Much of the southern part of Central Massachusetts is drained by the Blackstone River and its tributaries. Several towns in this area have a joint chamber of commerce, and are collectively known as 'The Blackstone Valley'.
The Towns of the Blackstone Valley
The following Massachusetts towns participate in the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce:
These towns share a propensity towards being named either after mills or after towns back in England. None of these towns today has a population greater than 5000 (2000 US census figures) and typical populations are half that.
Several towns in Rhode Island are also drained by the Blackstone River, and are therefore also technically part of the Blackstone Valley. However, this entry concentrates on the Massachusetts part of the Valley.
The 'Rise' of the Blackstone Valley
The valley of the Blackstone River was settled by the Nipmuc Indian tribe, until the first European settlers arrived in the 1600s. A native Wampanoag chieftain known to the English as 'King Philip' launched the first wide-spread attack against English encroachment from this area between 1675 and 16761. Like almost all Indian rebellions ever since, it didn't work. By 1746, the date of the foundation of Douglas, the Valley town farthest from Boston, English settlers had overrun the valley. The last full-blooded Indian in the area married a white settler in the 1840s. Today, 1/16 Indian ancestry is the requirement for tribe membership.
The new settlers barely had time to get their offspring raised, before the next rebellion against English rule came in 1776. The Blackstone Valley saw no action in the revolution, but it sent militia forces to the war, starting with Lexington and Concord.
After the United States of America won its independence, it had no factories, so it still faced existence as effectively a mercantile colony of Britain. The Blackstone Valley helped change that. The Blackstone River and its tributaries are relatively steep as rivers flow, and therefore was an ideal place to build water-powered factories in the 1800s. Samuel Slater2 built several factories there, starting in Rhode Island and moving upriver. The Blackstone Valley promotes itself as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution3.
The Massachusetts settlers turned to farming, cutting down the trees in the valley, though it took them decades. In 1789, George Washington passed through the Blackstone Valley, and described part of it as, 'a poor uncultivated country, covered chiefly with woods', but by the middle of the next century, the entire Valley was under cultivation.
The Blackstone Valley was also a good stopping point for travellers halfway between Boston and Hartford. Not satisfied with that, it participated in the great era of canal-building in the 1820s. Indeed, it staked its future on it. The rivers in central Massachusetts flow not east towards Boston, but instead south towards Providence - into the Blackstone. A canal alongside the river presented the best chance for transportation between the ocean and central Massachusetts' largest city, Worcester. When the canal was finished, cargo could be taken between Worcester and Providence, Rhode Island in 16 hours4.
The 'Decline' of the Blackstone Valley
Rise of the Railroad
And so, the Blackstone Valley had a vibrant economy based on transportation, farms, and factories. Unfortunately, things started going wrong, starting with transportation. 20 years after the opening of the Blackstone Canal in 1828, it was replaced by a railroad. A train could move about as fast as a canal ship, but never have to stop for locks. A railroad was built between Worcester and Providence, alongside the canal, but a railroad could be built from Worcester to Boston just as easily, and the state government in Boston had an interest in keeping Massachusetts commerce from going through Rhode Island. The Worcester and Providence Railroad is still in business today, carrying some freight traffic and the occasional tourist train, but most railroads, like highways would later, now bypassed the Blackstone Valley.
The mere existence of the American frontier would also affect all of New England. Fertile land was opened to farming in the Midwest, and railroads were built there to bring back the produce. The relatively non-arable land of New England couldn't compete. New England's reputation for rocky soil is not for nothing; all those stone walls which were built through the region were just one way of getting rid of stones. Farmers of the Blackstone Valley largely stopped growing crops on their farms, and moved into town to work at the factories. Before long, trees started growing back. According to United States Geological Survey maps, the Blackstone Valley is now mostly wooded once more.
