COURTESY CHERYL THOMPSON
RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT: A paddler on the Blackstone River canal approaches the Ashton Viaduct between Lincoln and Cumberland.
By Denise Perreault PBN Staff Writer
To many, the federal heritage corridor in the Blackstone Valley represents a window into the United States’ past, starting with Colonial times and moving into and through the Industrial Revolution. But it is also a gateway to the marvels of southern New England’s natural world. And thanks to recent actions by the U.S. Department of the Interior, it looks like both aspects of the corridor are likely to be preserved well into the future.
Created by federal law in 1986, the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor consists of 24 communities – 13 in Massachusetts and 11 in Rhode Island – along the 46-mile Blackstone River from Worcester to Providence, now overseen by a bi-state corridor commission for which Jan H. Reitsma is the executive director.
Federal plans made public recently call for establishment of a new national park comprising parts of the corridor, namely the Old Slater Mill in Pawtucket, the mill villages of Ashton and Slatersville in Rhode Island, as well as Whitinsville and Hopedale in Massachusetts.
Robert D. Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, a member and former chairman of the commission, said that, in addition to the added respect and esteem such a designation would provide, major corridor assets that include the river itself, the Blackstone Canal next to the river and the riverside bike path running from the Massachusetts line to Bristol would be protected virtually forever. “That [protection] is something we would not have otherwise,” he said.
Federal cost of the new park would be a one-time $6.1 million expenditure, with a $3.5 million annual operating budget.
No timeframe has been released to indicate when enabling legislation will be considered, but Reitsma noted that public hearings will be held.
And while he agreed that national-park designation would bring added protection and resources, Reitsma stressed the importance of maintaining the many vital collaborations the corridor has forged in both states, particularly with environmental groups.
Since the corridor was created, he said, “we have worked very closely with the watershed associations in both states, and other environmental groups.” National park status would provide “more dependable resources” to support those partners, he suggested.