A place is more than a chunk of real estate or a
dot on a map. Without culture, lore, history, and natural beauty a
place doesn't really exist. It's nowhere.
The Blackstone Valley has all that in spades. Only
there was a time when people seemed to forget, even some people who
called the Valley home. A few decades ago, you could say the region
was suffering a hangover, the result of a long party called the
Industrial Revolution. The mills that once employed so many stood
vacant, the jobs shipped overseas. The Blackstone River, the power
source for the factories, was polluted by the waste they had
produced and choked with litter and trash. Downtowns turned to ghost
towns as residents moved to the suburbs and did their shopping at
malls that looked exactly like the malls in Minnesota and California
and everywhere else in America.
All that took an economic toll. For a long time the
Blackstone Valley struggled with unemployment numbers well above
those found in nearby Greater Boston or Providence. Worse, it became
anonymous, a place you travel through on the way to someplace else.
And that's what gave birth to the Blackstone Valley
Tourism Council. A handful of true believers, led by Bob Billington,
the agency's founder and long time director, set out to change the
region's future by inviting tourists to come visit. At the same
time, they hoped to renew a sense of pride among those who call the
region home. They wanted folks to remember the struggles and
triumphs of their immigrant grandparents who worked the mills, to
once again see the river as a rushing, roaring, natural waterway,
and to see the region's farms as something more than future space
for more sprawl.
"We wanted to let the world know what the
Blackstone Valley is all about," says David Balfour, who chairs the
tourism council's board of directors.
WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?
Any history professor worth is tweed coat can tell
you about the Valley and the crucial role the region played in
America's growth. In 1790 a British engineer named Samuel Slater
stepped onto a dock in Providence. He carried in his head the plans
necessary for building a hydro-powered textile mill. Writing down
those details would have been dangerous, because Britain -- the only
nation with such factories -- had made it a crime to take the
technology out of the country.
The young man had no trouble finding backers and
partners. By 1793 they had a mill up and running at Pawtucket Falls,
with machines turning out cloth around the clock. Soon there were
hundreds more like it up and down the river, from Worcester to
Providence, all powered by the force of its fast-moving waters.
Immigrants came to provide the labor, thousands and then tens of
thousands every year, settling into company housing around the
factories. The bulk of them were French Canadians from Quebec
Province, but there were newcomers from all over the world.
The Blackstone Valley helped make America the
world’s industrial powerhouse for a century and a half. By the
mid-1900s, however, the glory was fading fast. Looking to exploit
cheaper labor, mill owners moved their operations south or abroad.
When World War II ended, so did the last great production push, and
the Blackstone Valley began to sag.
THE QUEST BEGINS
When Bob Billington launched the tourism council
back in 1985, the Reagan go-go years were in full swing, but somehow
the Valley got left out. There were jobs aplenty in the Boston
suburbs, but that could be an hour's drive for some area residents.
Nonetheless, necessity pushed many to make the long commute.
At that time Billington was working at his family's
giftware business. Ever the organizer, he'd convinced other
manufacturers in the area to form an association of factory outlet
retailers. They put out a brochure and spent some cash on
advertising, and before long, shoppers began showing up. When
Billington found himself fielding questions from the visitors about
restaurants and Rhode Island attractions, the light bulb flashed on
again: Promoting the Blackstone Valley as a destination could be a
real boon to the region's sluggish economy. He talked with some
friends and some movers and shakers, and the tourism council was
born, right on the kitchen table of his Cumberland home.
The Rhode Island Division of Tourism offered a
matching grant to get the enterprise up and running, but with the
stipulation that local communities kick in the same amount. That
sent Billington on a rambling quest through Woonsocket, Pawtucket,
Burrillville, Cumberland, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Glocester,
Lincoln, and Central Falls.
In the months that followed, he spoke to more than
a hundred groups, from Rotary Clubs and Kiwanis to church groups and
town boards. Everywhere, the response was the same: snickers,
guffaws, sometimes even belly laughs. Locals couldn't believe anyone
would go out of their way to visit their humdrum hometowns. "A host
would introduce you, and every time there would be a chuckle in the
back of the room," recalls Billington.
