ON THE BLACKSTONE RIVER – Back in the 1980s the late U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee knew the best way to get people to support his namesake Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was to get them into boats so they could see the historic area from the waters of the river.
That formula was also being followed by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed on Friday when he took U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell for a kayak ride on the river while giving her a first-hand impression of its value. The tour also included his peer Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse paddling alongside the Director the National Park Service Jonathan B. Jarvis and U.S. Congressman David Cicilline taking up a paddle in the fleet of kayaks with corridor supporters such as DEM Director Janet Coit, National Park Service Northeast Region Director Dennis Reidenbach and Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee. Senator Chafee would have been impressed.
Reed may have had an edge in getting Jewell, who started in her new duties just seven weeks ago, on the Blackstone given the fact her former role as CEO of the REI outdoor goods retailing company gave her plenty of small watercraft experience.
After putting in at the riverbank near the Wilbur Kelly House just after 11 a.m., the fleet of kayakers and canoeists rode a noticeably rain-invigorated river downstream for about a mile, paddling when necessary to stay away from the banks or take in a better look at an interesting outcropping of vegetation and trees.
“It is beautiful, and the nice thing about being on a river is that you might feel like you are a thousand miles away from the nearest people even though you have a dense population very close by,” Jewell said from the cockpit of her kayak.
Jewell, who has spent much of her career working in environment related enterprises, said she was no stranger to getting an up close look at a river or a stretch of the ocean.
Previously calling the Puget Sound area of Seattle home, Jewell is experienced at kayaking and owns several of the small boats. “In fact I did my favorite paddle on a quick visit home over last weekend,” she said while showing good paddling form and an ability to go the long haul.
Her invitation to the paddle the Blackstone River was helping her to understand the work that went into making such access possible, the secretary offered.
“I am here on a river in an urban area that I know has been cleaned up by a lot of people's hard work, and it really takes a community connection to do that,” Jewell said. “I think that taking and improving a river like this is a joint effort,” she said. “It’s about the community caring about it, and it’s about the community coming out to do volunteer work,” she said.
The Secretary said there will never be enough funding to go around for such improvements, “certainly not at the federal government level and that's true at the state and local levels.
“But, when you think about a river like this, it is in people's backyards and when you introduce them to it they recognize it is their river and then they are committed to taking care of it,” she said. “So I think it is everyone's responsibility to take care of it, I think there is a little bit the federal government and the state of Rhode Island can do to help, but really it is the citizens that are going to make the difference,” Jewell said.
A little farther back from Jewell and Reed’s group, Sen. Whitehouse chatted with Jarvis about the work that has already been done to improve the Blackstone River watershed.
Jarvis had had the chance to see that work back in 2006 during a visit he made to the area to review the corridor’s value as a heritage resource but never took to the Blackstone’s waters in a kayak until Friday. Reed’s tour, which also included a visit to the Roger Williams historic site in Providence and the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, showed there is history to be found in the corridor along with its natural beauty, according to Jarvis. The nation’s industrial revolution began at the Slater Mill and yet the waters that once powered that industrial change are now available for public enjoyment, he noted.
“Here we are, basically downtown on this old working river and having and completely natural experience,” Jarvis said. “And, we’re going to cross into this historic canal (by a portage across the nearby bank) and see a piece of history at the same time,” Jarvis said.
“I think everybody in Rhode Island and New England should come out here and check this out, this is fun,” he said.
While taking the tour as part of Reed and the rest of the Rhode Island delegation’s efforts to have National Heritage Corridor formally declared a National Park, Jarvis said he had no doubt that the affected area an assortment of riverside parcels of land and significant locations stretching from Providence to Worcester, should be preserved for public use and learning.
“This is the cradle of the industrial revolution of this country and it is a great story,” he said. “It tells how you take something that was being neglected and significantly damaged and improve it and give it back to the people and that's what has been done here, so it’s wonderful,” Jarvis said.
The park’s director said he was pleased Jewell also had the chance to see the worth of the corridor on Friday.
“The Secretary of the Interior is new, she has been on job seven weeks and we are getting her out here so that she can see her responsibilities to the American people for these incredible places,” he said.
After make the portage, the flotilla of boats made their way up the old Blackstone Canal, which once served as an 1830s water freight operation linking Worcester and Providence until railroad routes replaced it. The tour concluded with a landing at a spot beyond the concrete piers of the Route 116 viaduct bridge.
Back on shore, Jewell told an assembly of media people she had enjoyed the trip and found it to be an example of what all the parties involved in preserving the Blackstone had accomplished.
“It’s a great example of community coming together and saying we have a resource here and it doesn’t have to be all cars and junk and pollution. It can actually be a thread that actually holds the gems of our community together and tells the story of the industrial revolution that happened right here and how the river, while it powered those mills to begin with, is now a place to draw people into active outdoor recreation,” she said.
The river’s watershed can be a “sustainable way for Rhode Island communities to remain strong and to introduce people into the livability of this part of the country and to tell your story which is so important to be told,” she said. Jewell said she looks forward to working with Reed, Sen. Whitehouse, Congressman Cicilline and Congressman Jim Langevin on “making sure we are supporting our public lands and opens spaces in the way that we should.”
Reed said he was “delighted” to show Jewell the highlight area of the Blackstone Valley and hopes the delegation will be successful in moving a bill creating the Park that already reported out of committee, to a full vote in the Senate and the House.
“What it is all about is education, outreach, the environment, and stewardship, and you can’t do all that without having these facilities,” Reed said.
“I think is also very helpful not only to enjoying paddling down the river but understand that it is accessible to millions of people who would not otherwise have access to the river,” Reed said.