You don't often find preservationists, environmental activists, business people, and politicians coming together for a party, but that's just what they did Thursday night to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the
The gathering doubled as a pep rally for a campaign to create a new national park in the region, one focused on the history of the Blackstone Valley as the birthplace of America's Industrial Revolution. Bob Billington, director of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council as well as the emcee for the bash, exhorted the crowd to motivate others to join the cause.
"If you have a cell phone, don't turn it off," he urged them. "Use it to call someone. Tell them to come join us."
There were cheers and cake and a raucous brass band that shook the rafters of the former Woonsocket train depot, a Victorian-era structure that now serves as headquarters for the Heritage Corridor. But there was also a sense of urgency. In twelve months’ time the federal government will no longer pick up the bill for the program. Boosters are pushing for a national park, in part to prevent a loss of funding for preservation efforts.
They also see a potential economic benefit to the region.
"It will bring us national recognition," said Jeannie Hebert, president of the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce in central Massachusetts. "It would certainly open a lot of doors for the entire area."
There are also fears that without such assistance, the region could lose some landmarks from its heyday as an industrial powerhouse. "There's still plenty of work to be done, obviously," said US Rep. David Cicilline, one of several Rhode Island and Massachusetts political leaders at the rally.
Many at the rally expressed furstration at the most recent loss - Woonsocket's French Worsted Mill, a long vacant factory that employed hundreds of city residents in the early decades of the 20th century. The site is , but that didn't stop demolition crews from swinging a wrecking ball at some of the buildings last week.
The Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester to Providence, has long been described in history books as the place where modern manufacturing first took root in America. It began with an act of industrial espionage by British engineer Samuel Slater.
In the late 1700s mill owners in England developed the first successful method of harnessing water power to run spinning machines. To stifle foreign competition, British law prohibited the export of the technology. Ignoring the risk of arrest and imprisonment, Slater memorized the plans and crossed the Atlantic. He formed a partnership with Rhode Island industrialists, and in 1793 they opened America's first textile mill in Pawtucket. Before long there were bustling factories up and down the Blackstone River.
There's no shortage of landmarks from that era along the river today, from red-brick factory to gracious municipal buildings to portions of the old Blackstone Canal. In 1986 the federal government named parts of central Massachusetts and northern Rhode Island as a national heritage area, a special designation that provides funding for preservation of historic sites and national landscapes. The National Park Service owns no land or facilities in the area, but to assist with planning and to run education programs at museums and parks.
The Blackstone Valley Heritage Corridor is one of 50 locations throughout the country that have received such a designation. The program, however, was never intended to be permanent; federal funding for the Blackstone Valley was to expire in 20 years. The region has been spared the chopping block twice. In 1986 funding was extended five years, and to give federal lawmakers time to consider the national park proposal.
"I'm optimistic," said Jan Reitsma, executive director of the Heritage Corridor, during Thursday's rally. "The National Park Service is in favor of it. They've done a special resources study, which concludes that it makes sense to create the national park. A big part of it was the condition of the resources - you can look around the area and see reminders of the past everywhere."
Reitsma pointed out that US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited the Blackstone Valley in August, and indicated he supports creation of a new park in the region. The director also noted there is now a push in Washington to develop more national parks in urban areas, that would be accessible to more people than wilderness parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. Last week the federal government announced the creation of new park in Paterson, NJ, another area that boasts of having nurtured the country's industrial growth.
A bill to create the Blackstone Valley National Historic Park by the region's Congressional delegation. Sponsors include US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Senators John Kerry and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.
Supporters of the plan are urging local residents to send a message to Washington supporting creation of the park. "We need John Q. Public to be involved," said Billington. "We have to be very, very vocal. We need thousands of people. We need a pile-on."
The Blackstone Heritage Corridor passes through 24 southern New England communities. In Rhode Island, it includes Burrillville, Central Falls, Cumberland, East Providence, Glocester, Lincoln, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Smithfield and Woonsocket.
Massachusetts towns that are part of the corridor include Blackstone, Douglas, Grafton, Hopedale, Leicester, Mendon, Millbury, Millville, Northbridge, Sutton, Upton, Uxbridge and Worcester.