The night he made a pitch to the North Smithfield
Town Council still sticks in his mind. "They told me, There's no
tourism here. And they threw me out," he says. "They threw me out."
But within a few days Town Council member Ken
Bianchi rang him up. He worked for the state's Department of
Economic Development, and he'd discussed Billington's sales pitch
with folks in his office. They'd all agreed the effort sounded
worthwhile. He encouraged the young man to talk with town officials
So Billington went back. And they gave him the
PAYING THE BILLS
Soon a board of directors formed, and in the fall
of 1986 they hired Billington as the fulltime director of the
Blackstone Valley Tourism Council. Of course, they had no idea how
he'd get paid. Getting money to run the operation was his job.
As a father with two small kids and a mailbox that
kept filling up with monthly bills, he knew he had to hustle. The
freshly-passed state tax on hotel rooms provided some money for
tourism groups, but for several years that amounted to no more than
a few hundred dollars. Eventually he wrangled $10,000 in
job-training funds from the Rhode Island Department of Employment
and Training, money set aside to assist Vietnam-era veterans. As a
former Coast Guardsman, he qualified.
In those early years Billington found that rallying
support sometimes remained an uphill battle. When he showed his face
at meetings of the governor's advisory council on tourism, some
members from the state's beach towns were bemused. They dismissed
his efforts as a lost cause. And when Billington surveyed members of
the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, none showed any interest
The big boosters proved to be corporations and
businesses that saw no direct gain from bringing tourists to the
region, companies like Amica Insurance, Fidelity Investments, and
Credit Union Central Falls. "These
people were convinced that first and foremost tourism is good for
the community," Billington says. "The primary beneficiary is the
local community. Look at the bike path, for example. The primary
benefit is to
local people who can go there everyday."
Billington also gives a nod to Rick Alger, former
mayor of Cumberland, who helped the Blackstone Valley Tourism
Council win recognition as a non-profit educational corporation, a
designation that made the organization eligible for certain grants.
SOME STRONG PARTNERS
Fortunately, there were others with the same goals
and the same drive.
When the environmental movement first swept the
country in the early 1970s, many local activists looked to their own
backyard. With help from the National Guard, they organized
clean-ups of the Blackstone in both northern Rhode Island and
central Massachusetts. Over the years volunteers have hauled many
tons of garbage from the river’s shores.
And in 1985, Rhode Island Senator John Chaffee
authored legislation to create the Blackstone Valley National
Heritage Corridor, which follows the river in two states. That
brought the National Park Service to region to help the states, the
municipalities, and non-profit groups establish parks, museums, and
bike paths. Ask almost anyone involved in civic affairs, and you’ll
hear how over the past 25 years the Corridor has strived mightily to
bring about a change of direction in the Valley.
ROLLING ON A RIVER
Northern Rhode Island has no mountains, no ocean
beaches. Nothing in the Blackstone Valley is the biggest, the
highest, the oldest, or superlative in any other way. The Valley's
got history, to be sure, but the same can be said of every town and
city in New England. As Billington and his colleagues discovered,
it's the once-shunned Blackstone River that makes the region a
unique destination. Get a bunch of school kids off their bus and put
them on a riverboat, and their field trip becomes something more.
It’s an adventure.
The council's first watercraft was the Blackstone
Valley Tourism One, a 16-foot inflatable raft secured through Navy
surplus. In 1989 Billington invited news reporters and public
officials to climb aboard for tours that revealed the river was on
the way to becoming a surprisingly beautiful urban wilderness.
A year later Warren boat builder Luther Blount
leased the tourism council a glass-bottom water bus originally built
for tourist trips in tropical climes. Cynics suggested those who
traveled the Blackstone would have a great view of sunken shopping
carts and discarded automotive parts. But the river tours --
launched near School Street in Pawtucket -- proved to be a huge
success. Busy weekends saw more than 300 people clamber aboard for
river trips. More access landings were added in Central Falls,
Cumberland, Woonsocket, and Uxbridge.
That success prompted the tourism council to launch
a fundraising campaign with the goal of buying a riverboat of their
own. In 1993 the 49-passenger Blackstone Valley Explorer began
plying the waters. As of 2010, more than 300,000 visitors have
experienced the river tour.
