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Revival on the Blackstone: Part One

The Blackstone River was the workhorse of the American Industrial Revolution.The river flows for 48 miles and drains a watershed of 540 square miles. From her headwaters in Worcester, MA, to the waterfalls of Pawtucket, R.I., the Blackstone powered hundreds of textile mills, beginning in 1789 with Slater Mill, the first cotton mill.

Since that time, immigrants came to America to work the mills. My Great Great Grandmother, Sarah Wardle, a single mother with a three year old son, arrived from England in 1870 to work. The Blackstone River was that place where people came to make a living, to raise their family. This is part of the great American story.

The shadow part of the story, is that the Industrial Revolution was built on the premise that the river was a commodity. The purpose of the river was to turn the wheels, which powered the mills, to manufacture the products to be shipped around the world. The final step was to pump the refuse, the dye, the sewage, the toxic metals from the mills, directly into the river.

That's what a river was for.

By the time I was a boy in the 1960s, living in Cumberland, R.I., most of the mills had closed, moving south for cheaper labor. What remained were massive brick mills, vacant, with broken windows. What remained were toxic sites on the land and in the mud of the river.

The Blackstone River was deemed ecologically 'dead'. The only fish were carp which somehow survived, burrowed into the mud, which held centuries of toxic metals. My people, who had raised generations in the Blackstone Valley, now looked upon the river with embarrassment.

At about the same time, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga River 'caught fire'. It too had long been a workhorse for the steel and manufacturing mills. To the surprise of no one, in June of 1969 the river caught fire. Covered by oil slicks, it bubbled like a deadly stew.

The fire with vivid photos, was featured on the cover of National Geographic (and countless other newspapers) with the cover story "Our Ecological Crisis". At the same time, in Rhode Island, it seemed that our region was moving from embarrassment at what we had created, to an awareness that things could be, must be different.

This growing regional awareness, was coupled by a shared nationwide awakening. In 1966 President Johnson signed the Clear Waters Restoration Act. The Clear Water Act was expanded in 1972 . In 1970 the Nixon Administration and Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the first Earth Day was held.

Closer to home, a small band of citizens began to organize the first regional clean up of the Blackstone River. Moving from embarrassment to activism, in September 1972, 10,000 volunteers lined the banks of the Blackstone River to remove tons of trash, appliances, furniture, hundreds of abandoned cars and countless tires. This communal effort was dubbed 'Project Zap' This was the largest volunteer effort for the environment in our nations history.

Working for the Common Good, September, 1972

At age 16, I was one of those who volunteered. I worked alongside my Dad, Norman, my cousin, Tom and neighbors as we worked together for the common good. Together we worked to bring healing and hope to a river and region.

It was the beginning of a process of reimagining what could be. This coming together was guided by a growing awareness that the river was more than a commodity. We were coming to understand that the river had its own life, its own inherent worth and purpose.

In the 50 years since Project Zap, we've come to understand that what happens 'upriver' impacts all of us 'downriver'. To put it another way, 'we can't mess our nest' and expect there to be no consequences.

We all need clean water to drink, clean water for fishing, paddling, swimming. We need clean rivers to hike, bicycle and picnic alongside. We need clean rivers to live fully and freely.

We've come to understand too, that our definition of a neighbor is broader than once thought. Our neighbors include: the water, fish, insects, birds, mammals, plants that also call the Blackstone River, 'home'.

We've come to believe that the well being of one neighbor impacts the well being of all.

On a September day in 1972, working alongside my Dad, cousin and neighbors, the seeds of a better tomorrow were planted. In the next article, we'll return to the Blackstone 50 years later and explore how those seeds have grown. We'll explore too, the work that still needs to be done.

In the meantime, may you find a body of water to be restored by.

With you on the journey ~ Kent Harrop

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