Cotton, Mills, Water Power, Mechanical Innovation

Beginnings at Slater Mill. Photo by Chris Brunson
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the U.S., but it has the longest name – “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” – whew. Rhode Island has state-of-the-art windmills, mansions and a cliff walk, plus the Triple-A affiliate team of the Boston Red Sox – and miles and miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean (not Long Island Sound).

Not to mention innovation, past and present.

During a recent visit to Slater Mill in Pawtucket for a fiber arts historic market and knitting weekend, the observation of the mill’s in-progress turbine restoration project was notable as it is happening inside a National Historic Landmark, now home to a rich community of artists and artisans. (See related story.) Where clacking machines once worked furiously to make cotton thread and other goods that clothed slaves, soldiers, merchants and households, now connections of a different sort are being woven.
Turbine work through the floor window.

Slater Mill is the first water-powered cotton textile mill in North America.

Built in 1793, it is part of the Blackstone River National Heritage Corridor that offers visitors two states (Massachusetts and Rhode Island) worth of history, places to visit or stay, plus recreational opportunities that include walks, bike trails, canoe outings and such, all linked by the river.
At the fiber arts market inside Slater Mill and near the turbine work area.

Waiting turbines at Slater Mill.Plans from the Slater Mill site include: “Restore two 18th-century turbines and rehabilitate one in order to generate hydro-power from the Blackstone River, providing some off-the-grid heat and electricity to the building. The turbines ran machinery in the mill until the early 20th century and represent the second generation of hydro-power technology that superseded waterwheels. Preservation of the two turbines underneath the mill is essential so that we may save these artifacts that once enabled manufacturers to harness the river. The restoration of the turbines will be the cornerstone of new exhibits about ingenuity and innovation, the power of the river, and the future of green energy.”

The Blackstone River as seen out of a window at the Slater Mill. Photo by Chris Brunson.

The Waterway Restoration Project is supported by Federal awards to “restore and improve the mill building, rebuild its waterway and educate the public about the past and future of green energy” – improvements include “headrace and waterworks, dredging, masonry repair, updating and expanding the fire suppression system and providing more access to the river.”

Bernadette Vaughan at Slater Mill. Photo by Anders G. Helm, Moo Dog Knits Magazine.That’s Bernadette Vaughan, coordinator, Community Guild Studios at Slater Mill, at the recent annual knitting weekend and fiber arts market. The complex includes Wilkinson Mill (1810); the Sylvanus Brown House (1758); collections of hand-operated and powered machinery, a riverfront park. Demonstrations include flax processing, cotton spinning, and weaving and an operating 16,000-pound waterwheel. In winter tours are by appointment; call (401) 725-8638 or visit

Nearby: McCoy Stadium is home of the “PawSox” – where the the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. The PawSox are the Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. The team store is open year round; call (401) 724-7300 to verify hours.