Rhode Island’s History in Brownfields

old drawing of slater mill
slater mill

As the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, communities in Rhode Island have served as vital locations for industries to settle given their proximity to the Blackstone River. Since the establishment of America’s first successful water powered cotton-spinning mill in 1790 (the Slater Mill in Pawtucket), the Blackstone and its surrounding communities have felt the impacts of industrial pollution. Textile manufacturers discharged dyes; leather and metal working plants discharged heavy metals; and woodworking companies discharged varnish, solvents, and paints. The river powered the factories and served as a repository for the waste they and the valley’s growing population produced.

Originally, most jobs were filled by local farm families. The early 1800s brought an influx of immigrants from England and Scotland. By the 1820s and 1830s, Irish laborers arrived to work in the mills and during the 1860s and 1870s, French-Canadians were recruited to work in the mills. With the spur of textile mills along the Blackstone, artisans and merchants opened shops, schools and churches were established, and cottages were constructed with the mills functioning as the community’s center. Populations skyrocketed between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s.