WOONSOCKET — Creating a new national park encompassing the Blackstone River and its tributaries, the historic Slater Mill in Pawtucket and existing historic districts in Cumberland, North Smithfield and two Massachusetts communities is the National Park Service's favored option for replacing the heritage corridor concept.
In a long-awaited report released yesterday, the park service says the continuation of the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor as it currently exists is still one of three options under consideration.
But the commission that runs the 25-year-old corridor, headquartered in One Depot Square, is scheduled to lose its federal authority by the end of October, with funding discontinued altogether by 2016.
The only other option on the table is a proposal to create the Old Slater Mill National Historic Site in Pawtucket. A boon for Pawtucket, the plan calls for making the Old Slater Mill a unit of the National Park System in a partnership with the federal park service and the Old Slater Mill Association.
Citing environmental reasons, however, the park service reserved its recommendation for the proposed Blackstone River Valley Industrial Heritage National Park — so-called Option 3. It's the most ambitious of the proposals, calling for a new unit of the park service that includes a smorgasbord of old manufacturing villages, natural resources and historic sites scattered throughout the 24-town heritage corridor.
“This management option best supports the project goals” of promoting a regional approach to protecting and preserving the “natural, cultural, recreational and scenic values” of the heritage corridor, the study says. The plan could also bring about “a greater level of resource protection” and foster “a greater level of public understanding and appreciation for these resources than either Management Options 1 or 2.”
The study was ordered as part of a law passed by Congress in 2006 to reauthorize the corridor commission for another five years. The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was originally created in 1986 to help promote and protect what the federal Department of the Interior calls “the best place to interpret the origin and rise of an important type of American industry” focused on mill power.
“These resources form a cohesive district that evolved and defined the Rhode Island System of manufacture, which became a paradigm for further American Industrial Development,” the study says. “As the nation's first heavily industrialized region, the valley became the prototype for a sweeping social transformation that included a fundamental shift in the nature of work.”
After the collapse of the region's manufacturing economy, the Blackstone was all but written off as a hopelessly polluted relic of a bygone era, but in recent years a cleaner, more picturesque Blackstone is enjoying a new lease on life as a resource for recreation and heritage-based tourism.
The corridor started out with a handful of communities, but later ballooned to two dozen cities and towns from Pawtucket to Worcester. In 1999, Congress added the name of the late Sen. John H. Chafee to the region in honor of its leading champion.
Before deciding which option to choose, the park service must gather feedback from the public through Aug. 26. Two open meetings will be held, Aug. 10 at 3 p.m. in the Blackstone Valley Visitor Center, 175 Main St., Pawtucket, and Aug. 16, 7 p.m., at Northbridge Town Hall, 7 Main St., Whitinsville.