I am a Volunteer-In-Park (VIP) for the National Park Service (NPS) site, Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park (BRVNHP). This park is difficult to define, as it has multiple missions pertaining to history, ecology, and transportation; covers urban, suburban, and rural environments; and has only existed since 2016. In fact, until the purchase of the Slater Mill Historic Landmark in February 2021, NPS did not own land within the designated park area. All landmarks, visitor centers, and trails were owned by other organizations, including Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc. (BHC), the Department of Conservation and Recreation in Massachusetts (DCR), Rhode Island Recreation and Parks Association (RIRPA), and many others. This collaboration between federal, state, and local governments, along with nonprofits and private businesses, allows for comprehensive preservation of the Blackstone River Valley Region, but it also can create a confusing, even overwhelming, experience for the visitor.
Because of its disparate missions, partnerships, and lack of property, Blackstone River Valley functions differently than better known NPS sites, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or the Great Smoky Mountains. There is no central visitor center but rather a collection of visitor centers shared with other organizations and spread throughout the region.
For visitors starting on the north end of the valley, the Blackstone Heritage Corridor Visitor Center at Worcester is an excellent first stop. Currently open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., with more hours expected as post-COVID-19 reopening goes into effect, the industrial style building houses interactive digital exhibits, more traditional signage, a meeting room, and restrooms. This visitor center also serves as the head of the Blackstone River Greenway, a partially completed, paved, two-lane biking and walking path that will eventually span the length of the valley.
For visitors beginning on the south end of the valley, the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center in Pawtucket, RI, is the ideal starting location. It’s down the street from Slater Mill Historic Site, where the first water-powered textile mill in America still stands. This site is considered the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution and is currently open Thursdays through Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with ranger led tours of Slater Mill at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. The two other buildings on the property, Sylvanus Brown House and Wilkinson Mill, are not open at this time. NPS passport stamps are offered at this location.
Other visitor centers throughout the valley include the Captain Wilbur Kelly Museum of Transportation & Kelly House Barn in Lincoln, RI; Blackstone Heritage Corridor, Inc. headquarters in Linwood Mill in Whitinsville, MA; and my personal favorite, River Bend Farm in Uxbridge, MA. Each visitor center has a distinct purpose, provides restrooms, and is wheelchair accessible.
The Kelly Museum highlights modes of transportation in the Blackstone Valley from the late 18th through early 20th centuries, including the Blackstone River, the Blackstone Canal, and the Providence & Worcester Railroad. The BHC headquarters is a possible starting point for a self-guided walking tour of Whitinsville, a mill village with multiple extant factories, historic houses, and an arboretum. River Bend Farm is a combination of walking and biking trails along a canal towpath, a portion of the Blackstone Canal for boating and fishing, and a restored barn offering an exhibit on life in the Blackstone Valley. Community events are hosted at these sites throughout the year, including Maple Sugaring Days in February, pollinator garden planting in the spring, plein air painting whenever the weather cooperates and multiple other events both indoors and outdoors.
At this stage in the life of the park, particularly with the inconsistency in post COVID-19 reopenings, creating a definitive itinerary or list of visit goals is a daunting task. Visitors to the Blackstone Valley should instead opt for unplanned exploration, keeping a general area in mind and making adjustments as needed. Regardless of what the visitors choose, everyone should wear sturdy shoes, as most activities require walking. Note that some small town and rural areas of the park have poor cell phone service, so download the area to your mapping app ahead of time or pick up a printed copy at a visitor center. Despite this it is nearly impossible to get lost, as even the most remote parts of the park are never more than a mile or two from a developed area.
With these tips in mind, enjoy exploring one of the newest NPS sites. With the multiple directions that the journey could take, any nature lover, history buff, athlete, or artist would enjoy a trip to the park.
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Abby Epplett has an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University and currently works as a park ranger for the National Park Service at Big Thicket National Preserve in Texas.