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Sustainable Tourism Development Articles Federal Investment Leads and Leverages Private Investment in the Blackstone River Valley

by Robert D. Billington, Ed. D.

The Blackstone Valley has been successful for two main reasons: first, because of the leadership and commitment of the people involved in community rebuilding, and, second, because of city, state and federal coordination, and cooperation with private sector investors which has included cutting red tape and offering reasonable tax incentives. The National Park Service, through the National Heritage Corridor Commission’s concept of cultural heritage and land-management planning, has helped the Blackstone Valley develop an overall regeneration plan. The plan encourages coordinated, broads scale, Valley-wide economic development, while preserving its nationally significant industrial heritage, historic buildings, factory-rich landscapes and improving a desecrated environment. This type of regional planning has proved to be a key ingredient in luring the private sector to invest in the future of a region such as the Blackstone Valley.  

The Blackstone River Valley is unique. It played a ‘seminal role in transforming New England, and America, from a colonial landscape of farmlands and forests to one of riverside mills and urban factories.' It’s the Birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution. According to the US National Park Service, the Blackstone Valley is ‘one of the Nation’s richest and best preserved repositories of landscapes, structures and sites that recall a neglected era of the American past: the age of industry.

The Blackstone Valley is situated in New England, 300 km north of New York City, 60 km south of Boston, Massachusetts, and 16 km north of Providence, Rhode Island. The Valley encompasses two states, 24 communities, and 150,000 ha of land. It is home to 450,000 people.

The Blackstone Valley takes its name from the Reverend William Blackstone, the first European settler to make his home on the banks of the river in 1635. The 60 km long Blackstone River flows from Worcester, Massachusetts, to the top of Narragansett Bay in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, dropping approximately 140 m along the way.

Following William Blackstone came farmers, and metalworking artisans, mostly immigrants from England. The Valley rose to national prominence in 1790, when English immigrant Samuel Slater built the first successful water-powered cotton-spinning mill in America. More than any other single event this … can be said to mark the birth of the American Industrial Revolution and the complete transformation of American life, and character. He was barely an adult when his work in America served to sever the economic tie between America and England, thus making America truly economically and politically free.

The Blackstone River drops 2 m per kilometer over its run from Massachusetts to sea level in Rhode Island. This unusually steep drop provided Slater and his successors with the ability to harness the Blackstone for water power, to the extent that it became known as the ‘the hardest working river' in America. Because of his unique understanding of manufacturing and business, Slater went on to become known as the Father of American Manufactures. He and his partners established several manufactories throughout southern New England.

The Blackstone Valley communities and their creative people had the technology, knowledge and ingenuity to capitalize on the energy of the river, and this drove the US economy. Hundreds of mills were built throughout the Blackstone Valley after Slater’s success. These enterprising textile mills provided the underpinning for the USA to become a world economic leader. Immigrants flocked to the Blackstone’s textile industry from all over the world. They came to create a new life in America, and to secure their version of the American dream. They first settled along riverfront villages, in what are today the cities of Pawtucket, Cumberland, Central Falls, and Woonsocket.

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