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Bringing Back the Blackstone, RI

HTML clipboard“Back then,” laughs Bob Billington, recalling the early days of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, “you couldn’t say ‘Blackstone Valley’ and ‘tourism’ in the same sentence without getting a big guffaw.

” Nobody’s laughing now. Since its formation in the early 1980s, Billington has built the tourism council from a shoestring organization into an internationally recognized leader in “urban ecotourism.” Perhaps more important from Billington’s perspective is the change that the council has brought about: an entirely new appreciation for the Blackstone River among the communities that line its banks in northern Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. Early on, it took some doing.

“I spoke with every Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis Club, every mayor and city council in the Blackstone Valley,” he remembers, in an effort to convince them that the Blackstone River could be an asset to their hardscrabble mill towns.

Their initial skepticism was understandable. Just 30 or 40 years ago, the Blackstone, sometimes called “the hardest working river in America,” was nearly dead, a fetid conduit for waste and a source of hydropower, with little biological value. But passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 regulated discharges from factories and city sewers; by the 1980s, the Blackstone, while still a far cry from an alpine stream, was improving.

The time was ripe for Billington’s message. Slowly— more by dint, one suspects, of his persistent enthusiasm than anything else—it began to take hold. In 1986, Sen. John Chafee spurred the creation of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, a “special type of national park…to preserve and interpret…the unique and significant value of the Blackstone Valley,” according to the National Parks Service, which administers it. The bill provided funding through the heritage corridor to improve the natural and cultural resources of the Blackstone: in 2002, roughly $1 million in grants. The heritage corridor and the tourism council were natural partners, and Billington was appointed to serve on the commission established to guide the work of the corridor.

In 1989, Billington hatched another implausible scheme—to get people out in boats on the Blackstone River. He contacted Luther Blount, a prominent shipbuilder in Warren. As it turned out, Blount’s grandparents had met while working at Slater Mill in Pawtucket. Billington met Blount on the banks of the Blackstone to share his vision of tourboats on the river and seek his advice.

“Luther said, ‘I think you can do it,’” Billington recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got a couple of boats, I use them on the Carribean in the winter, they don’t do anything in the summer—why don’t you lease them from me?’ They were glass-bottom boats. We used to say it was the shopping-cart-and-rusty-oil-drum tour!”

By any name, the venture was “an overwhelming success,” says Billington. “People actually wanted to get out on the river.” The tourism council’s weekend tours sold out at $7.50 a head. Even today, Billington seems astonished at the public enthusiasm for those first river tours. “My view of the Blackstone growing up was just foam and suds—it was just awful,” he recalls. “Now you hear people say, ‘I’ve lived to see the Blackstone come back.’”

—By Tom Ardito, Editor, Narragansett Bay Journal, and Outreach and Policy Coordinator, Narragansett Bay Estuary Program This article originally appeared in the Narragansett Bay Journal, available online at www.nbep.org/journal/.

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In 1993, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council launched the 33-foot Blount-built Blackstone Valley Explorer, a 49-passenger aluminum-hulled vessel powered by twin 25-horsepower outboards.

Bringing Back the Blackstone“We nicknamed it ‘The Convincer’ because it’s the boat we used to convince people that the Blackstone was worth saving,” says Billington. “Many of them were public officials. They’d get out on the river and their blood pressure would go down. Senators would go back to Washington and say, ‘I’ve been on the river.’” To date, 175,000 passengers have gained a new perspective of the Blackstone from the deck of the Explorer.

A crane lifts the Explorer over dams, allowing it to work different areas of the river. The council’s ecologist, Tammy Gilpatrick, leads on-board nature tours for school groups, engaging the kids in hands-on water-quality testing and teaching them about pollution issues as well as the natural history of the river. The Explorer also takes children and adults on river history tours, with trained guides to help passengers understand 300 years of changes along the Blackstone.

In 2000, an English canal boat, the Samuel Slater, was added to the fleet. The Slater is a kind of floating B&B that offers overnight trips in the Lonsdale area in Lincoln, perhaps the prettiest and most natural reach of the lower Blackstone. “People come from all over the country to sleep on the Blackstone River,” says Billington, still slightly amazed. A 20-foot pontoon boat, the Spirit of the Blackstone Valley, also runs tours of the Blackstone Gorge on the Rhode Island-Massachusetts border.

For information on the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council’s riverboat tours, call (401) 724-2200 (www.tourblackstone.com).