CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. -- The slender doe took mincing steps across a shallow spot in the river, barely glancing at our slow-moving boat. A gaggle of Canada geese made small circles on the glassy surface. The only thing that told us we were cruising the Blackstone River in northeastern Rhode Island was the red brick smokestack and tower of the Ann & Hope Mill rising above the trees.
In that moment, 200 years of the Blackstone's history converged. On one hand were the mills that sprang up along the river's banks and eventually polluted it so badly it ran a different color every day depending on what dyes were being dumped into it. On the other hand was the wildlife that has begun to return in response to 30 years of cleanup efforts, and the one-of-a-kind British-built canal boat commissioned to symbolize the public-private partnership that is turning the Blackstone River Valley into a destination.
When Al Klyberg found a house he liked by the Blackstone Canal in neighboring Cumberland in 1969, no bank wanted to give him a mortgage. ``They said the area was a slum and the river was polluted," Klyberg said.
Klyberg, the former director of the Rhode Island Historical Society , eventually bought the early 19th-century waterfront gambrel. His son, Kevin, recalls frequent admonitions to stay out of the canal, which ran parallel to the river.
``I don't think our parents were worried about us kids drowning so much as emerging with an extra leg or something," Kevin Klyberg said.
Pollution notwithstanding, the waterway was a treasured part of his childhood. So when his father became involved in efforts to clean up the Blackstone, Kevin decided he wanted to support the reclamation effort -- so much so that shortly after the federal government designated the valley a National Heritage Corridor, he became a ranger with the National Park Service, working in the mill villages where he grew up.
The Blackstone River runs 46 miles from Worcester to Providence. Its 250-foot drop made it an attractive site for water power. In 1793 Samuel Slater, from Derbyshire, England, erected a wooden mill at Pawtucket, the first textile mill in the country, predating mills in Lowell by some 20 years. By the mid-1800s there were a thousand mills operating between Pawtucket and Worcester along the Blackstone, leading to its moniker as ``the hardest-working river in America." It was also fast becoming the dirtiest.
At the Slater Mill historic site in Pawtucket, costumed interpreters explain the process of turning bales of cotton into thread and thread into cloth, and visitors can see original 19th-century machines at work.
Wave after wave of immigrants came to the area, lured by the promise that they could make more in a month at the mill than they could in a year on their farms. Woonsocket mills recruited French Canadians, in part because they resisted pressure to unionize, believing their only loyalty was to church and family. The area became known as ``Little Canada" and street names reflect the French influence. In the city's historic Market Square, the Museum of Work & Culture traces the lives of these immigrants in exhibits featuring voices of former mill workers and their descendants.
By the 1960s most of the textile industry had moved south, and the mills that hadn't burned down stood vacant. In the late ' 60s and early ' 70s, as the environmental movement swept the country, there was a renewed interest in cleaning up the Blackstone River, Al Klyberg said. In 1972, in an initiative dubbed ``Project ZAP!" 10,000 volunteers removed tons of debris from the river.
In 1986, the federal government designated 400,000 acres of the Blackstone Valley from Worcester to Providence a National Heritage Corridor . In a corridor, Kevin Klyberg explained, the government doesn't own the land. The park service acts in an advisory role, coordinating the efforts of state and local governments and private enterprises. Federal funding is an important component; the corridor receives about $1 million a year, Klyberg said. In 1998 Congress named the Blackstone an American Heritage River , which meant more federal dollars.
There are lots of ways to experience the new Blackstone River Valley. A 9 -mile paved bike path hugs the river, in many places following the old ``tow path" horses trod as they dragged cargo boats along the canal. Ultimately the bike path will cover 48 miles between Providence and Worcester. The park service offers a guide that maps beginner and intermediate canoe and kayak routes. The Blackstone Valley Explorer is a 49-passenger riverboat that gives 45-minute tours .
We chose to stay overnight on the Samuel Slater Canal Boat, a floating bed-and-breakfast built in Cambridgeshire, England. The 40-foot flat-bottomed vessel, whimsically painted red with green and yellow trim and floral stenciling on the doors, sleeps four. We added a 90-minute river tour with Ramon Rodriguez, who has lived in the valley for 17 years and has been the boat's sole pilot since it was launched in May 2000.
We boarded in Central Falls, one of the most densely populated cities in Rhode Island. But once we rounded the first bend in the river, we left all traces of the city behind. We floated by a marsh that used to be the Lonsdale Drive-In . We saw a muskrat dragging weeds to a nest, a great blue heron, cormorants, and osprey nesting in the mesh of a radio tower. We saw anglers fishing for bass, pike, and trout. And we saw the occasional vestige of the river's past: a tire, a fender, a rusted shopping cart.
If recreation has replaced textiles as the area's primary industry, housing is a close second, Al Klyberg said. The reclamation of the river has been matched by renovation of the old mills into apartments and condominiums, aided by tax credits for historical preservation.
And the value of the house on the Blackstone Canal that no bank wanted to touch nearly 40 years ago just keeps on climbing.
Contact Ellen Albanese at firstname.lastname@example.org.