The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor that stretches from Providence, Rhode Island to Worcester, Massachusetts is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Here is where America made the transformation from Farm to Factory. America’s first textile mill could have been built along practically any river on the eastern seaboard, but in 1790 the forces of capital, ingenuity, mechanical know-how and skilled labor came together at Pawtucket, Rhode Island where the Blackstone River provided the power that kicked off America’s drive to industrialization.
Through here, a number of historic and natural sites, beautiful landscapes, and villages that tell the story of industrialization in America and the transformation of a river from a source of food to a floating highway. The region also tells a story of growth and change as thousands of people came here from across the globe looking places to settle and for work.
William Blackstone and Roger Williams were among the earliest European settlers in the Blackstone River Valley. Blackstone helped to found Boston and then traveled west in 1635 to near present-day Cumberland, Rhode Island. Roger Williams helped to settle the Providence, Rhode Island area. Initially, most of the settlers were farmers. Following King Phillip’s War in the late 1600s, life in the valley began to change. Towns rebuilt after the war embraced new technological developments, including the widespread use of waterpower and mills for manufacturing.
In the late 1700s, Moses Brown, a merchant from Providence, and Samuel Slater, an Englishman, established a successful loom manufacturing company in Pawtucket, Rhode Island at Slater Mill, America’s first textile mill. Along with a source of water power, Pawtucket also had a century-old tradition as home to tool and machine makers, and Brown had plenty of capital to invest in the project. Samuel Slater, a recent immigrant from England. Slater had spent seven years working in a textile mill in England, rising to the position of overseer of machinery and mill construction. By December 1790, the experimental mill was in operation – the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning factory in the United States and the beginning of a new age of industrialization. The company set the standard for the development of more mills throughout the Blackstone Valley and eventually all over New England. To take advantage of water power sources, new mill villages were built where once only field and forest stood. Today, visitors can visit Old Slater Mill as part of the Slater Mill Museum and learn more about life in the mills.
Here, investors built not only mills but also homes, schools, and churches for their workers. The lifestyle changes for these new mill workers, mostly Yankee farmers, were dramatic. On the farm, the seasons and the sun governed the workday. Once in the mill, the rhythm of nature was replaced by the tolling of the factory bell. Time became a commodity, to be strictly measured and sold at a set rate. The artisan’s skill or farmer’s produce no longer had as much value as the sheer amount of time a worker was able to stand beside their ceaseless machine.
The need for a faster, cheaper way to move goods from the mills to markets and to bring in raw goods led to the construction of the Blackstone Canal to move heavy cargo between the mills on the river and the port of Providence. Construction of the canal began in 1824 and was completed in 1828, enabling mills to spread throughout the valley from Providence to Worcester. Canal boats pulled by horses transported products and passengers for only about 20 years, after which the railroad replaced boat traffic. In that time, the valley changed dramatically. Irish laborers built the canal, which was responsible for bringing many immigrants to the United States. Today, visitors can bike along portions of the towpath, canoe, or kayak, and explore the history of the canal at a number of museums and historic homes.
As new and larger mills were constructed over the 1800s, new sources of workers were needed to fill them. Among the first new workers were Irish immigrants, many of whom had come to the area in the 1820s to help construct the Blackstone Canal. During the 1860s and 1870s, mill owners began to recruit French Canadians to leave their farms in Quebec and become mill workers in the Blackstone Valley. More workers followed them from nations like Poland, Sweden, and Portugal. Even today, immigrants are still arriving in the Blackstone Valley from places like Central America and Cambodia to find work in the remaining mills here. The arrival of these workers changed the face of the Blackstone Valley in many ways. New languages filled the air as different cultures and traditions were added to the story of the valley. Woonsocket provided the best example of this change, as it became in effect a French-speaking city.
The canal, though an improvement was still flawed, and it is not until the coming of the Railroad that the industrial revolution would really explode throughout the Blackstone Valley and America. The Boston to Worcester line in 1835, followed by the Providence and Worcester Railroad in 1847 allowed for the fast, cheap and reliable transport of raw materials, finished goods, and farm products between the villages of the Blackstone Valley and the ports of Providence and Boston. Rail service also made practical the conversion of the textile mills of the valley from waterpower to steam power by the 1860s and 1870s.
In the 1920s, mills began to decline in the United States, as manufacturing in the Northeast weakened. Life in the Blackstone River Valley is much different now than it was when Samuel Slater and Moses Brown teamed up to establish the textile industry in the United States roughly 130 years ago. The presence of the textile industry has diminished, though its impact has not.
Today, the elements that turned this quiet valley into an industrial powerhouse are still present. The river, the canal, the mill villages, the agricultural landscape and many of the mills are still here – part of the living landscape of the Blackstone River Valley.
Scattered throughout the 24 cities and towns that make up the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor are many vestiges of a by-gone era including mill villages, roads, trails, dams and mill ponds, agricultural and natural landscapes and ethnic traditions in neighborhoods, languages, and foods.
Visitors to Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor can explore over 300 years of American history at the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Throughout the region, corridor signs help guide visitors, remind people of the varied landscapes, and help explain the historic and natural resources that shaped the Valley’s story. Several self-guided walking tours have been developed for towns, neighborhoods and historic resources in the Valley that can be picked up at the Visitor Information Centers.
The Waters Farm in Sutton, Massachusetts is a good example of the farms that dominated the region before mills. The Waters family built the first part of the farm in 1728. They grew apples and made apple cider to earn a living, but commercial trade was not a major part of life on the farm, so they produced most of what they needed themselves. At one point, the farm had its own blacksmith and carpenter’s shop, barn, and cider mill. Today, visitors can tour the farm and learn more about pre-Industrial life in the river valley and the Waters family, who lived on the property from the early 1700s to the late 1900s. Visitors can also explore the historic town of Sutton, which, like much of the valley, became more industrialized over time.
Chepachet Village, part of Gloucester, Rhode Island, was one of the earliest towns changed by the Industrial Revolution. Visitors can see an early mill constructed in 1814 to take advantage of the water that runs through the village. The Stone Mill is one of a number of downtown buildings that date from the early 1800s. In Chepachet, a mill, a Masonic Hall, a tavern, and a grocery store made the town a center of commercial activity. Larger mill buildings from a later period are also in the town.