Blackstone heritage corridor could become new national historical park

THE Wilkinson and Slater Mills along the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket.
Posted 7/18/11

WASHINGTON – Parts of the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor are so significant and unique to the nation’s history that they should be protected in a new national historical park in Rhode Island and Massachusetts managed by the National Park Service at a projected federal cost of $3.5 million annually and $6.1 million in one-time startup costs, according to a federal report.

Scheduled for release Monday, the draft of the special resource study, conducted by the U.S. Department of the Interior, addresses the future of the national heritage corridor.

The corridor was established in 1986 and encompasses 24 communities along the Blackstone River from Worcester to Providence. Federal status of the corridor is slated to expire in October 2011 but federal development funds continue to 2016.

Providence Business News obtained an advance copy of the report, which recommends that certain portions of the corridor become part of one national park devoted to the birth of the American Industrial Revolution, “a distinctive and important aspect of American history that is not adequately represented elsewhere.”

Those portions would include: the Blackstone River in both states and its tributaries; the Blackstone Canal, which runs alongside the river in certain sections; the noncontiguous historic districts of Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, and the villages of Slatersville in North Smithfield and Ashton in Cumberland, Whitinsville and Hopedale in Massachusetts.

“As the nation’s first heavily industrialized region, the valley became the prototype for a sweeping social transformation that included a fundamental shift in the nature of work,” the study said, summing up the area’s historical significance.

The interior department study reviews three options for the area: no park could be created and the corridor could continue as it is; the Old Slater Mill historic district in Pawtucket would become part of NPS; and, the preferred option, an act of Congress to create a new unit of NPS including parts of both states.

Sen. Jack Reed, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment that oversees the NPS, applauded the report’s findings. “The National Park Service draft report’s recognition of a new multi-site park is literally an historic victory,” Reed said. “As the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, this area is a national treasure.”

According to the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, more than $25 million has been spent on preserving historic buildings, creating museums, constructing visitor centers and building permanent exhibits in the heritage corridor. Reed pointed out that the new national park would enhance the area’s visibility, increase the number of visitors to the Blackstone Valley and strengthen the economic development potential for the local economy.

Undertaken in 2007 in consultation with the national heritage corridor commission, a board with representatives from both states that now operates the corridor and is based in Woonsocket, the study is a draft with a 30-day public comment period starting July 25.

The NPS then will finalize the report to send to the secretary of the interior and then to Congress. Reed said he will introduce legislation and work with his colleagues in Rhode Island and Massachusetts to create the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. This would be the first national historical park in Rhode Island, joining the Roger Williams National Memorial as a unit of NPS. The Touro Synagogue in Newport is a national historic site and affiliated with NPS.

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