Saturday, September 6, 2014

Five miles of history – a trip up the Seekonk River – September 5, 2014

It was a beautiful day, so I decided to take the afternoon off to do some paddling. I headed down to Bold Point Park in East Providence to paddle up the Seekonk River to the Pawtucket Falls.

Brown University Boathouse
The Seekonk River is the tidal extension of the Blackstone River.  It begins at sea level just below the Pawtucket Falls. I had always wondered why the name changed at this point, and now I know – the two rivers could not be more different. The Blackstone River is freshwater with lots of twists and turns. The Seekonk River is a saltwater estuary that is linked to several important events in Rhode Island’s history.

I put in at Bold Point Park and paddled up though the narrows between Bold Point in East Providence and India Point in Providence. India Point was the first port of Providence. It was established in 1680 and was the base of operations for John Brown’s East India fleet in the second half of the 18th century. John Brown and his brothers would go on to found Brown University.

I paddled by the Brown University Boat House and under the George Washington Bridge that carries Route 195 across the Seekonk River. In 1781, George Washington marched his army across the Seekonk River at this point on his way to a siege of British forces in New York.

"Stuck-open" Bridge
Above the George Washington Bridge is the “Stuck-open” Bridge.  Also known as the Crook Point Bascule Bridge, this railroad bridge was constructed in 1908 and has been abandoned in the open position since 1976. A bascule bridge is a drawbridge with a counterweight that continuously balances a span through its upward swing to provide clearance for boat traffic.

Just before the “Stuck-open” Bridge on the Providence side of the river is Roger Williams Park. It was on this site that Roger Williams first landed in what would become Providence after rowing down the Ten Mille River and across the Seekonk River in 1636. Williams would eventually row around India Point and up the Providence River to establish the Providence colony in what is now downtown Providence.

Above the “Stuck-open” Bridge is the Henderson Bridge and Bailey’s Cove. From here, the Seekonk River is wide open and very susceptible to wind, which gets channeled up the course of the river. I paddled up the more scenic Providence side along Blackstone Park, the Narragansett Boat Club and the Swan Point Cemetery. The Ten Mile River and the Omega Dam join the Seekonk River on the East Providence side.

Narragansett Boat Club
Just upstream from the Henderson Bridge is the Narragansett Boat Club. The club was established in 1838, and it constructed its boathouse on the Seekonk River just after the Civil War. For many years this boathouse was a gathering spot for the social elite of Providence.

Further upstream is Swan Point and the Swan Point Cemetery. Established in 1858 and redesigned in 1886, the Swan Point Cemetery is the final resting place for many of Providence’s most important citizens. I paddled past Stony Point at the far end of the Swan Point Cemetery into Pawtucket at Bensley Point.

From here, the river narrows as I paddled past the School Street and the Taft Street boat ramps. Seagulls filled the air, fishermen lined to the shore and a large school of small silver fish seemed to be jumping out of the water just about everywhere. I was told that these fish were pogies or menhadens that spend their juvenile years in the less saline waters of tidal estuaries like the Seekonk River. I paddled under the Division Street Bridge, under the new Route 95 Bridge, and up to the Pawtucket Falls under the Main Street Bridge. 

Pawtucket Falls and the Slater Mill
The Pawtucket Falls is the largest waterfall on the Blackstone River. As I looked upstream over the falls I could see the old Slater Mill. Built in 1793 by Samuel Slater, the Slater Mill was the first successful water powered textile mill in the United States.  t began the American Industrial Revolution, and made Pawtucket an important industrial city as a variety of textile mills and machine shops grew up along the banks of the Blackstone River. 

With nowhere left to go, it was time to turn around and began my trip back downstream. For most of the trip upstream, the wind had been at my back kicking up small rolling waves. In addition to the wind, the tide was coming in, so I knew it would be a long slog paddling back downstream. I made surprisingly good progress by switching sides frequently and maintaining momentum. 

By the time I reached the Narragansett Boat Club the sculling crews were out on the river. There were big 8-man boats from Brown University, and a mixture of smaller boats from the Narragansett Boat Club. I matched paces with an eight-woman shell for a while, and was feeling pretty smug until the coach picked up the pace and the boat disappeared into the distance. 

Eight-(wo)man shell from Brown University
Paddling under the George Washington Bridge, I was glad to be on the water, and not fighting the traffic on the highway.  It was another great afternoon on a very historic, and surprisingly scenic river.


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