Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont: American Industrial Revolution

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks, Jeff Arpin

When British immigrant Samuel Slater introduced the first mechanized system of spinning cotton in the 1790s, America was still an agrarian society with a widely dispersed population, but that would soon start changing.

Jeff Arpin (on the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic), and I (on the Kawasaki Ninja 1000) have traveled to Connecticut to begin exploring our nation’s industrial heritage. Jeff also will be tracing his ancestral connection to America’s Industrial Revolution. Come along on our journey of discovery in New England’s captivating countryside.

Where the Revolution Began

“Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind, and when the same thought occurs to another man, it is the key to that era.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A crisp, sunlit fall morning greets our departure from Willimantic, CT, home of the iconic Frog Bridge. On each of the 475-foot bridge’s four corners is a giant frog sculpture sitting atop an oversized spool of thread. While the latter has a clear connection to the town’s textile industrial history, the monuments’ connection reads more like a fable. The legendary Battle of the Frogs reportedly occurred here in 1754. Startled town folk were awakened by the cacophonous shrieking of two opposing armies of small green amphibians in mortal combat. Apparently, it was about contested pond territory. Really?

We motor northeast into Connecticut’s “Quiet Corner” where tree-shaded, two-lane byways are the norm. After strolling the River Mills Heritage Trail in Putnam, CT, we continue east into Rhode Island. Samuel Slater arrived in Pawtucket, RI, in 1789 with the thought of establishing a water-powered mill that could spin cotton into thread, something that he already had experience doing in his native England. When Slater Mill opened in 1793, it marked the beginning of a new era, which later became known as the American Industrial Revolution.

Slater Mill, in the 21st century, is a museum campus, which brings the American Industrial Revolution to life. The buildings are meticulously restored and, along with docents and signage, they illustrate how rushing water was converted into motive power by water wheels. These (in turn) drove gears, drive shafts, and large leather belts, which ultimately powered individual cotton-spinning machines. In an age where we take the manufacture of consumer products mostly for granted, the ingenuity of these nascent industrialists is fascinating. By early afternoon, though, the day has turned hot and humid, and we’re anxious to feel the soothing breeze of the open road.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the September/October 2014 back issue.