Blackstone River State Park, Bikeway, And Visitor's Center History

Presently, the Blackstone River State Park is a linear park on alternate banks of the Blackstone River from Valley Falls, Cumberland to Hamlet Village in Woonsocket. A distance of some 12 miles, the park's principal feature is the Blackstone River Bike Path. Beginning with an elevated board walk over the Valley Falls marsh at Jones Street in Cumberland, it winds its way through a restored meadow, once a Drive-in movie theater, and follows the tow path of the historic (1828-1848) Blackstone Canal at Old Lonsdale in the town of Lincoln.

The towpath parallels the canal nearly four miles north to the Captain Wilbur Kelly house at Old Ashton in Lincoln before crossing the river again at Pray's Wading Place. Riders then continue north, re-crossing the river at Albion Village. Passing through another mill village at Manville, the path ends temporarily in the new playing fields of Woonsocket's Hamlet Village at Davison Street.         

During this 11.6 mile course, bike riders and hikers have the opportunity to see great blue heron and other bird fishermen like cormorants, an occasional osprey, and even the chance of an eagle. The waters of the river and canal once reduced from pollution to only a few species of fish, now boast more that two dozen varieties. Muskrat, raccoons, opossum, skunk, foxes, and coyotes share the meadows and wooded river banks with deer. Frogs, and turtles of sizes ranging from modest to large snappers are visible through out the park's linear bounds.         

Plans for the bikeway call for it to extend a couple of winding miles north through the industrial neighborhoods of Woonsocket to the state line at Blackstone, Massachusetts, and to continue south through Central Falls and Pawtucket to the site of Slater Mill with a link to Blackstone Boulevard in Providence and the 18 mile East Bay Bike Path, from India Point and Fort Hill in East Providence, Haines Memorial State Park in Barrington, and all the way to Colt State Park in Bristol.         

While the feel and look of the Blackstone River State Park, stitching together the river banks and the abutting boundaries of Cumberland and Lincoln, is definitely rural and naturalistic, the history of the land and waters making up the park is thoroughly industrial. At various points in the twelve-mile trek, one can see the remains of the area's industrial past peek out from beneath the foliage and reflect in the waters. Mill dams, which once held back the river in order to power machinery, still mark the river's drop at four locations. Sluices and power trenches, canal mile-stones, ground level, protruding shapes of cellar holes of former worker tenements, along with recycled mills now used as apartments and small businesses dot the path. The observant visitor is challenged to discover the legacy layers of this landscape of industry.         

Within its bounds, the recorded history of the Park dates back to the Indian uprising of King Philip's War (1675-1676); sites in the middle portion of the Park relate to the nearby Lincoln industry of the mining and processing of limestone for making plaster and mortar. But the main chapter of its history pertains to the various eras of the textile story begun in Pawtucket with Providence merchant, Moses Brown and English millwright, Samuel Slater in 1790 that continue to the final stages of that industry in this area in the 1930s to the 1950s.        

A necklace of industrial gems comprising ten major glittering elements, mostly consisting of Brown and Ives Lonsdale's cottons, Sayles Finishing Company, and the Chace brothers' Berkshire Fine Spinning products was strung from Valley Falls to Hamlet. They became giants in the Rhode Island manufacturing chronicle and major players in America's industrial history. Tributes to the Rhode Island shipping trade with China, India, and South America where the fortunes were made to fund the turn to textiles are seen in the street signs in Lincoln and Woonsocket, named for the entrepreneur Edward Carrington.  Critical to this success story that stretched over a century and a half was the role played by transportation, the key linkage tying these dispersed enterprises to the board rooms, banking floors, and marshalling yards in the port of Providence. The transportation elements were the Blackstone Canal and the Providence and Worcester Railroad, both of which are prominent parts of the linear park. The story of transportation is depicted at the Captain Wilbur Kelly House, a museum midway along the bike path. Operated by the Department of Environmental Management, Kelly House offers interactive exhibits reflecting the major chapters of the story of the movements of goods and peoples in this portion of the Blackstone Valley. Central to this story of intersections is the personal biography of a key player in all aspects of transportation, Captain Wilbur Kelly (1782-1846). Kelly was born in Barnstable, Massachusetts in 1782 and came to Providence when he became a noted sea captain in the employ of the equally noted shipping firm of Brown and Ives. In 1815 he set a speed record in sailing the second Ann and Hope to Canton, China and back.

About this time, however, he began an interest in the growing textile industry, begun two decades earlier by another Brown family group, Amy and Brown with Samuel Slater in Pawtucket. After an unpropitious start in a textile venture in North Providence in 1816, Kelly returned to the sea trade with Brown and Ives, but by 1823 he was ready for another attempt in textiles. This time, he purchased a closed mill along the Blackstone in what became the Old Ashton/Quinnville neighborhood of Lincoln. Kelly was aware of the plans to build the Blackstone Canal through his site and anticipated it would reawaken the silent factory. The project began to connect the inland market town of Worcester, Massachusetts with the port of Providence by constructing a canal with 48 lift locks to pass boats up and down the 438 foot descent of the Blackstone River.