"The riverboat was never a moneymaker," says
Billington. "It's a place-maker, an image-maker for the Valley. The
Explorer really made our reputation. I've always called it 'the
Convincer.' We've taken everybody on that boat -- our mayors and
town administrators, all the members of the congressional
delegation, the US secretary of the interior, everyone. It convinces
them the river has something to offer."
To mark the new millennium, the tourism council
took up another fundraising drive to buy yet another vessel, an
English canal boat dubbed the Samuel Slater, the only one of its
kind in the country. It's a covered water craft that can be used for
tea tours, corporate charters, birthday cruises, and even as a
floating bed and breakfast. "Imagine," says Billington, "people are
staying overnight on the Blackstone River."
The tourism council's efforts have also inspired
people to explore the river and its tributaries on their own. On any
warm and sunny weekend afternoon there’s no shortage of visitors
paddling along in kayaks and canoes, frequently using routes
developed and promoted by the tourism council. And you'll see
fishermen casting lines into the current as well. The area's
waterways now teem with wildlife. Birdwatchers spot hawks, blue
herons, mergansers, wood ducks, and mallards, all once rarely seen
in the region. Deer sometimes wander along the shore. In the early
morning you might see a raccoon at the water’s edge washing a
Pollution and litter have not entirely disappeared,
but neither have the volunteers and the agencies that are committed
to making the watershed a more pristine place. Through the years the
tourism council has worked with a hundred organizations on clean-up
efforts. During one notable campaign, the Great American Clean-up of
2003, a group effort resulted in the removal of 3,000 old tires from
the river's shores.
THEY COME BY LAND
Visitors also explore the region by land, of
course. In the early years the tourism council developed motor coach
tours, and got Conway Bus Service and other companies to run them.
For a time they were popular with senior citizens groups, but there
was less interest once reservation casinos opened in Connecticut.
Other ventures also met with up-and-down success. A
one point the tourism council purchased a British model
double-decker bus to take visitors to the sites. The tours were a
hit, but unfortunately the high cost of
insurance put a stop to the effort. The Blackstone Valley Trolley
was, however, a huge success, running profitably with the help of
Conway Tours for nearly a decade. Several years ago the council sold
the vehicle, for about the same amount as the purchase price.
Trips aboard the Providence & Worcester Railroad
have won a following. Residents and visitors alike board passenger
cars for fall foliage tours and Christmas excursions inspired by
Rhode Island author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg's Polar
Express. The tourism council also created self-guided tour brochures
and maps -- dubbed DeTours -- for those who prefer to explore by car
or bike. Cyclists can peddle along more than ten miles of scenic
bike paths that follow the river from the Valley Falls section of
Cumberland to Hamlet Avenue in Woonsocket.
As word spread about the Valley as a tourist
destination, some distinguished visitors found their way to the
region. They've included the mayor of Belper, England, and other
dignitaries from his city, which was the center of that country's
18th-century textile industry. The visitors indicated they had
forgiven runaway son Samuel Slater. And in 1994 President Bill
Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton dropped by to help
celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Slater's Mill.
Billington visited the White House as well, to discuss tourism and
economic development with the president. Congressman Patrick Kennedy
helped arrange the tête-à-tête.
Along the way Billington found time to earn a
doctorate degree in tourism development from Johnson & Wales
University. Today he and others at the BVTC are using their
expertise to promote a new economic concept -- Sustainable Tourism
-- that encourages development of the hospitality industry while
respecting local culture and the environment. The Blackstone Valley
Tourism Council is now part of the Global Sustainable Tourism
Alliance, an organization established by the United Nations.
TOURING THE VALLEY
A history of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council
would not be complete without a look at the towns and cities along
the river. Let's take a little ride.
In Woonsocket, many credit the tourism
council with encouraging residents to open the Museum of Work
and Culture, where visitors and locals alike learn about the
trials and successes of immigrant mill workers. "Back when I was
teaching history at Woonsocket High School, Bob Billington used
to come by to ask us about materials that could be used in
tours," recalls Ray Bacon, now the museum's co-director. "When
the city and the Rhode Island Historical Society established the
museum back in 1987, he was very much involved."
