Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park: The Complete Guide

Slater Mill
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The Blackstone River powered cataclysmic societal change in the United States, and this 48-mile waterway is the centerpiece of a national park that is not only relatively new but it is also unique in that it is boundary-less. Just as the digital revolution impacts every aspect of 21st-century life, America's Industrial Revolution profoundly transformed the country's economic and cultural realities in the 19th century. It all started here on the banks of the Blackstone River, which originates in Worcester, Massachusetts, and surges south to its rendezvous with the Seekonk River north of Providence, Rhode Island.

The Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park was created in 2014, and through collaborations and acquisitions, the National Park Service has actively expanded its interpretation and preservation of key sites in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Primary among them is Slater Mill, built by Samuel Slater in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1790 and considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. If you're more outdoorsy than into history, no worries: From bike paths to hiking trails to boat tours, there are a multitude of ways to explore and experience this often-overlooked region of New England. Plan your Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park visit with these tips on where to stay and how to make the most of your time along the river.

Things To Do

Because Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park consists of a collection of sites scattered across two states, it is up to you to take control of your itinerary. Visiting the six historic structures featured on the Park Passport is one way to organize your journey. Only have time for one or two? Slater Mill (also called Old Slater Mill) is a must. America's first water-powered textile mill operated from 1793 to 1895 at Pawtucket Falls, the final waterfall on the Blackstone River, and it has been restored to its 1830s appearance. When the mill complex buildings are open to visitors, you can view antique machinery and learn about the inner workings of this historic mill. Decide for yourself whether Slater was a hero or a traitor, as you consider the monumental impact of his great heist. Slater, you'll learn, memorized machinery designs during his time as an apprentice in a cotton mill in England. He illegally brought that knowledge to Rhode Island, where he partnered with Moses Brown to develop the first textile factory of its kind in the U.S.

Another Passport site worth a visit is the Captain Wilbur Kelly House in Lincoln, Rhode Island, which now houses a transportation museum. When it is open to the public, admission is free.

There are many additional ways to experience the history and resurging natural beauty of this 19th-century industrial corridor, so come prepared for outdoor adventures like walking or hiking, biking, and boating. 

Best Hikes & Trails

There are several wonderfully scenic hikes in the Blackstone River region. Two with dramatic views are: 

  • The Blackstone Gorge Trail, a 1.2-mile loop for all abilities, begins from a parking area on County Street in Blackstone, Massachusetts. It's a short walk to Rolling Dam: Follow the sounds of rushing water. From here, the not-well-marked trail continues along a cliff overlooking the river, and you'll actually cross state lines without ever knowing it.
  • The hike from Rice Pond to Lookout Rock is a 2.5-mile loop with big visual rewards. From the trailhead near Uxbridge, Massachusetts, it's a moderate trek with thrilling views of the Blackstone River, snaking through the valley that shares its name.

Self-Guided Walking Tours

The National Park Service encourages visitors to explore three historic mill villages within the park on foot and provides these walking tour guides to give you context as you stroll. Hopedale is the most intriguing of the three, as it was twice the site of attempts to form utopian societies before it became a hub of loom manufacturing. 

Biking

A ride along the Blackstone River Bikeway is an exhilarating way to experience this region. About 24 miles have already been constructed, and the bike path is envisioned to eventually run the entire 48 miles between Worcester, Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. This interactive map will help you locate parking areas along the Bikeway.  Many, such as the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Center in Worcester, offer something more to see or do than the park.

Red Kayak on the Blackstone River
KenWiedemann / Getty Images

Boating

Of course, nothing substitutes for getting out on what was once known as "America's Hardest Working River." Incredibly polluted during the industrial era, the river is making a remarkable comeback and is now one of the valley's key recreational assets. Paddling options on the Blackstone River and Canal abound, as 18 dams necessitate canoeing or kayaking the river in segments. Whether you are a beginner or a more experienced paddler, there is a stretch of the Blackstone that will appeal to you. The 144-acre Slatersville Reservoir in North Smithfield, Rhode Island, is another perfect paddling spot for a calm and relaxing outing. Just steer clear of the waterfalls at the far northeastern end.

An even more laidback way to see the park by boat is to book a trip with Explorer River Tours. From regularly scheduled Nature & Heritage tours to specialty excursions and private charters, these family-friendly trips give you an up-close, learning-focused look at a river that looms large in American history.

Where to Camp

Although the National Park Service does not operate a campground within the park, Blackstone River Valley visitors have several options for overnighting outdoors, including:

  • Sutton Falls Camping Area: A picturesque campground on Aldrich Mill Pond in Sutton, MA, where you can pitch a tent, park your camper, or rent a yurt.
  • Circle CG Farm Campground: This Old West-themed RV park in Bellingham, MA, is close to all of the attractions and recreational opportunities in the park region.

Where to Stay Nearby

New England's second and third largest cities, Worcester and Providence, end cap the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, and you'll find myriad hotel choices in either destination. But you're likely looking for a less urban setting for your getaway to the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park area. Unfortunately, lodging options are scarce, but a few hotels and inns to consider are:

  • Holiday Inn Express Woonsocket: While the rooms are typical chain hotel, you'll appreciate amenities like the indoor pool, fitness center, and free breakfast.
  • Hampton Inn Pawtucket: An indoor pool, fitness center, and free breakfast are among the perks at this Rhode Island hotel.
  • Attleboro Motor Inn: Find cheap digs just five minutes away from Slater Mill at this basic hotel.

You may also want to check Airbnb and VRBO for home-like accommodations, particularly if you are planning an extended stay.

How to Get There

A car is really a necessity for visiting the park's spread-out sites and the Blackstone Valley's other attractions. While there is no one address for the park, many visitors begin their exploration at Slater Mill, where the park office is located. If you're planning to explore by bike, consider setting out from the Blackstone Bikeway and Visitor's Center, located on I-295 North in Cumberland, Rhode Island.

Accessibility

While accessibility varies at the park's sites, you will find the grounds and museum buildings at Slater Mill to be wheelchair accessible. One of the region's best fully accessible attractions is the Museum of Work & Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, which has automatic doors and an elevator, as well as app-enabled services for blind and low-vision guests and tools and programs for visitors with sensory-processing sensitivities. The riverboat Explorer welcomes all guests and can accommodate those with disabilities. The Blackstone River Bikeway is ideal for adaptive cycling. Northampton, Massachusetts-based All Out Adventures rents recumbent trikes and makes many different types of adaptive cycles available for its outings, which sometimes are held on this paved, smooth trail. 

Tips for Your Visit

  • When they are open, the Blackstone River Valley Heritage Center in Worcester and the Blackstone Valley Heritage Center in Pawtucket are helpful destinations for visitor resources and information. 
  • While there are no fees charged by the National Park Service for admissions or ranger-led programs, privately owned and operated attractions that work collaboratively with the park do charge fees. 
  • Although it is not a national park site, the Museum of Work & Culture is an interactive and engaging place to learn about the lives of immigrants who worked in the region's many mills during the 19th century. It's a perfect rainy day destination.
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