John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Massachusetts

I was surprised to learn there's a national park of sorts that straddles Rhode Island and Massachusetts and is home to half a million residents and 2 dozen communities. Moreover, the federal government doesn't own 1 square inch of it!

I'm referring to the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, which stretches roughly 45 miles between Worcester, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island. What's so special about this stretch of river valley?

Well, as my husband and I learned during a recent visit, a fellow named Samuel Slater built a textile mill on the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, way back in 1793. Slater's mill was significant because it was the first to use waterpower to run cotton-spinning machinery--but certainly not the last!

Many more textile mills followed suit, powered by the racing Blackstone River; once known as the "hardest working river in America," this waterway drops 438 feet during its run from Worcester to Narragansett Bay in Providence. Thus, industrial America was born.

By the early 1900s, 34 dams lined the river to provide more dependable hydropower to the mills. A canal, which required 48 locks to ascend and descend the river, soon followed, transforming Worcester and Providence into two of New England's larger cities.

Today, there's virtually no sign of the canal, made obsolete by railroads. But there still are lots of buildings, historic sites and small towns that recall the ad- vent of America's industrial might.

We started exploring the corridor at the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center in Pawtucket (175 Main St.), where State Highway 114 meets I-95. While you're there, be sure to pick up a good map and obtain good directions, as we found Rhode Island roads aren't marked very well.

Now a living-history museum, the Slater Mill (67 Roosevelt Ave.) is located across from the information center. Here, costumed interpreters told us what life was like here during the farm-to-factory movement in the 1800s. It was fascinating to see how the textile machinery evolved.

In Central Falls, don't miss a ride on the 40-foot Samuel Slater, a reminder of the canal boats that once plied the waters around here more than a century ago. The boat can also accommodate up to four overnight guests as a unique floating bed-and-breakfast.

Another highlight was the E.N. Jenckes Store Museum in Douglas, Massachusetts (283 Main St.), a fully renovated early-1800s general store. And in Ashton, the Wilbur Kelly House and its small museum provided another glimpse into life on the river back in the 1800s.

And while you're in the valley, stop in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, to visit the Museum of Work and Culture, located in a refurbished mill (42 S. Main St.). Here, we learned even more about the history of immigration and labor during the mill's heyday.

As you can see, the Blackstone River Valley is a pretty exciting and special place--there simply isn't enough room to describe all there is to see and do in this historic area. I guarantee you'll never see another national park quite like it!

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