“Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay,
Where both quaint and new are found
And Blackstone River winds its way
Down to Long Island Sound.”
(From the poem New England, by Lyle T. Hammond)
Seekonk; Narragansett; Patucket; Neetmock; Nipmuck; Great; Blackstone. The river that forms the eastern boundary of Albion has been known by many names over the course of its existence.
When John and Oziel Wilkinson established their forge on Mussey Brook around the time of America’s independence from Great Britain and harnessed the brook’s power, the Pawtucket River, as it was known then, flowed freely and naturally, unhampered by any man-made obstruction. Salmon was known to be plentiful, and, according to Bayles’ History of Providence County, Rhode Island, Volume I, 1891, “formed the chief article in the farmers’ bill of fare.”
The area behind the dam was referred to as “the factory pond.” In winter, when the pond would freeze over, daring skaters would set forth onto its surface, not always without drastic consequences. On December 17, 1860, the Providence Evening Press reported that a “French boy aged about fifteen years, employed in the mills at Albion, was drowned yesterday while skating on the factory pond at that place. He probably ventured too near the edge of the Falls where the ice was thin and broke under him, and he floated so far beneath it that his body could not be recovered till life was extinct. The unfortunate young man belonged in Vermont.”
Concerns about the quality of the river’s waters began to emerge after the Civil War. The National Aegis of Worcester, MA, on February 15, 1873, reported the following on the condition of the river:
“The Woonsocket Patriot, copying Prof. Nichols’s report on the condition of the Blackstone River, as published recently in this paper, remarks: –
” ‘ Prof. Nichols should examine the Blackstone river below Woonsocket – from thence to its mouth – he would find it an exceedingly filthy stream. Besides the sewage of Woonsocket, it receives the garbage and filth of Hamlet, Manville, Albion, Ashton, Lonsdale, Valley Falls, Central Falls and Pawtucket. The ‘impurities’ of some forty manufacturing establishments are emptied into the Blackstone river after it leaves the Massachusetts State line. Its impurity is such that few fish can thrive in it, and these are of the baser sorts – consumptive eels, dropsical pouts and scrofulous suckers.’ ”
Yet studies of the day seemed to indicate that the pollution was limited to areas north of Blackstone, MA, and that the river possessed adequate filtration properties below that point to render the river harmless. Yet there were those who blamed the river for outbreaks of malaria in 1881. The Boston Herald on October 4, 1881, speculated about the probable cause:
“The most evident cause seems to be the existence of so many dams along the rivers, the constant changes of the level of the water having an unfavorable effect in changing the conditions of the soil. A mill-pond, so far as observed, seems to be the worst cause of malaria in this part of the country. Another remarkable fact about the disease is that it has invariably appeared on the west bank of a river a considerable time before attacking the eastern bank. Fortunately, the malarial fever has thus far appeared here in a comparatively innocent form, and it is said that no case has been reported in the state which 30 grains of quinine would not cure.”
What effect pollution and disease had on the Albion section of the river at that time is up for discussion. However, in writing about Albion in his History of the Town of Smithfield in 1881, Thomas Steere waxed poetic in describing the Blackstone River at this location as follows:
“…looking north, there is as pretty a landscape as is to be found on the river. At the right, looking across the dam, is a bit of scenery which is unique and perfect. The river is placid; the water splashes over the dam with a joyous beauty; the rugged rocks rise rough and abruptly on the thither shore; the graceful birches are reelected in the water below, and the light and cheerful green of the springing foliage contrasts charmingly with the dark gray of the granite; while taking in a wider sweep, the river winds gracefully between the hills on either side, which, by their curvature, seem to mingle not far off in one mass of bright and living verdure. In the early spring-time, and when the autumn rains begin, Muzzy brook, which once turned the wheel of Oziel Wilkinson’s forge, leaps in a succession of cascades from the meadow above to the river below; and, like one of Ruggles’s gems, is, in its own way, wholly unapproachable. It is infinitely more lovely than the celebrated falls of Inversnaid, on Loch Lomond, about which so many pretty and poetical things have been said and sung.”
By 1883, some were beginning to question the future of the river as a source of water power for the mills. The Boston Journal on November 23, 1883, reported that the river had been “gradually growing lower for the ten years last past, and the meadows that in the old times were at this season of the year entirely covered with water to a greater or less depth are as dry as pasture land today and quite suitable for house lots.” Manufacturers were said to be gradually dropping water power. One mill owner, however, attributed this not to the dry seasons but rather to the “running out, or diversions, of the river’s numerous tributaries.” In one such case of alleged “diversion” the Albion mill joined other Rhode Island mill owners in 1887 in a lawsuit against the City of Worcester for its taking of the Holden reservoir and Tatnuck Brook, alleging that this diversion of water had greatly injured and damaged their interests (Worcester Daily Spy, June 28, 1887). The mill owners won their case, and the Albion mill was awarded $11,340 from the overall $134,010 judgment (Worcester Daily Spy, November 3, 1887).
On August 30, 1907, the Pawtucket Times posted an article about the “filthy conditions of Blackstone River,” conditions which the article stated had been the subject of citizens’ criticisms for the past ten years, despite efforts by some mill owners, health boards , and Blackstone Valley residents to prevent pollution. The article called any prospect for improvement “hopeless,” regarding citizen complaints as unlikely “to bear much fruit for the reason that for miles up the river the same conditions prevail and any improvement which is to come will have to be through the united action of the mill owners the entire length of the river.”
Those of us who experienced the river in the 1950s and 1960s remember it as the site of dumping of industrial waste. Pockets of blue, green, and pink dyes would be seen floating down river, and foam would accumulate at the bottom of the dam and blow into the air. Pollution was rampant. The odor in the summer heat was putrid. Thankfully, the Clean Water Acts of 1972 and 1977 began the task of cleaning up the river and making it a source of recreational activities, such as paddling.
On February 4, 1979, the Boston Herald reported that Rhode Island had announced a plan to create bikeways, hiking paths, and canoe routes along the Blackstone River, from Providence to Central Massachusetts. In 1983, Congress approved a bill to establish environmental guidelines for the river valley, from Providence to Worcester. Senator John Chafee, D-RI, announced that the National Park Service would study the possibility of restoring the Blackstone River Valley as a national park (Springfield Union, October 24, 1983). Finally, after three long years, the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was approved in October 1986 (Springfield Union, October 19, 1986). Legislation to establish areas within the Blackstone River Valley that would constitute Rhode Island’s first national historical park passed the U.S. Senate on December 12, 2014, after approval in the House. The sites identified are Whitinsville, River Bend Farm in Uxbridge, and Hopedale, all in Massachusetts, and the following sites in Rhode Island: Slatersville, Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Kelly House in Lime Rock, Ashton, and Slater Mill in Pawtucket (Providence Journal, December 12, 2014).