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Into the Falls

From the “Underworlds” issue of Territory (Summer 2017), a new literary project about maps and other curious objects.

I find myself loitering on the Main Street Bridge in downtown Pawtucket, Rhode Island, looking over the rail into the braided, writhing falls which continue to roar though tempered by a modest brick dam across its precipice. A fine mist billows up, especially early in the season or after a rain, and clings pearlescent to the spider webs woven between the bars of the rail, their elastic strands stronger pound for pound than the bridge’s steel. This is what made Pawtucket and made America: the cascade, and the spinning. This is the fall line, our destiny, the division between fresh and salt water. Throughout the Northeast, mill towns rose up in just such locations, where the dense rock of the continent abruptly gives way to sedimentary coastal plain and the river finally cuts through. Energy is harnessed in the drop.

Just upstream stands the country’s first water-powered factory, Slater Mill, which began to spin cotton into thread in 1793. The view to the mill from here, a distance of about a hundred yards, is just right for appreciation, lending the yellow clapboard building a pastoral, instead of an industrial, visage. It sits at the end of a slender park, across from the downtown bus station—all of it once shoulder to shoulder with mills, and all of those now gone, razed during a redevelopment project, except for Slater Mill. Two stories tall, the color of margarine, the mill has an ivory cupola that harbors a bell, which once would have served as the town’s only clock, calling the millhands to consciousness and then, a half-hour later, to work. Now the building is a museum, its interior filled with all variety of cotton and textile machines, from Eli’s gin to the carder to the iron throstle and mule that boys —and especially girls— risked their fingers to operate as they retied broken thread and swapped out spools. Through a glass window in the mill’s floor, you can spy the water wheel, though not Slater’s original, mired in mud like a skeleton in an archaeological pit—which it is. This behemoth caught the river to make these machines go. Slater’s Mill was the first integrated, fully mechanized factory in the country, and so Pawtucket is considered the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. From here, everything unspooled: interchangeable parts, factory labor, unfettered capitalism and its commodity culture. Our socks and underwear, our thousand thread-count sheets. Our American privilege, individualism, and particular isolation. On the Main Street Bridge, green canvas banners, themselves woven, hang from the imitation nineteenth-century lampposts: “Welcome to Historic Pawtucket,” they say in white, above a sketch of the mill.

Read more at Territory.