are quite warm. While they advise tourists not to stick their hands in the calcium and sulphate ion rich, and possibly disease laden (dangerous amoeba) waters, people do it anyway to see just how hot it is. The site itself is a treasure trove of artifacts from Roman times. A slow tour of the facility is worth your time.

Bath Abbey

Bath Abbey

Nearby the Roman baths is the Abbey dating from the early 16th century.  While we got to see the building from several angles, there was no time to stop inside.  We were approximately 97 miles from London at this point and ready for our long trip back.

Our original intent had been the two stop trip in order to allow enough time at each place.  The three stops this far out of our origin meant there was little time explore, especially in Bath where we truly just ran out of time.  Nonetheless, we were glad to see Salisbury for its architectural and historic significance.

The tour provided lunch on the bus in order to save time, but some heavy traffic, even in off-season, slowed us down considerably. An alternative plan would have been to take the train from Paddington station in central London to Bath and catch a tour bus to Stonehenge from there.  Since our visit to the three stops was relatively brief, it is safe to say we would not mind a longer visit to each one.  Perhaps we will return some day in the future.

Related: Heathrow Express
Take The London Underground
A Tourist View Of England
London Calling

A NOVEL OF THE REFORMATION – THE BROTHERS PATH – MARTHA KENNEDY

The Brothers Path, by Martha Kennedy


Publisher: Free Magic Show Productions (July 4, 2016)
Category: Historical Fiction
ISBN: 978-1535101295
ASIN: B01HSDYD04
Available in: Print & Ebook; 276 Pages, The Brothers Path

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By award-winning author, Martha Kennedy.

The world-shattering tumult of the Protestant Reformation enters the Schneebeli household when Rudolf Schneebeli is born two months early and dies a few minutes later without being baptized. Named for the well trodden track linking the Schneebeli farmhouse to the old Lunkhofen castle, The Brothers Path is set in a Swiss village near Zürich, between 1524 and 1531. It chronicles the lives of the six Schneebeli brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the deadly drama of the Protestant reformation.

Two hundred years after the events recounted in The Brothers’ Path, thousands of immigrants, mostly Mennonites and Amish, left Switzerland for America looking for safety and freedom they could not find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would be a reminder why immigrants to America were adamant about separating church and state.


I love history, yet somehow in my reading, I missed this critical period in European history.

Of course I knew about the Reformation, but I never imagined it as a particularly bloody period. I knew there had considerable strife and struggles between the Roman Catholic church which had ruled the Christian world since the end of the Roman Empire, and the nascent protestant faiths. Yet I had never given much thought to the impact these world-altering events had on the lives of people living through them.

72-martha-pikes-peakMartha Kennedy’s beautifully written book brought me a close and personal understanding of how the disintegration of the Roman religious hierarchy was the central event of its time. It affected everyone living, from the most humble to the most high. It was not merely the change in what people believed, but what they were required to believe — or at least act as if they believed. Life could not go on as it had.

Dissenters from the new order are hunted and killed, yet the old order is not without resources or power. And so there is war. A personal, ugly, close-fought war that tears families apart.

The Schneebeli family is one of many families that has descended from nobility to would ultimately be considered “middle” class. Landowners still, they must work hard to survive. They have mills. Horses. A crumbling tower to remind them of former glory, for whatever it is worth and it is not worth much. They retain considerable standing in their village in Switzerland as well as a strong sense of obligation and duty towards their neighbors.

As issues of faith and religion dominate their world, the family needs considerable agility to dodge and weave through an increasingly dangerous world. Peter, the warrior brother, is seeking a path that will not bring him into direct (and probably lethal) conflict with his family and friends. Hans, the monk, wants to continue to serve his people … and have a family, too. The Reformation offers him a path to be both — what he has been and what he wants to be.

For each brother, there is a road to walk … and whichever path they choose, it is fraught with danger.

To whatever degree religion in today’s world is a hot button issue, it cannot compare with the intensity or emotion stirred up as the indestructible Church, the linchpin of European Christianity for a millennium, ruptures.

This is a book about history and religion. War that is personal, close, intimate, and unavoidable. Love that finds a way despite the tumult of the times. Families that stick together. Lives saved, lives ruined. It paints a clear picture of why religion and government should always remain separate. When churches rule, people die. When personal belief is a legal mandate and defying it is worth your life, society cannot thrive.

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At the bottom of it all, aside from the battles and painful changes to life, the book is about people going about their business, living, loving, and surviving. The characters are resilient. They take their losses and they move on — because that’s what real people do. Through it all, they find a reasonable amount of happiness.

