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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.
Mill: The country's first working textile mill -- exists as a
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.
Falls - Mills and Blackstone River c. 1900 - postcard -
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.
Weave room of the Blackstone Manufacturing Company in North
Smithfield. Later became Tupperware
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.
Woonsocket Rubber Company at Market Square with all the
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.
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.
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).
The Woonsocket Machine & Press Company at 533 Second Avenue.
Construction of brick factory in the 1890s showing workers on
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.