Pawtucket, R.I. - Much blood was shed in the American Revolution against Britain.
The American Industrial Revolution, said to have begun here at Slater Mill on the banks of the mighty Blackstone River in 1793, also drew a good bit of blood. The belts, wheels, and cogs, unfettered by federal regulations in the late 18th century, would sometimes lop off fingers, break arms and legs, and occasionally fatally crush a child who had been sent into whirring machinery to clean or fix things.
Such workplace tragedies are fully a part of the technological history cataloged at this site where English expat Samuel Slater created water-powered textile machinery that revolutionized the way the new nation produced goods.
This National Historic Landmark is one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations, with some 40,000 visits a year by people from 150 countries.
The Slater Mill complex occupies three buildings on 5 1/2 acres in an area of the state’s fourth-largest city once clogged with mills, some of which now serve as office or residential space.
Costumed interpreters guide visitors through the buildings, narrating the history of operations. The main building is largely filled with replica machinery and displays showing how tightly-compressed 500-pound bales were transformed into miles of cotton fiber. The wispy, cloud-like raw material was carded, spun, and woven into tight, strong strands that were wound by clattering machinery onto bobbins. Periodically the machinery would jam, and could be repaired only by someone small enough to squeeze in to fix it - a child, usually. Quickness was a virtue to avoid getting caught in heavy sliding parts.
Upstairs is the Jencks Education Center, which includes the Community Guild Studios, begun in November 2008. It is Rhode Island’s first fiber-arts center, said Steven Chandler, development and marketing manager, and it offers a range of classes and programs, including chair caning, basket making, weaving, spinning, and quilting.
In the stone Wilkinson Mill is a replica waterwheel, a 16,000-pound wooden behemoth the likes of which would have served as the backbone for any water-powered manufacturing facility. Ghosts have been sighted here. Haunted tours are held at Slater Mill, and The Atlantic Paranormal Society last year aired an episode of its popular “Ghost Hunters’’ TV show that was filmed on the premises.
The wheel powers a hub that turns a series of heavy leather belts on pulleys upstairs in the Slater Mill machine shop. The belts in turn drive drills, lathes, and sanders, another source of lost fingers and broken bones back in the day. In one portion of this area is the Apprentice Alcove, where children - quite safely - can operate their own mini-machines.
Also at Slater Mill is the Sylvanus Brown House, a late-18th-century structure with a small garden in back. The house was moved here from elsewhere in Pawtucket for preservation.
While visitors may be from far-flung places, many are locals who have never been here or had been ages ago.
“Those are two common responses from people visiting,’’ said Andrian Paquette, curator. “They either grew up near here and never saw Slater Mill, or haven’t been since they came with their second-grade class. We’re targeting those folks to get them to visit for the first time, or again.’’
Sunday, June 21, 2009
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