New Life For An Old River

Once the cradle of America's Industrial Revolution, The Blackstone

James Knott bought a boarded up mill here. He fixed the dam and reflooded the mill pond. The turn-of-the-century water turbine creates one-fourth of his electric power. He now employs 142 workers, who manufacture wire mesh that is shipped around the globe. When the Environmental Protection Agency asked him under whose authority he reflooded the mill pond, he told the astounded bureaucrats "mine," citing the 1791 Mill Owners

Act that urges land owners near rivers to put up dams and

create jobs.

Mr. Knott's Riverdale Mills is located on the Blackstone, a spunky little river that's neither deep nor wide, but drops 450 feet on its snaking path from Worcester, Mass., to Providence, R.I. Along its banks in Pawtucket, R.I., is the site of the first of the water-powered cotton spinning mills that sparked America's Industrial Revolution.

The pace of change rockets along in today's digital world. But imagine being a farmer no longer in your fields but in a noisy, grimy, mill factory. According to Chuck Arning, a park ranger with the National Park Service that oversees the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, "Everything was being made by two hands. The farmer's wife spun the thread to make trousers and dresses. The bootmaker made boots by hand. Then the Industrial Revolution comes along and changes everything."

Mill towns sprang up along the river, and the area became a thriving center of technological innovation and economic growth. A steady flow of immigrants came to the valley: Irish to build a canal, and French Canadians to work in the mills. The Blackstone River became one of the most worked industrial rivers. In the process, it also became one of the most polluted. If the mills were making red fabric, the river would run red.

The heyday of the Blackstone River Valley was in the last half of the 19th century, after which the fabric mills declined as production went South. For decades, the economically depressed area, dotted with huge empty brick mill buildings with shattered windows, struggled.

Today, the area is rebounding. The clang of carpenters' hammers framing windows rings out in a huge housing development on a former farm that overlooks Whitinsville, Mass., where a developer bought 25 vacant mill buildings that now house 20 companies employing 1,500 workers.

Like rings expanding from a stone striking a pond's surface, commuter highway belts radiate out from Boston, an educational and technological hub. The latest ring is Route 146, which cuts through the Blackstone River Valley. It has just been linked to the Massachusetts Turnpike, connecting the north-south running river to the east-west running superhighway.

"Every weekend," says Alan Rowe from behind the counter of his seafood take-out eatery in Uxbridge, Mass., "I have people coming in and saying, 'We're new. We just bought a house here in town.' "

A Narraganset Bay environmental group, Save the Bay, led the charge in cleaning up the river. It is no longer treated like a vast dumping ground. State parks abound. Some mill ponds along the Blackstone have become flyways for migrating birds. High school students, from surrounding urban centers to rural towns make field trips to test water quality.

Marty Green, director of economic development for the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, has lived in this valley of close-knit communities all his life. Maybe he's doing his job too well, because what the valley offers in terms of its rich history, cultural diversity, and environmental beauty "is at risk, from a development standpoint," says Mr. Green. Without careful planning, the fruitful economic development could be a victim of its own success. A five-minute trip to town now takes 12 minutes. In one town, 100 high school seniors graduated last year, while there are 240 incoming first-graders. During commute hours, roads of formerly sleepy towns are clogged with bumper-to-bumper cars.

The valley has known boom and bust before. Its struggle to redefine itself today mirrors the larger struggle of adapting to life in the information age. Like the pre-industrial settlers of the Blackstone Valley who worked with two hands at home, computers now allow people to again work at home, again, using two hands.

"It gives you hope," says Ranger Arning, about the history of the people who made the transition from farm to factory. "These folks were able to overcome the changes in their lives, so it's highly possible that I, too, with my family, can survive and excel in a new environment, in a new technological world."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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