Kelly eventually sold his little mill to Brown and Ives who made it their Upper Mill at Ashton, and he became their real estate agent for buying up some four miles of river bank from Ashton to Lonsdale. His purchases led them over time to establish four manufacturing villages on the land he bought and to build a textile empire which lasted 100 years. He became a consignment agent for canal cargoes and the on-site manager of the building of their first village of Lonsdale with mills, housing, a church, a company, store and school in the mid 1830s. He built a home, now the museum, in Old Ashton in 1835 to serve as the superintendent's cottage for the Upper Mill and to manage the 17 acre farm that served to provide some of the food needs for the mill workers, whose houses comprised the early village in Lincoln, now Quinnville.

Eventually, that village was eclipsed by the new Ashton mill and attendant village built across the Blackstone River in 1867 to take advantage of the convenience of the Providence and Worcester Railroad which had been brought through the neighborhood on the Cumberland side of the river, putting the Blackstone Canal out of business.

The formal history of the Blackstone River State park began in 1986 with the State of Rhode Island acquiring the Kelly house and its 17 acre farm, known as Ashton Meadows. The movement to create a park and to rescue the 3.5 miles of canal and towpath, however, began twenty years before the state bought the Kelly property. In 1965 the movement, which resulted in the park, focused on saving the most original-looking portion of the Blackstone Canal and towpath, in its 46 mile length and Worcester to Providence. It was the dream of a Lincoln couple, Ruth and Henry Tetreault. Enlisting a small band of environmentalists and preservationists they created a non-profit, Committee for the Advancement of Natural Areas in Lincoln, Inc. (C.A.N.A.L.)

The group set forth to curb further pollution of the Blackstone River and to set aside the canal and its towpath as a walking trail. Almost immediately they petitioned against further sand and gravel excavations in the area and a growing land fill operation facing the towpath on the Cumberland side of the river. To build momentum to their mission they reached out to kindred groups of nature organizations, garden clubs, sportsman's clubs, water recreation clubs, and historical and preservation organizations. They approached local planning boards and conservation commissions in the towns of Lincoln and Cumberland. Not limiting their outreach just to local bodies, they petitioned the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, and his wife, Ladybird Johnson, who was building a reputation for beautification projects nation-wide. They called on the members of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island congressional delegation. John Chafee, then Governor, was in the midst of his own Green Acres program. Senator Edward Kennedy toured the canal by canoe. Within Lincoln, C.A.N.A.L. secured the energies of Conservation Commission Chair, James Ferguson, who started the initiative to have land owner, Frank Ronci, a North Providence manufacturer give the towpath and canal to the Town of Lincoln as a memorial to his son, Paul, killed in Vietnam. After a prolonged negotiation over the issue of water rights and land condemned for the future path of Route 295, the linear strip along the river was finally deeded to the Town of Lincoln for a park.

In order to preserve the possibility of this eventuality, and show of faith, C.A.N.A.L. challenged the land-fill operation in court. The group's case claimed that the encroachment of the landfill to the river's edge was actually moving the boundary of the two towns into Lincoln. The diversion of the river channel westward was actually creating a scouring action that undermined the stability of the earthen towpath which formed the Lincoln bank of the river. Hearings were also held on the matter within the RI Department of Natural Resources.

In the end, C.A.N.A.L.'s efforts tested the constitutional validity of State's new clean water act, and the pernicious effects of the land fill were halted. The feisty little group was also at the center of one of the state's first environmental mass movements, Project ZAP the Blackstone. One weekend in 1972, 10,000 volunteers, working in segments from Pawtucket to Woonsocket removed 10,000 tons of river-choking debris in the first of annual river cleanups that helped to change the attitude of thousands of Rhode Islanders that the river could be transformed from a public waste-water to a necklace of linear parks strung together by a bikeway. Community meetings, planning studios conducted by graduate students of the Rhode Island School of Design, design charettes underwritten by the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities and the Urban Field Center Workshop of the University of Rhode Island, all focused attention on the potential for reclaiming the river as a recreational resource. The first of several successful nominations to place sites on the National Register of Historic Places occurred. By 1983, the dream of the C.A.N.A.L., Inc. group was a reality, and Lincoln had a town park. With the purchase of the Kelly House property in 1986, the scene was set for the town park to be folded into a state park, and plans were underway to make the development a key component of the even larger concept of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a forty-six mile network of parks and natural areas stretching the entire distance from Providence to Worcester, featuring a bikeway and incorporating dozens of sites and projects along its stack of nearly two dozen towns in two states. In the spring of 2003, the pineapple banner at the Kelly House Museum signaled the Captain was in residence and receiving guests; the museum was open, and the sequence of bikeway segments in the park began in 1997; continuing in 2001, and 2005. Constructed by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, managed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, inter-governmental cooperation with the towns of Lincoln and Cumberland and the National Park Service programs has made this environmental heritage attraction work well for the general public.

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