The story of the Blackstone Valley is best told through the mills and the people who came here to work in them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Central Falls, which is the smallest and most densely populated city in the valley and was originally an industrial district of Smithfield and later a part of Lincoln. For almost two hundred years people have been coming from around the world to live and work in Central Falls. The succeeding waves of immigrants have gradually assimilated into the city, and each nationality has added to the vitality of Central Falls.
There were few immigrants during the early days of the industrial revolution. The handful of immigrants who did come here in the early 1800s were usually skilled textile workers from England and Scotland, particularly weavers. The construction of the Blackstone River Canal, connecting Worcester, MA and Providence, RI attracted Irish immigrants to the area during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Irish Immigrants Dig The Blackstone Canal
"They weren't just labor. They weren't just brawn. It was sophisticated labor . . . They built canals and railroads and bridges. They were not just some sort of 'thick Mick,' the idea that we've been given of the Irish. They were engineers."
Around the 1860s, the Blackstone Valley began to convert to steam power. Steam turbines could run larger mills and allowed for mills to be built away from the river, which was by then overcrowded. At the same time, railroads provided the transportation needed for expansion. The Civil War produced both a demand for textile products and a shortage of workers. To fill these vacancies, mill owners began to recruit French- Canadian workers from Quebec. Soon, the French- Canadians became the largest ethnic group in the region. This can be seen clearly in Central Falls where the population exploded from under 1500 in 1855 to 9,000 in 1870, and most of the new arrivals were from Quebec.
This vast influx of French-Canadians permanently changed the city and the entire region. Unlike earlier immigrants, the new arrivals did not speak English, and during the 1880s and 1890s French-speaking churches, newspapers, shops and schools were founded throughout the Blackstone Valley.
The boom years for the Central Falls textile mills lasted through the 1920s, and the population continued to grow, reaching a stunning peak of 25,898 in 1930. New waves of immigrants kept coming to the city, and like the French and Irish before them, each settled their own neighborhood, establishing new churches and businesses. Polish immigrants began to arrive here around 1895 and “Polish Village” developed in the southeastern corner of the city. A major focal point of this neighborhood is St. Joseph’s Church, built in 1919.
Polish Immigrants Worcester MA
21st Century Immigration
Though the massive waves of immigrants seen in the days of the textile boom are gone, people continue to arrive in the Blackstone River Valley seeking their piece of the American Dream. Today immigrants arrive here from Central and South America, South East Asia and almost every other corner of the globe. During the 1970s few young people of the Blackstone Valley wanted to take jobs in what they viewed to be a dying textile industry. Several factories began to recruit master weavers from Colombia, weavers who learned their craft on Draper Looms of the same vintage as those here in the Blackstone Valley. Dominicans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, and residents from many other Latin American nations joined the Colombians. Today, some neighborhoods, like along Dexter Street in Central Falls, Spanish signs hang on storefront where French or Polish was once spoken. In the past 20 years, Hmong and Cambodian immigrants have also arrived in growing numbers, refugees from their war- torn homelands. Each of these nationalities faces the same struggles and barriers that earlier immigrants had to overcome. They too will succeed, and enrich the culture of the Blackstone River Valley.
Central Falls Today
City Hall Hilltop view of Jenks Park Blackstone River Controls
Iron Gazebo St. Joseph's Rectory Old Mill
While 1st Sgt. Henry S. Golas and the members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were storming the beaches of Normandy, thousands in Central Falls churches prayed for their loved ones in the armed forces and for the success of the invasion. According to an article in the June 7, 1944 edition of the Providence Journal, public and parochial school children were dismissed to attend church.
Clergy said special prayers at early masses and during the day as news of the attack spread. Public school children were sent home at 11 o'clock with a message to their parents from School Superintendent, James E. Martin, to go to to church and pray.
The City Hall closed at noon by order of the Mayor John J. Healey to permit officials and clerks to go to church.
Flags were displayed on public buildings all over the city and streets usually crowded with cars were deserted.