WOONSOCKET â€“ The John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor Commission marked its 25th anniversary by calling on its longtime volunteers and stalwart supporters to help the cultural heritage and natural resource district win designation as a National Historical Park.
The appeal came during a birthday celebration billed as a â€śRally for Valleyâ€ť held Thursday evening in the Providence & Worcester Railroad Station at Depot Square â€”one of the dozens of significant historic sites along the corridorâ€™s 40-mile route between Worcester, Mass. and Providence, R.I.
About 200 corridor staff members, volunteers and supporters gathered inside the depot to hear praise for their work over the years and pep rally-style speeches from corridor leaders and public officials seeking to kick-off the new designation drive with enthusiasm.
"Let's not fight like we are winning, we've got to fight like we are underdogs," said Robert Billington, a corridor commission member and president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, while hosting the event.
Corridor Commission Chair Donna Williams pointed to the effort over the past 25 years as creating the groundwork for National Park recognition but said the supporters must now take on the task of gaining approval of the new designation in Congress.
â€śYou all have done such a spectacular job in making the Blackstone River Valley come alive,â€ť Williams told the crowd. â€śYouâ€™ve brought pride into the Valley and made it an unimaginably significant resource area and we are truly appreciative of all you have done for us.â€ť
To win the new designation, Williams said, all the people gathered at the depot must continue to work together, just as they have for the past 25 years.
U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., stopped in to encourage the corridor supporters in their new challenge as did Worcester City Manager Michael V. O'Brien, and Massachusetts State Rep. George Peterson. U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, in Washington for a Senate session, sent video greetings that were played on a large-screen television, and local officials including Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine and North Smithfield Town Administrator Paulette Hamilton were also on hand to note the importance of the new designation to their communities.
The officials said the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor has come a long way since its founding under the leadership of the late John H. Chafee as part of his trademark work for the environment and historic preservation, and now offers Valley residents a valuable recreational and educational resource.
The cleaned-up Blackstone River, once the engine driving the birth of the American Industrial Revolution at Samuel Slaterâ€™s preserved river-powered textile mill in Pawtucket, now hosts canoeing, kayaking and fishing. The corridor also features a bikeway tracing parts of the old Blackstone Canal towpath along the river that eventually will run from Worcester to Providence.
Cicilline said the past 25 years have been an â€śamazingâ€ť period of preservation and educational development for the corridor and one that has made it a resource to be enjoyed by many future generations.
The importance of that past work was documented in a special resources study by the National Park Service that will now be used in the effort to have the region declared a National Historical Park, he said.
â€śWe anticipate the outcome of that work is that we can begin to take the next step in declaring a National Historical Park here and we are really close to that step,â€ť Cicilline said. He added that the regionâ€™s congressional delegation has already begun working to gain approval of the new designation in both the House and the Senate.
The importance of the Blackstone River Valley in the development of the nationâ€™s industrial manufacturing model can only help those efforts, according to Cicilline.
â€śThe power of the history of manufacturing in this region and in our state will help to serve as a reminder of the Rhode Island ingenuity and American ingenuity that had an impact on the economy of the past, and where it will take us in the future,â€ť he said.
Oâ€™Brien also voiced praise for the regionâ€™s efforts to create the corridor and maintained that continued cooperation between Rhode Island and Massachusetts will be necessary for achievement of the corridorâ€™s new goals.
Worcester already recognizes the importance of taking that next step, he said.
â€śOur connection to the river and this valley and our success as a city and a region are inexplicably tied the success of the Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park,â€ť Oâ€™Brien said.
Fontaine pointed to the large gathering of supporters as an indication of the importance of the corridor to the area, and Woonsocket in particular.
â€śWe need to get the message out to our legislators and let them get a taste of the passion of Blackstone Valley for the Blackstone River that spurred the Industrial Revolution in the past and now will restore our future with this new recognition,â€ť Fontaine said.
The national heritage corridor has worked well with other city highlights, such as the Museum of Work and Culture, to draw visitors to Woonsocket from all around the country and the new role of the area as a National Historical Park will only increase that interest, according to Fontaine.
â€śI urge you to contact your representatives and senators and let them know we are passionate about this, and we are going to push this forward and we are going to have a national park here,â€ť he said.
The evening also included special tributes to longtime corridor volunteers such as retired Millville school teacher Margaret Carroll, who rolled out the official birthday cake at one point, and a video highlighting the improvements made in the region over the past 25 years.
A rousing marching band performance by the ER Band and a medley of vocal songs performed by local singer Dominique Doiron brought the rally to a close but Billington said later the work for new the park designation is only beginning.
â€śI think it went great and we are very excited about the number of people that attended,â€ť he said. â€śWe wanted to celebrate their hard work over the past 25 years and also to get them excited about the work that still needs to be done.â€ť