In North Smithfield, Ruth Pacheco
recalls how the tourism council helped brain storm activities
that boost community spirit. "We were looking for a unique way
to celebrate New Year 2000," says the owner of Hi-on-a-Hill Herb
Farm. "Bob Billington suggested a town-wide photograph. We rang
the old mill bell at precisely 12 noon, and several hundred
people gathered on the steps of the Congregational Church. The
Fire Department brought in their boom to lift up Christine Keene
so she could take the shot."
In Burrillville, Town Planner Tom
Kravitz raves about the tourism council's Culinaria Food Tours,
which take visitors to an area restaurant -- like Thai Time in
his town -- to enjoy a meal and learn something about the
region's rich ethnic diversity. "They've certainly had a
positive influence here," Kravitz says. "And not only with
restaurant promotions. They've done a lot to call attention to
the walking trails we've developed in Pascoag and other areas of
Glocester business woman Rose LaVoie,
formerly owner of The Purple Cat Restaurant, thanks the council
for bringing crowds of visitors to town and directing them to
local establishments. "They've had farm tours and they've
brought folks to Brown & Hopkins, our country store and the
nation's oldest," she says. “They've done wonders for the
state's northeast corner, which otherwise always seems to be
In Smithfield, folks talk about the
BVTC’s work to promote the Smith-Applybee House Museum, one of
the few 17th-century stone-ender homes left in the region.
"They've brought busloads of visitors here," says Maggie Botelho,
the museum's treasurer. "We're mainly a volunteer organization,
so their efforts are a big plus."
In Lincoln, the tourism council is a top
promoter of Hearthside Homestead, a 19th-century stone mansion
turned museum and one of the state's architectural treasures.
"The council put together a self-guided tour -- the Great Road
DeTour -- that's really made this a destination," says Kathy
Hartley, president of Friends of Hearthside. "And they've
included us in many of their bus tours. We would never have
grown so quickly without their help."
In Central Falls, state Senator Betty
Crowley points out how the tourism council is reminding people
there's more to their community than bricks and pavement. "The
Sunday afternoon river tour on the Explorer is a great trip,"
she says. "They take you to areas that almost seem like
wilderness. You see birds and wildlife and for awhile you forget
you're surrounded by a city."
Mike Cassidy, recently retired as
Pawtucket's city planner, has followed the council's efforts
since day one. "I remember how people laughed when Bob
Billington said he was going to put a boat on the river," he
recalls. "Now it's a huge success. And it's done a lot to get
people concerned about restoration of the river."
In Cumberland, folks are excited about
plans to revitalize Broad Street, a three-mile thoroughfare that
also extends into Pawtucket and Central Falls. The tourism
council has teamed up with a number of organizations to boost
businesses, add landscaping, and hold public celebrations and
It's just one way the BVTC has helped the region's
economy grow, says David Balfour, a lifelong Cumberland resident.
"Tourism was once something this area ignored, but it's no longer
forgotten," he says. "It's a major industry. And don't let anyone
tell you the jobs generated are just flipping burgers. A hotel
manager making a hundred thousand a year is part of the tourism
And he's quick to point out that the economic
benefits stretch way beyond luring visitors to the region. Rhode
Island is working hard to develop a new economy, based on such
industries as financial services, health care, high technology, and
biotechnology. The Knowledge Economy, planners call it. To bring
those companies to the state, executive must be convinced this is a
location where educated, affluent employees would want to call home.
The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council and its partners have
transformed the region into exactly that sort of place.
"Do you think for a minute," Balfour asks, "that a
major company would ask their employees to live here if it was not
the kind of place they'd want to visit? Would a company like
Fidelity move here, and ask their workers to move, if the Blackstone
were still a dirty, polluted river? I don't think so."
There's still more work to do, of course. Some
communities in the region still struggle with poverty, environmental
degradation, and other issues. And the current recession has hit
Rhode Island hard. But over the past 25 years enormous progress has
been made, and over the next 25 years, it will continue.
"The Tourism Council works to redevelop the
Blackstone Valley as a great place to work, visit, and live,"
Billington says. "And I think we're achieving that goal."