About this Itinerary
Tucked in to the northeast corner of Rhode Island is the nearly 12-mile Blackstone River Greenway (formerly known as the Blackstone River Bikeway), which travels from Valley Falls in the south to Woonsocket in the north. The route follows the Blackstone River and the historical Blackstone Canal. A true New England bike ride, you will pass many old mills, mill towns, waterfalls and marshes, and see native wildlife. The southern trailhead is located only about 8 miles from downtown Providence, making this an ideal day trip when visiting that city.
The Blackstone River Greenway (BRG) is an example of a trail in progress. Our itinerary includes the 12 paved miles that are currently completed, but this section is only a small part of the planned 48-mile route that will connect Providence, Rhode Island, with Worcester, Massachusetts. Eventually, the trail will also hook up to the already completed East Bay Bike Path linking to Bristol and, ultimately, to Newport. It is possible now to follow a route to Providence through a series of on-road markers called ‘sharrows.’ These striped markings on the pavement, as well as signage, guide you along. Some of the sections of this route are on busy roads, however, so if you opt to do this, proceed with caution.
Fly to T.F. Green Providence Airport, rent a car and take I-95 N/RI-146 to RI-99 N 26 miles to Woonsocket. Check-in to the historical Pillsbury House Bed & Breakfast. Built in 1875, the house is located on a quiet street in the North End of town and only a half mile from the Blackstone River. The inviting front porch offers a peaceful refuge to relax at the end of the day with a cool glass of lemonade, or enjoy a glass of sherry fireside in cooler months. Woonsocket is located in the heart of the Blackstone Valley, known as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, and is part of the Blackstone National Historical Corridor. The town played an important role in the industrial revolution and had a population that was once 75 percent French-Canadian, as many families immigrated here to work in the mills. Throughout your stay, you will see evidence of this in the art, architecture and even current language. At the peak of immigration, the town published French newspapers and most conversations in public were in French. Today, the local vernacular includes expressions directly translated from French including ‘close the light’ and parking ‘side by each.’
To reach the BRG from your hotel, follow Prospect Street towards the river. The road merges with N. Main Street (bear right at the T-intersection). Follow N. Main until it intersects with Social Street (bear right at the T-intersection). Take the fourth right on Cumberland Street and look for the bridge over the Blackstone River. From here, follow the road until you see the trailhead. Bike rentals are not available in Woonsocket, but can be found at Blackstone Valley Outfitters in Lincoln, located only minutes away from a trailhead in that town. This itinerary begins and ends in Woonsocket, but if you are renting bikes in Lincoln you can easily modify to start and end at the trailhead located near the bike shop.
As you ride through Woonsocket enroute to the trailhead, you will pass 84 Cumberland Street, a former Catholic Church that now houses the St. Ann Arts and Cultural Center. Built between 1913 and 1917 by French-Canadian immigrants, the building is a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture and contains more than 40 stained glass windows. The interior holds the largest collection of frescos in North America, which cover walls, vaults and the ceiling, reminiscent of those in the Sistine Chapel. Be sure to visit this awe-inspiring building, and stop by for a tour if you are in the area on a Sunday afternoon (tours offered 1- 4 p.m.).
From the trailhead in Woonsocket, you will be following the Blackstone River as you travel south, although it’s not always visible. The bike trail provides a bucolic setting, but all along the route you will see evidence of the region’s industrial past as you cycle through historical mill villages. Mill dams, which once powered machinery, mark the river’s drop in four locations along the trail. Sluices and power trenches, canal milestones, remnants of former worker tenements and a plethora of mills (now converted to apartments and business) also line the trail. A self-guided mill tour is available that provides a little background on specific buildings found in the Blackstone Valley, many along the bike trail. Download the information here before setting out.
In Albion, the Whistle Stop Restaurant & Ice Cream Shoppe provides the perfect spot to stop and refuel with a sandwich or seafood platter, and of course, ice cream. To reach the restaurant: take a right on School Street (trailside parking is available here as well) and take the first right to 119 Main Street. Alternatively, look for a trailside path on the right side before the parking lot. This will take you the back lot of the Albion Mills Conservation Area. From there, continue to the right on Main Street and the restaurant will be on your right two businesses down.
