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The John H. Chafee National Heritage Corridor maintains five Visitor Centers where personnel can answer questions, find informational brochures, discuss resources, programs or history. The Woonsocket Depot is the main office of the John H. Chafee National Heritage Corridor. Some of their activities include: Thursday Night Walkabouts in the summer, Ranger Talks in Jan-February, Ranger tapes with Ranger Chuck Arning shown on cable and found in local libraries highlighting the natural and manmade assets throughout the Valley and various preservation and planning workshops.
In tandem with this support, the Rhode Island Tourism Council's Bob Billington and the Massachusetts' Blackstone Valley Chamber's Tourism Committee add to the spirit and progress of building tourism opportunities and dollars throughout the Blackstone Valley. Many, many other volunteers work consistently to build events, programs and an entire framework of interactive efforts towards enhancing the Blackstone Valley and the River.
In 1986, a federal investment was committed through the legislature to support the River cleanup and recognize the Blackstone River corridor as a "special place of historic and cultural significance". The Blackstone River, known as America's hardest working river from more than a hundred years of industrial use starting with the first Samuel Slater mill, then followed by scores of mills using the River's water power yet dumping their wastes, had been ignored and was filthy. The need to explore, understand and protect the historical assets that belong to our independent heritage coupled with the strong determination to revitalize the River was determined after an initial inventory of over 10,000 sites was collected from throughout the Massachusetts and Rhode Island valley towns.
The initial timetable of ten years was renewed and again funded for its second decade with ongoing goals and visions that have made consistent leaps of progress spurring the area into a wonderful region for tourism. One of the goals, with heavy citizen participation and drive is ZAP the Blackstone which celebrated its thirtieth birthday most gloriously in June 2003. The newest goal, under a collaboration of watershed organizations, leads to a Swimmable/Fishable River by 2015 - a blessed gift to our children and grandchildren!
Although the federal government does not own any land within the National Heritage Corridor as is the traditional pattern of the National Park Service, the Corridor Commission works collaboratively with local businesses, Chambers of Commerce, individuals, agencies and nonprofits to highlight and preserve the best assets of the Valley, an 400,000 acre area. This federal-state-local partnership has paid huge dividends with the revitalization of the River and many surrounding sites. For some of the annual activities, see our annual events calendar or current events.
The Visitor Centers range from Worcester's future home, the Old Rome Factory to the existing Worcester's Audubon urban sanctuary, Broadmeadow Brook working cooperatively towards the River and ecosystem revitalization. The Pawtucket Visitors Center, abutting mass transit, yet gracefully situated by the Old Slater Mill complex offering wonderful aesthetic and historic presence is another apex blending past, present and future visions. The Blackstone Valley Chamber in Northbridge is also a Visitor's Center. All of these, including One Depot Square in Woonsocket seen above, offer brochures and helpful information.
The Blackstone River has a noble past where ingenuity, cooperation and hard work created a canal where bulk goods could be transported from Providence to Worcester in a few days for almost twenty years until railroads became the main method of transport starting in 1847. Before the canal, the horse and wagon was limited by weight and took much longer for delivery, so competing cloth from England traveling by ship in great quantities was cheaper and more easily accessed by Boston storekeepers. The canal, built in three years from 1825-28 at a cost of $750,000, traversed 44 miles through two states and contained 48 locks which allowed boats to rise an estimated and amazing 438 feet. Each lock would section off the boat while the area filled with water over a course of three to four minutes. This would raise the boat about 8-11 feet each time and then allow the boat to continue its upstream course. Cloth from the Valley mills now had a reasonably cheap and quick method to get to market throughout most of the seasons. In addition, this canal forever changed Worcester which grew three times its size in a few years, now more populated than Sutton.
Although most of the locks have now been dissembled due to the re-use value of the stone, the most intact lock exists at Millville Lock. A lock keeper would sometimes be housed in a small home near each lock and the canal boat would blow its horn signaling the lock keeper to perform its duties and raise (or lower) the water with the wooden gates at each Lock. This is just the tip of historical information collected and displayed at various locations throughout the Valley with nearly 1000 kiosks of literature maintained by Corridor events coordinator, Barbara Dixon.
Another benefit of the federal funding and National Heritage concept has been to clearly delineate the many resources we do have throughout our communities. Some of the Valley towns, such as Hopedale with its paternalistic mill owners who for decades provided everything a community virtually needed, were devastated as the mills shut down and longtime employees were stunned! The transition to a more independent way of life and the search for new employment was shocking and slow for those left behind as industries moved south for cheaper labor. The concept for municipal government to build a school or fire station had never been needed with the paternalistic generosity of mill owners, such as the Whitin or Draper families, yet all that had changed coupled with high unemployment. So, the commitment from the National Heritage Corridor mission has reinforced the strong local leadership overwhelmed with so many responsibilities. The partnership has gained momentum allowing renovations and reuse of old mills into thriving new centers of commercialism through the use of federal or State grants along with private capital.
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