The industrialization of the Blackstone River began in the late 1780's with Slater Mill, the first cotton mill in America. Coming out of the American Revolution, the new country was economically troubled. The industrialization of the Blackstone allowed the United States to move from dependency on British industry, to economic independence.
Over the course of the next 150 years, hundreds of mills would be built along the 48 mile length of the river, from Worcester, MA to the waterfalls of Pawtucket, R.I. Over these 48 miles the river drops 438 feet, powering the waterwheels and turbines that allowed these mills to manufacture products to be shipped around the world.
By the early 1950's however, many of the mills were closed in search of cheaper labor in the South. What was left were vacant buildings, on toxic sites with a river in ecological crisis.
The Blackstone River for 150 years had been an open sewer for the industries and the 24 cities and villages along its banks. As a result toxic metals were imbedded in the river bottom, the ecological web of life had collapsed. What fish survived were malformed and toxic, birds such as the Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagle, dependent on the fish, had long ago disappeared due to poisoning.
The Blackstone had become another tragic case study, that the environmentalist, Rachel Carson warned of in her seminal book of 1962, 'Silent Spring'. Her book focused on the negative effects of chemical pesticides that were, at the time, a large part of American agriculture. She spoke of what happens when human excess and greed, silences the sounds, beauty and very presence of the natural world.
Her work raised consciousness across our nation. A recognition that we had profoundly 'messed our nest' and that any hope for the future, rested with average citizens. And so it was, that in September 1972, at age 16, I joined with my Dad, my cousin and 10,000 neighbors for ZAP the Blackstone, the largest one day environmental clean up in our nation's history, to begin healing our river, restoring our watershed.
On that day my cousin and I pulled out shopping carts and tires from the waterway along the Saylesville Mill. My Dad, Norman, took the day off of work and volunteered on a crew that pulled abandoned cars from the river, near the Lonsdale Bleachery, where he had his first job after returning from WW 2.
On that day we moved from embarrassment at what we had collectively done to the river, to seeing her possibilities. Our community shifted from viewing the waterway as a commodity, to seeing the river as a resource to treasure. Neighbors began to dream of a day when once again, we could swim, fish, paddle, bicycle, walk, jog and picnic by the water. We imagined a day when the Great Blue Heron and Bald Eagle would return.
Rachel Carson's 'Silent Spring' was an awakening for many. Her work would be the impetus for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water and Clean Acts in that same timeframe. http://www.rachelcarson.org/SilentSpring.aspx
Across our nation and along the Blackstone, policies were implemented to protect the river . As importantly, engaged citizens in each of the 24 towns, from Worcester, to Pawtucket, to Providence, ensured that the river, our river, would again thrive.
In 1986, I stood with my Dad, on the border of Lincoln and Cumberland R.I. (my hometown), to watch as Senator John H. Chaffee cut the ribbon, for the opening of the John H. Chaffee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. It was the beginning of a promised stretch of a biking and walking path that would eventually stretch the entire 48 miles of the river. https://www.nps.gov › places › blackstone-river-valley-.
As Senator Chaffee spoke, I was surprised to see the emotion on my Dad's face. My Dad who rarely showed emotion, had tears in his eyes. On this day he was able to see that the Blackstone which was the backdrop to his entire life was coming back, was being restored, was being healed.
For much of my adult life, I have lived outside the Blackstone Valley in Montana, California, Ohio, Oregon. Each of these states have also worked to restore their waterways and land. I've loved each of these places, but my home water has always been the Blackstone.
Over the years, on my annual visits to Rhode Island I'd go to the river. Sometimes I'd rent a kayak and paddle the canal, or marvel to see fly fishermen below the Manville Dam. I celebrated seeing cyclists, runners and families picnicking. I savored the flowers and birdlife in the restored meadow that once was the Lonsdale Drive In.
In 2014 I moved from Oregon to Massachusetts, not far from the Blackstone. I wondered what my Grandmother would have thought of her former workplace, the Ashton Mill, becoming condos. I think she'd be happy that the long vacant mill had a new lease on life and that people had returned to the river.
On August 27th 2022, 50 years after that first ZAP, I gathered with thousands of neighbors to again clean up our river. This time, the work wasn't as dramatic. The need for a fleet of heavy equipment, to pull out hundreds of abandoned cars and tires, was no longer necessary. Yet there was ample work to do, trash still to be removed, beautifying to be done. https://www.zaptheblackstone.com
Challenges remain such as nutrient pollution, high bacteria counts, low water clarity, green spaces threatened by development. Yet we know, that the Blackstone River Valley has come a very long way. We know that our quality of life and the health of the river are intertwined.
We know too, what happens, when average citizens, from all walks of life, of all ages, come together for the common good. On a September day in 1972, everything began to change. Change for the better. And, we are not going back.
~ Kent Harrop