Stop at Blackstone River State Park and visit the Captain Wilbur Kelly House Transportation Museum (open April - October). Once the home of a canal boat captain and mill owner, the museum weaves together the dynamic history of the region from the time of Native Americans to the American Industrial Revolution. Learn how the growth of industry along the river led to the creation of the canal, and eventually to rail service that connected the region to points up and down the Atlantic seaboard. Also discover how rail service brought about the conversion of the textile mills in the Blackstone Valley from waterpower to steam power by the 1860s and 1870s.
As you continue south along the trail, you will cross Pratt’s Dam and the old Lonsdale drive-in movie theater (now a man-made wetland). The trail ends at Valley Falls Heritage Park with the original drive-in theater sign announcing ‘Now Playing, Blackstone River Greenway,” a nod to the ongoing effort to have this trail constructed. Head back north and keep your eyes open for native wildlife, including heron and egret, and stop to photograph some of the charming mill buildings.
Upon your return to Woonsocket, visit the Museum of Work and Culture for another perspective on the region’s industrial past. Located near the river as you are heading back to the Pillsbury House B&B, continue along Main Street to number 42. Focusing on the history of labor in the U.S., with particular emphasis on the mill towns in the Blackstone River Valley, you will gain a better appreciation for the impact that the Industrial Revolution had on the families that worked in local industry, especially those of French-Canadian ancestry.
If you’re hungry after your journey, a popular local spot for steak and seafood, River Falls, is located on the banks of the Blackstone River in downtown Woonsocket. Featuring ‘Ma Glockners’ famous berched chicken, a specially seasoned steamed and grilled half-chicken. The recipe comes from the now closed Ma Glockner’s restaurant in Bellingham, Massachusetts.
If you have time to spend another day in the area, drive to nearby Pawtucket and visit Slater Mill, the first successful cotton-spinning factory in the U.S. Built in 1793, the mill supported many types of production and manufacture until it was closed in 1921. In 1925, the mill became one of the first operating industrial museums in the country. Now a National Historic Landmark operated by the National Park Service, the mill museum houses an impressive array of industrial artifacts. Afterwards, experience the Blackstone River at water level on a 45-minute guided riverboat tour. Available seasonally, Blackstone Valley Explorer operates a 40-passenger riverboat from Pawtucket and Central Falls. Guides provide information on the region’s history and point out the interesting flora, fauna and significant buildings found along the river.
If you take the tour from Central Falls, be sure to also visit the Central Falls Provision Company. It’s a must for anyone who enjoys high-quality, home-style Polish kielbasa. A family-run business since 1923, the store reflects the predominately Polish heritage of this town, and sells some of the tastiest sausages in New England.
Another must-do is a stop in Providence. Check out the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art, which features an art collection that spans ancient to contemporary times. The school and museum’s development is tied to Rhode Island’s emergence after the Civil War as the most heavily industrialized state in the Union, and to a burgeoning demand for better design in manufacturing. Both permanent and rotating exhibits make this small museum a local treasure.
Also in Providence, explore Historic Federal Hill, known for its Italian-American community and abundance of restaurants. Spend time strolling along the riverfront at the revitalized Water Place Park and Riverwalk; watch street performers and maybe catch one of the many festivals that take place throughout the year. Visit Roger Williams Park, which houses one of the oldest zoos in the country, as well as the Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, and the Botanical Center. Or just meander the park to enjoy its 435 acres of rolling landscape.
For dinner, the options abound in Providence. Fine dining is available at Gracie’s. The only AAA four-diamond award-winning restaurant in the city, Gracie’s features a seasonally rotating menu focusing on ingredients that are at their peak, many which are grown in the restaurant’s own roof-top garden.
A Providence institution for more than 30 years, Hemenway’s Seafood Grill & Oyster Bar, is another option that offers a classic New England dining experience. Consistently voted one of the top restaurants in the city, it offers elegant meals like lobster bisque and bacon-wrapped scallops.