Woonsocket Falls

Water Power

Water has been used to power mills on the Blackstone River since the Arnold family built one of the area's earliest saw mills at the Woonsocket Falls in the 1660's. In the eighteenth century, small saw mills and grist mills were built through out the Blackstone River Valley to serve the needs of area farmers. A fine example of this early water power technology remains at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace. This changed dramatically in 1793 when Samuel Slater built the first successful water powered textile mill on the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Slater's success formed the basis for a new economy along the Blackstone River - one much more lucrative than grinding grain or sawing logs. With a 400 foot drop in elevation from Worcester to Providence, the Blackstone River became an excellent place to locate business in the days before steam turned machines. While not big enough to support the large mills which became common in Massachusetts, the Blackstone River's steep drop and numerous falls provided ideal conditions for the development of small, rural textile mills around which mill villages developed. The first textile mill in Woonsocket, the Social Manufacturing Company, began on the Mill River in 1810. By the mid-nineteenth century, Woonsocket had grown to become one of the largest textile manufacturing centers in the United States.

Water Powered Drive System for a Large Textile Mill The thirty-one foot fall of the Blackstone River in the area around the Woonsocket Falls produces approximately 2,000 horsepower. To insure a steady supply of power for the mills that quickly developed in the area, the river was dammed at the falls, and just below the falls in Bernon. Reservoirs or holding ponds such as the Bernon Pond (below the falls on the river) and the Clinton Pond (in the area of the current by-pass) were created to store water until it was needed by the mills. Trenches carried the water to waterwheels that were connected to gears, shafts and belts to supply power to the machines. In Woonsocket and all along its course, the Blackstone River was converted from a wild river into one of the most important industrial power sources in America.

By the mid-nineteenth century, water to power the mills in Market Square, on Main Street, on Clinton Street and in the Globe and Bernon Estates was provided by a system of five main power trenches:

System of power trenches around Market Square from a 1948 B. V. G & E diagram

Control of the water through these trenches determined how much machinery could be operated and when it could run. These trenches, now neglected, were vital to the economy of Woonsocket and remain a significant feature of its industrial past.

Waterpower remained important to Woonsocket's economy until the 1920's when it was eventually phased out, replaced by power from steam boilers and electric generators. As the use of waterpower declined, so did Woonsocket's textile industry. As long as Woonsocket's mills could obtain free energy from the river, they had an economic advantage. When technology made the use of waterpower unimportant to the energy needs of textile manufacturers, the mills moved south where labor and electricity were less expensive.

This page utilizes information from:

  • Statewide Historic Preservation Report for Woonsocket, Rhode Island published by the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Commission in September, 1976.
  • Working Water - A Guide to the Historic Landscape of the Blackstone River Valley, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Parks Association, 1997
  • Woonsocket - Highlights of History 1800-1976 written by Alton Pickering Thomas, MD and published by the Woonsocket Opera House Society in 1973.
  • History of Woonsocket written by E. Richardson and published by S.S. Fosse Printers, Woonsocket, RI 1876 (printed by Higginson Book Company, Salem, MA)

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