If this sounds like it might be depressing, it isn’t. The world may be a mess, but Martha Kennedy’s characters are sensible, educated, grounded people who make intelligent decisions. The winds of change and war buffet them, but they never lose their commonsense or belief in themselves. I found it refreshing to meet a group of characters who behaved like smart, civilized people, even in the midst of violent change and occasionally, near chaos.

This isn’t a lightweight romp, but it is not a grim slog from misery to misery, either. There are losses. There are victories. Good times and bad, sorrow and joy. Real people living in a challenging and complicated period of history … and making the best of what life offers. It’s a highly readable book that keeps you interested from start to finish.

It’s well worth reading. I only wish it had been longer.

FROM SLAVERY TO SPINNING: INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION IN THE BLACKSTONE VALLEY

AMERICA: BORN BANKRUPT


America was born bankrupt. We won the revolution, but lost everything else. Our economy was dependent on Great Britain. We had raw material, but it was Great Britain who turned those materials into goods for world 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, a staggering loss to England of their wealthiest colonies — and birth of the United States of America.

Winning the war was just short of a miracle. The colonies 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. And no wonder eight years of that terrible responsibility was more than enough for him.

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. From north to south, slavery made people rich. Not the slaves, of course, but white people. Landowners. Farmers.

In the industrialized north and the agricultural south, fortunes were made selling human beings and profiting from their labor. When it came time to write the Constitution and transform a bunch of individual colonies into a single country, the Devil’s compromise was needed. Abolishing slavery would doom any attempt to pass a constitution, so slavery became law. 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. This evil lives on and its legacy still remains — and probably always will.

HOW COME WE COULDN’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 obvious from the get-go there was no way we were going to form a nation if slavery was banned. From private writings by members of the continental congress, we know every delegate understood the issue of slavery would eventually be resolved by war. Decades before the revolution that began in 1776, slavery was the polarizing issue in the colonies.

“The Great Compromise” was written into law. The Constitution was approved  — and a later generation fought the war. Which, apparently, isn’t yet ended. The right and moral thing went head to head with the bottom line and lost. Sound familiar?

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.

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.

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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.

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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. The river had power … but the area is rough, dense with trees, rocky. And the river is full of twists and turn and drops. The river was full of potential, but it would require inventiveness and planning to harness it.

AMERICA’S INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION BEGAN ON THE BLACKSTONE


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 people — especially those with industrial skills. We weren’t picky. All immigrants were welcome. This was 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.

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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 needed a more efficient way to move their goods. The features that made the Blackstone a natural for generating power made it worse than useless for shipping goods. Horse-drawn wagons were slow and expensive. The trip from Worcester to Providence took 2 to 3 days over dirt roads and in winter, was often impossible.

The Blackstone Canal in Uxbridge, Massachusetts

The Blackstone Canal in Uxbridge, Massachusetts

When the weather turned bad, the roads were impassable. 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.

It also eliminated and further need for slave labor in the north. Why use slaves when you can pay almost nothing to free men who will provide their own food, clothing, and housing? Sometimes the lines between free and not-free are not all that clear.

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.

Little canal along the Mumford, a Blackstone River tributary. Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

Little canal along the Mumford, a Blackstone River tributary. Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

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.

WORKING ON THE RAILROAD


Ultimately, railroads were the game-changer. As soon as rails from Worcester to Boston, and Worcester to Providence were built, the canals were abandoned. Business boomed.

The Blackstone River was lined with mills and factories at the end of the 1800s. The Blackstone supplied the hydro power and in return, the river was used to dispose of industrial waste and sewage.

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By the early 1900s, the Blackstone River in Massachusetts was horribly polluted. Fortunately for the river, though not necessarily for the valley’s residents, this was the beginning of the end of the textile industry in the northeast. One by one, the mills closed their New England facilities and moved south. By 1923, almost all U.S. cotton was grown, spun, and woven down south — in Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, Alabama. Without the mills and factories, the population in the Blackstone Valley’s towns began shrinking.

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The hulking empty factory buildings were left as reminders of the glory days of the American mill industry. Also left behind was massive pollution of the soil and the water.

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. There are also many areas where the soil is toxic, so full of hazardous waste it may never be usable for any purpose.

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We’re still cleaning up. Although not as bad as it was, the watershed has a way to go. The river’s tributaries are less polluted than the main parts of the Blackstone. Against all logic and reason, waste-water is still being discharged from at least one sewage treatment plant in Millbury and there are quite a few nuclear generating plants in the area who dump water into the river, too (but the government doesn’t readily admit to it — now there’s a shocker, right?). It’s hard to fathom what reasoning those who favor pouring sewage and wastewater into our river have. Save a few pennies, destroy our drinking water?

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The battle to save our world from greed never ends.

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. This is a battle we need to win.