Connecting history: Bikeway set to cross Mass. state line, highlight historic N.S. park by end of this year

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The current end to the southern Massachusetts section of the Blackstone River Greenway can be found by a parking lot on Canal Street. NRI NOW photo by Sandy Hall

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The slow but steady construction of a massive 48-mile bike path connecting Providence and Worcester, Mass. is set to reach a new phase this year, as the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation completes work on the Blackstone Viaduct, connecting an isolated trail segment in Rhode Island with a four mile stretch into the neighboring state.

Mass. DCR has completed restoration work on the Blackstone Viaduct, and is now adding paved trails on top of the structure, on track to serve Blackstone River Greenway users for many years to come.

According to DCR spokesperson Ilyse Wolberg, the last segment required to connect the two-state bike path will be completed by next winter.

It will add unique historic features from two the neighboring communities to an already rich scenic recreational space featuring locks, the remains of former mills, waterfalls and much more.

DCR first began work on the viaduct, made up of a single-span structure by Canal Street, and a second seven-span set of granite archways crossing Mill Street, during Phase I of the project in 2019. Stretching from the Massachusetts side of Canal Street to the Blackstone River, the 1,600-foot-long viaduct was built in 1872 as part of a rail route running from Walpole, Mass., to Thompson, Conn.

Once owned by the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, the viaduct was not part of the original plans laid out for the bike path, but was added following advocacy from local preservationists, who pointed to its historic significance in the story of the Blackstone Valley, and its role in the Industrial Revolution. The bikeway closely follows, and often crosses, the Blackstone River, once known as hardest-working river in America, and a central feature to the region’s value as a national park.

The 3.5 mile segment that is already open just across the state line crosses eight bridges, and includes a stop to view the historic Millville Lock.

And the piece now on track for completion will be no less spectacular, as Greenway users travel over even more historic bridges, through the remnants of Mammoth Mills, and into two of northern Rhode Island’s public parks.

The agency completed work on the bridge over St. Paul Street in 2022 and continued the path over Canal Street last year. Restoration of the massive, seven-span structure – and installation of the paved bikeway on top – is the final puzzle piece, adding a key half mile that will allow bikers, walkers and more to travel, off road, from Uxbridge, Mass. to Cold Spring Park in Woonsocket.

And according to Rhode Island Department of Transportation spokesman Charles St. Martin, it won’t be long before recreational users can continue off road all the way to Cumberland. In Woonsocket, the bike path’s current longest off-road stretch, an 11 mile segment that travels through Lincoln to Valley Falls Park, currently ends on Davison Street at River’s Edge Recreational Complex.

Two additional segments have been built in the city: one from Clinton Street traveling along Truman Drive to Market Square, and the portion that will soon connect Cold Spring Park on Harris Avenue to the Massachusetts trail.

St. Martin said the two that remaining city segments are now, “in the preliminary design phase.” 

“Segment 8A runs from Davison Street to Truman Drive in Woonsocket,” he said. “We anticipate actual design to begin next year.”

St. Martin noted that Segment 8B-2 falls under the purview of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, but RIDOT is helping to advance it to the full design phase.

“As proposed, this segment begins at the end of Segment 8B-1 at Market Square in Woonsocket and connects to Segment 8C in Cold Spring Park,” he said.

While realization of the full, envisioned 48-mile path is still long into the future, completion of the viaduct portion this year will mark a major landmark for a project spanning more than three decades. Both Rhode Island and Massachusetts first started constructing segments in the 1990s, and the viaduct, a 25-foot-high structure with widths varying from 50 to 100 feet, will finally link portions in the neighboring states.

“This project is the last half mile of the approximately 4-mile paved section between the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border and 146A/Adams St in Uxbridge,” said Wolberg.

By next spring, those traveling on the Blackstone River Greenway from points north will cross the historic viaduct to find themselves in a small – but impressive – bikeway section in North Smithfield. The path will exit Massachusetts just by Mill Street, where volunteers with the North Smithfield Heritage Association have been hard at work cleaning Mammoth Mills Park.

The park features the remains of what was largest mill in the U.S. when it was built in 1836.

“We hope that people will be able to access Mill Street – and Mammoth Mills Park – directly from the bike path when the project is complete,” said NSHA President Richard Keene.

The trail will continue into another scenic space owned by the town of North Smithfield. Meadows Park, also known as the Paul Kelley Complex, is home to multiple athletic fields.

It will be, at last, a connection of historic features in two states, providing a unique and scenic means to explore the communities that comprise the Blackstone Valley, and give it national significance as the birthplace of America’s Industrial Revolution.

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