The result of these changes was a Blackstone Valley whose main reason for human habitation was factories. This kept the valley prosperous for over 100 years. But eventually, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became cheaper to build and operate new factories overseas. The result of that was a Blackstone Valley which pined for the glory days of smokestacks.
The area today consists largely of trees, some surviving fabric mills and associated discount stores, some surviving farms, some attempts at attracting tourists, and lots of bedrooms for people who work in more prosperous communities. If you want to make lots of money and live close to work, this area is not for you. But if you don't mind a commute or a weekend trip, the Blackstone Valley is nice.
The Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor
All the pining for the glory days of smokestack industry - plus some really influential US congressmen - eventually led to a government attempt to commemorate those days. This led to the concept of a National Heritage Corridor, which is like a National Park, only cheaper.
Officially, the entirety of every Massachusetts town in the Blackstone Valley (and several neighbouring towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island) is part of the Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor. A Heritage Corridor differs from a park in that the United States Park Service doesn't run the whole thing; they just put in a few ranger stations at strategic locations in the local parks. The Park Service also provides some money for local park improvements, and for plaques in every village, saying (for example):
A Mill Village
Blackstone Valley National Heritage Corridor
Stuff to Do in the Blackstone Valley
In some respects, time has victimized the Blackstone Valley, but in many respects, time has passed it by. There are several forms of recreation there which one would normally never associate with Massachusetts or with the current decade:
Join a gun club - Several towns in the Blackstone Valley have them.
Go see a drive-in movie - Like everywhere else, drive-ins are slowly going out of business there, but there are still four or more drive-in movie theatres operational in the Valley or neighbouring towns.
'Camp' in a trailer park - Some parts of the Blackstone Valley import vacationers, but they all arrive with mobile homes. Other parts of the Valley allow people to keep trailers in place permanently.
Enjoy some country music - The Valley town of Uxbridge is home to the New England Country Music Club. Many towns in the area have line dancing at the local VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) hall. One nearby venue, Indian Ranch, offers country music concerts with trailer-park camping.
This leads to an ambience much like Appalachia. To reinforce this, one thing you can't do in the Valley is, go to an indoor shopping mall. Also, lodging is somewhat bleak; the Valley offers two motels (in Sutton and Uxbridge, near State Road 146, the main highway of the Blackstone Valley) and one inn (in Grafton). Malls and motels are widely available in neighbouring towns. But in the Blackstone Valley itself, you can:
Hike - Several towns (Douglas, Northbridge, Sutton, Upton and Uxbridge) have state parks and forests. Arguably the best of these is Purgatory Chasm in Sutton, a quarter-mile canyon.
Bike - A bike path is being built along the Blackstone River and Canal. A couple of sections are open now. But bring a mountain bike; the path, at time of writing, isn't yet paved. If you only have a road bike, you'll have to settle for lots of shady back roads through the woods.
Golf - Most towns in the Blackstone Valley have golf courses. The Pleasant Valley Golf Course in Sutton is world-class, and plays host to US Open tournaments.
Buy produce - The Blackstone Valley is trying to encourage something called 'agri-tourism', which is to say, cruising farm stands. The Valley still has several functioning farms, including two major dairy farms5 with attached stores open year round. Of course, at harvest time a multitude of farm produce stands spring open. Sugar corn is a major crop there.
Hunt for bargains - Because there are still some fabric mills in the Valley, there are still some fabric discount stores. If you want other stuff, there are lots of flea markets in old barns and factory buildings, and lots of yard sales every Saturday.
Stop for a break - in numerous little pubs and restaurants. Each town in the Blackstone Valley has two or more villages. Most of these villages have a pub. If you can't find one in the village you're in, then just go five miles to the next.
This is the kind of stuff that most tourists go to Vermont, New Hampshire or Maine for, but the Blackstone Valley is closer to major centres of civilisation than all of those places.
In short, if you like to vacation in rustic areas and you can find one close to home, go for it, but, if you can't, the Blackstone Valley is there for you.