John Brown, a prosperous Providence merchant, first attempted to build a canal along the Blackstone River as early as 1796. While he obtained a charter in Rhode Island, Boston businessmen, concerned at the prospect of losing business to Providence, blocked his efforts in Massachusetts.
In the 1820's, General Edward Carrington, another prosperous Providence merchant for whom Carrington Avenue in Woonsocket is named, led a successful attempt to build the canal. Opened in 1828, the canal utilized a series of 49 locks to move the barges up and down the 438 foot difference in elevation from Providence to Worcester.
The canal itself was little more than a muddy ditch with paths on each side for horses or mules to pull barges. While 90% of the distance was covered in a separate ditch, peaceful portions of the river were used as well. Barges left and entered the river a total of 16 times.
The locks used to raise and lower the barges were impressive structures. Made of granite with gates at each end, each lock was approximately eighty feet long and ten feet wide. Once a barge was in the lock with the gates closed, it could be raised by opening the upstream gate and lowered by opening the downstream gate.
Barges travelling up the canal from Providence to Worcester entered the canal in Woonsocket just north of the present Hamlet Avenue Bridge. Traveling through a series of five locks, barges traveled up the west side of the Blackstone River, in what is now flood control land, until they passed Smith's Dam. Removed as part of the flood control project, Smith's Dam was located behind the old Rathbun Outlet.
At Smith's Dam, the barges returned to the river again and were pulled up stream on a tow path along the south bank. The tow path crossed the river at the site of the current railroad bridge next to the Court Street Bridge and entered the canal. The canal traveled up what is now Allen Street (filled in when the canal was abandoned) on its way through the Market Square area.
Barges reentered the river above the Woonsocket Falls and were towed up the east side until the area of the railroad bridge near the end of River Street where they entered the canal again at what is now Water Street for the trip into Blackstone.
While the canal was planned a cheaper means to move goods overland from Worcester to Providence, problems with freezing winter weather, insufficient water and competition with mill owners continually plagued its operations. It operated for less than twenty years before it was replaced by the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Still, the Blackstone Canal was an important part of the industrial development of the Blackstone River valley in the nineteenth century. Restored sections for the Blackstone Canal can be seen at the Blackstone River State Park in Lincoln, RI and the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage Park in Uxbridge, MA.
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