The Blackstone Valley - Yesterday | Who is William Blackstone? | The Blackstone Valley - Today
A Premiere Tourist Attraction | The Blackstone Valley - Tomorrow | Communities | Valley Resources and Links

The Blackstone Valley - Yesterday

Archeological records show that Native Americans lived in the Blackstone River Valley at least 5,000 years ago. While the first European settler, the Rev. William Blackstone, settled on the river's banks in 1635, the area stretching from Pawtucket, Rhode Island to Worcester, Massachusetts, really came into its own as a child of America's Industrial Revolution.

Native Americans and early settlers used the Blackstone River for drinking water and fishing while eighteenth century life in the valley centered around farming. In the latter part of the century, the river's steep and constant drop in elevation attracted craftsmen and would-be industrialists. Thus manufacturing, which was to be the engine of economic development in the United States, was born on the Rhode Island banks of the Blackstone and small manufacturing operations began to flourish.

Slater Mill: The country's first working textile mill -- exists as a museum today

It wasn't until Samuel Slater brought the formula for the Arkwright spinning jenny from England to the Brown and Almy mill in Pawtucket in 1790 that the Industrial Revolution really took off. Investors raced to establish small mills using water power technology and with wool and cotton textiles predominating, manufacturing became the dominant industry and mills began to proliferate the region.

Valley Falls - Mills and Blackstone River c. 1900 - postcard - Cumberland 

From Pawtucket north to the Massachusetts line, industry took form. Central Falls, Valley Falls, Berkeley, Ashton, Albion, Manville and Woonsocket all began to thrive, while tributary streams in Glocester, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Burrillville and Cumberland became economic mainstays.

1906: Weave room of the Blackstone Manufacturing Company in North Smithfield. Later became Tupperware Mill.

While sections of the river were bordered by spectacular wetlands, for the most part, mill villages were everywhere. Every town on the river and its tributaries had a mill and every waterfall had a mill next to it. In the October 1909 issue of Technical World magazine, Winthrop Packard called the Blackstone, "The hardest working river in America."

Iron and steel made a stand along the Blackstone with blast furnaces or forges at Arnold Mills. Robin Hollow, Albion and Manville, but it was the process of turning cotton into thread and then into cloth, that really brought fame and fortune to the area.

1870 Woonsocket Rubber Company at Market Square with all the employees standing outside.

The mill became the workplace for the whole family, including the children. It also became the focal point for the region's social development, with owners, in order to entice people off of their farms, surrounding the mills with entire villages with housing, schools and churches. These services would be provided in exchange for a 60 hour work week, and while this system had its share of critics, others argued that industry would secure independence and provide more secure jobs.

1915: Manville-Jenckes mill workers at shift change crossing Blackstone River at the Manville Hill bridge near the falls

A diverse, immigrant community developed from settlers seeking jobs. While the first settlers to the region came for religious freedom, immigrants began flooding the area in the 1820's, seeking construction, manufacturing, and in some cases, farming work. 


1910 View of mills at Woonsocket Falls and Globe as seen from Bernon. Blackstone River and Globe Mill (on left).

"The nineteenth century landscape of the Blackstone Valley was shaped by the pockets of industrial settlement that developed in the agricultural region. The citing and craftsmanship of the villages' structures, in combination with the quiet woods and fields along the river banks, created a unique landscape." (Working Water, page 5, 1987).

1890 The Woonsocket Machine & Press Company at 533 Second Avenue. Construction of brick factory in the 1890s showing workers on scaffolds.

For several decades, the Valley enjoyed relative prosperity. Poor economic decisions in the early 20th century, however, left the region dependent on a single industry: textile manufacturing. Over time, outdated plants and machinery, labor troubles and climate control caused the Valley's resource advantages to be lost to southern states where capital and labor costs were lower. Primary employment in the Valley shifted away from textiles and for a time, there was a period of profound dislocation, and higher unemployment in the Blackstone Valley region of Massachusetts and Rhode Island than elsewhere in the 2 states.


The Blackstone Valley - Yesterday | Who is William Blackstone? | The Blackstone Valley - Today
A Premiere Tourist Attraction | The Blackstone Valley - Tomorrow | Communities | Valley Resources and Links

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Blackstone Valley Visitor Center, On the banks of the Blackstone, 175 Main Street, Pawtucket, Rhode Island  02860 
401-724-2200 Fax: 401-724-1342