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.
Motorcycles & Gear
2013 Kawasaki Ninja 1000
2013 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic
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.
The French Connection
Following the Blackstone River upstream, we stop in Woonsocket, RI, at the Museum of Work & Culture. Because it’s Jeff’s first visit to the town where his mother was born and raised, this is an especially poignant stop for him. Family farms in Quebec had become economically unsustainable, so Jeff’s French-Canadian ancestors, along with thousands of their countrymen and women, began migrating to the Blackstone River Valley in the mid-19th century.
Museum exhibits depict life working in the mills and the cultural life of Woonsocket. Because some 80 percent of the town residents were French speakers, both French and English were taught in public schools. Jeff notes that his grandfather worked in the mills as a child. Women and children were the labor force preferred by mill owners because they could be paid less than men. Children often performed maintenance in tight spaces of mill machinery. The typical work schedule was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. With no ventilation inside the mills, it was stiflingly hot in the summer months and cold in the winter.
Speaking of cold, it’s late in the day and there’s now a chill in the fall air. Remounting, we head north to our overnight destination in Worcester, MA, which also was a major location for contributions to the American Industrial Revolution. Industrial and consumer products, such as barbed wire, the monkey wrench, textile looms, corsets, pottery, and more were manufactured in Worcester.