The part of Greater Providence with the most distinct cultural and historic identity is the Blackstone River Valley, which begins just north of Providence in Pawtucket and extends north to Woonsocket, encompassing a swath of nearby communities. In this area you can get a sense of how the nation shifted from an agrarian land of farmers, independent artisans, and skilled craftspeople to a full-fledged industrial powerhouse. Shortly after the War of Independence, complete mill communities—with worker housing, community halls and churches, and massive mill buildings—sprang up all along the Blackstone River and its tributaries, from Pawtucket north through Woonsocket and across the Massachusetts border to Worcester, nearly 50 miles away.

Water flows beside the Slater Mill historic site.

Slater Mill. Photo © Liz Lee.

Slater Mill Historic Site

In this area you can get a sense of how the nation shifted from an agrarian land of farmers, independent artisans, and skilled craftspeople to a full-fledged industrial powerhouse.For all intents and purposes, the American Industrial Revolution started at Slater Mill (Main St. and Roosevelt Ave., Pawtucket, 401/725-8638,, 10am-4pm Tues.-Sun., $12 adults, $8.50 children), a collection of mill buildings now preserved as a historic site along the Blackstone River. Young English immigrant Samuel Slater took a job in Ezekiel Carpenter’s clothing shop, and by recalling the exact blueprints for water-powered textile machinery in his native country, developed the nation’s first such textile factory. A 10,000-square-foot visitors center across from the mill provides orientation with a short video offering a stark view of mill life in Rhode Island.

The 5.5-acre site has several buildings, including the three-story Wilkinson House, built in 1810 on the site of an old metalworks, which contains a full machine shop on the ground floor and a re-creation of the mill’s massive waterwheel in the basement. During the tour, you watch a nine-ton wooden waterwheel turn and spread the power through the building, the gears turning a series of pulleys that in turn power individual tools and machines.

Perhaps the most striking of the site’s structures, the Old Slater Mill is a sturdy 1793 wooden structure, which looks especially striking when sunlight streams through its many soaring windows. Within just a few months of its construction, the factory had turned out the first cotton yarn produced in the New World. Inside, you’ll find a few original machines from the period and many more authentic replicas that provide a clear sense of how these factories operated in the early days. Many of the machines were either designed or modified by Samuel Slater himself. At one end of the building, a small museum store sells penny candy and small gifts, including work by local artisans and fiber artists, as well as a selection of books on industrial history and textile crafts.

Moved here in 1962, having been spared destruction when I-95 was built through Pawtucket, the 1758 Sylvanus Brown house, a nicely restored gambrel-roof colonial, is also part of the tour. Demonstrations of flax-weaving are often given inside—a garden of flax was planted behind the house in 2000. (The golden-colored debris left after flax has been combed through a large metal hackle is called tow, hence the term towheaded to describe a blond-haired child.) Millwright Sylvanus Brown ran the house as a carpenter’s shop during the late 1700s. It has been fully restored to its original appearance.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Rhode Island.