The 48-mile Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor follows the Blackstone River from Worcester Massachusetts to Pawtucket Rhode Island. This historic district was the birthplace of the water-powered mills that started America’s Industrial Revolution.
The Blackstone River was an ideal location for textile mills. The river’s long, steady, 438-foot fall was sufficient to generate the water power required to power them and to fuel the early (pre-steam and electric power) stages of the American Industrial Revolution.
Water Powered Mills Come to America
We started our visit at the visitor’s center in Pawtucket Rhode Island where a very informative 15-minute video and timeline explained the Industrial Revolution.
In 1789, Providence merchant Moses Brown tried and failed to build a cotton spinning factory over the falls in Pawtucket, RI. Although the effort failed, one of the immigrants he hired, was English-born Samuel Slater. Slater had spent years working in English mills and understood the mill construction and machinery. Although British law prohibited him from using the skills he learned in England, he tinkered with Brown’s approach and created a working water-powered mill. It took more than a year of work with some of the area’s most skilled blacksmiths, but he finally succeeded.
Water-powered mills rapidly grew through the rapid 19th century throughout the Blackstone Valley and much of the rest of eastern New England. Slatersville (see below), the first company-owned mill town, was created.
Changing of America
As other entrepreneurs built their own, ever larger mills along the Blackstone and other New England river rapids, more workers were needed.
American farmers left the fields and went to work in the factories. Immigrants from around the world came to America to work in the mills starting with the Irish, French-Canadian, and Germans in the 19th century. Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans came in the early 20th century. Ultimately, in the later 20th century, Asians and Latin Americans came.
The melting pot of different cultures initially resulted in discrimination and sometimes violence among nationalities. It evolved into the region’s increasingly integrated (at least among nationalities, if not necessarily race) societies.
Workers required homes, schools, stores, and towns. These facilities were marginally available in towns and cities which would grow explosively through the Industrial Revolution. But, as mills began to be built in rural areas that were most appropriate for mills (those with relatively steep declines in riverbeds and with a lot of timber to build mills and later, to create the charcoal used to fuel steam engines), these facilities had to be created from scratch. Hence the creation of company-owned towns (and the often usurious practices of company stores). This began with Samuel Slater’s, second, much larger mill in Slatersville (see below).
The shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy transformed traditionally independent, self-sufficient farmers into citizens of growing, increasingly heterogeneous towns and cities. The concept of seasons which determined the life and work of farm families became irrelevant. Individuals whose time was governed by work requirements became governed by time clocks. Instead of being paid for the goods they produced, they were paid for the number of hours that they worked. Entire families worked in the mills, including children as young as 6 years-old working 12-hour days for subsistence wages.
It also required a more efficient means of moving large quantities of heavy cargo to and from the mills to rapidly growing cities and regions across the country. Since horse travel was too slow, costly, and subject to intolerable delays (especially during winter and spring), canals such as the 1820’s-era Blackstone Canal were built. Although certainly faster, cheaper, and more reliable than horses, the most important change in transport came in the mid-18th century with railroads, a development that shifted the Industrial Revolution into overdrive.
In the 20th century, the mills’ fortune declined and ultimately New England’s mills closed.
Slatersville Rhode Island
Slatersville was the US’s first company-owned mill town. Built in 1807, it is located in what is now the town of Smithfield, Rhode Island. Slaterville was built in a small, remote settlement that already had a sawmill, gristmill, and blacksmith shop, Slater put the new project in the hands of his brother John. They built two dams to provide a reliable water supply, a wooden mill (which burned in 1807 and was replaced with a much larger, 4-story stone structure), homes, churches, company stores, and assembly halls for workers and their families. The Slaters and their original partners sold the town to James Hooper who converted it into a bleach and dye mill in 1900. In 1915, Hooper then sold the town to Henry Kendall, who, like the Slaters, took a personal interest in the town and invested heavily in maintaining and improving the livability, as well as the productivity of the town.
Flash to 2022 and you find that the stone mill is now a large apartment complex.
The self-guided walking tour (from the Pawtucket Visitor Center) takes you through a 12-stop tour of the town and past many of the early buildings (a few of which have since been moved from their initial locations). The town, which is supposed to look pretty much the same as after Kendall’s 1920 renovation, includes:
- Several work homes (now private homes)
- John Slater’s home
- The home of Dr. Elisha Bartlett. As the town’s most illustrious resident, she wrote the first thesis on typhoid, a book on the philosophy of medicine and had been mayor of Lowell, MA)
- A storehouse that is now the town library
- The Commercial Block, a former warehouse and company store that now houses commercial buildings and a bank
- A wooden office building that is the only remaining building from the original 1807 mill
- The current Congregational Church and an Episcopal church that has since been converted into a social hall and now, Union Grange Hall
- Cemetery, town hall, and meeting house.
While it is an interesting stop if you are in the area, it is probably not a must-see.