Monday, February 23, 2015
February 23, 2015: Western Mass. Histories: The Blackstone River Valley
[It’s not the Boston area, and it’s not quite the Berkshires, so the rest of Western Massachusetts tends to get short shrift in our images and narratives of the state. Well, no longer! In this week’s series, I’ll highlight five Western Mass. histories and stories, examples of how much this part of the state has to offer our collective memories. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and other connections!]
On two interesting comparisons for one of our newest National Parks.
Earlier this month, as a small part of a very large Congressional bill (the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015), the longstanding Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor was upgraded, becoming (after a decade of efforts and activism) the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park. As that second linked article suggests, the change is far more than semantic—gaining National Park status brings with it a great deal of development and support, linking the area to the National Park Service and turning it into much more of a organized and coherent entity than had been possible in the prior incarnation. The self-proclaimed (American) “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution,” an area running along the potent Blackstone River from Worcester all the way to Providence, Rhode Island (making it one of the few National Parks to span multiple states), will now be presented and interpreted in all its historical and social significance for generations to come.
The new park’s multi-state span is one of a few things that differentiate it from most of its fellow National Parks, but I would still highlight a couple of comparisons that can shed light on what and how this park might achieve its goals most effectively. Salem, Massachusetts is home to a wonderful park, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Featuring a dozen buildings, multiple wharfs, a reconstructed tall ship, and a number of other elements, the Salem Maritime park does an excellent job interpreting multiple centuries and stages of work, community, and life in the city and region. The Derby Wharf section alone includes all those centuries and stages in its different buildings and placards. Compared, for example, to battlefield national parks such as Gettysburg or Yorktown, which focus on a few days’ worth of historical events and issues, the Blackstone River Valley Park will have to cover more than a century of industrial and social history and culture, and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site provides an excellent model for doing so successfully.
On the other hand, Salem Maritime occupies an area of a few square miles; the Blackstone River Valley Park will cover (as has the Heritage Corridor) a distance of some forty-five miles, to say nothing of how far it extends on both sides of the river. For a comparison with that element, I would turn to one of the national parks around which I grew up: Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Drive, a winding, scenic road atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, travels more than 100 miles, and yet is all part of the same unified national park identity and interpretation, with its many distinct stops and areas comprising their own unique identities yet tied together consistently and coherently. While Shenandoah and Skyline focus much more on natural rather than historical or cultural subjects, this large yet linked and coherent park community offers a rich and successful model for how a park as spacious and far-reaching as Blackstone River Valley can move through its many different places and communities yet maintain that overarching sense identity and history. I’ll be interested to see how Blackstone River Valley takes its next steps!
Next history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Histories and stories from your home you’d highlight?