This work grew out of my attempt to walk the Moshassuck River. I was motivated towards this modest goal by curiosity and desire. Curiosity about a nearby landscape, desire to walk beyond the pavement and into a wilderness, even if only that fringe wilderness on the margins of city and town. The river itself has it's interesting aspects. The name is from the Narragansett meaning the place where the moose water. Less and less lately, moose. The watershed was a natural corridor for the Narragansett to travel, so our patterns of movement echo their own. The river was named in the 1638 Providence deed signed by Chief Conanicus and Roger Williams. Five ponds and six dams remain as a legacy of industrialization. The channel has been altered many times reflecting shifting transportation priorities. On the southernmost part it was used as a canal, flowing here between straight walls of cut stone. The canal was active for just twenty years but the stones remain. Along the banks were numerous mills, a chocolate factory and a casket works. Some mill structures remain as does a toxic mix of industrial pollution and sewage. Although much cleaner in recent years it still records the second highest level of fecal coliform in any monitored river within the state. The Moshassuck flows 8.9 miles from the town of Lincoln to Providence.
I say attempted to walk as I quickly learned that to truly go where water goes I would have to be water. The river has been pushed around by people for all sorts of reasons, the canal, then a rail line, then an interstate highway. It runs behind high fences defining private space and filters through dense over-growth penetrable only in winter. It disappears completely beneath the west side of I-95 for a significant length near the Pawtucket rail yards, reemerges within a concrete channel along the east side of the highway only to disappear once again. Even under the open sky it is difficult to see and to get to, well guarded by a thicket of trees and vines and exit ramps. There's water there? Hiding in plain sight until comes a rainy spring and with great flood announces to the unlucky that although it may be your house or workshop yes indeed: a river flows (temporarily) through it. Bulldozers are called to control the nuisance, and soon again the river behaves.
For those who do notice, the river exists as short segments, an interlude of water. Here it is a straight and shallow channel with just enough water for a family of ducks. Elsewhere it is a babbling brook, a sheltered marsh or a good place to dump an old TV or sofa, or to loose a jeep. Perhaps even as a place to walk.
N 41°53´36.95 W 71°24´31.28
Bleachery Pond. No swimming. Rather scummy but the water lilies and tall grasses are pleasant and I can see small fish darting about. The crickets sound industrious. The walk starts auspiciously on Walker Street, town of Lincoln. From the pond the river falls under a casket company. I scurry past a body shop strangely busy for a Sunday, not a place to answer questions about cameras. The mill complex shows some signs of life: a plumber, a martial arts studio, a dance school. The drains are noisy although it hasn't rained for days. The water shimmers sunlight and the river glides past me under the fence of a treatment plant. A broken rail in the street points the way, I follow the track back around the fence and into another collection of buildings and trailers identified as an industrial park. River and track go step for step.
N 41°51´14.35 W 71°24´18.06
Oct 7. On this date in 1828 the Blackstone Canal opened. Now it's done. A huge tree in the tow path remains. Sky like lead but rain holding off. The old canal slips from the cemetery and becomes home run territory behind a ball field. A game underway. I hear shouts and a ball bounces behind me. There's a splash and then curses in Spanish. I get a friendly wave and a laugh from the center fielder.
N 41°51´55.76 W 71°24´15.37
A ragged edge of a cemetery. A long line of oaks, leaves in rust. A massive trunk swallowing an iron fence. Here the river goes underground an echoing fall in a concrete cave. Sound in darkness, light in leaves. Deep breath. I wish I could capture the smell.
N 41°51´55.76 W 71°24´15.37
Just north of the Lorraine Mill the river and the railroad track part ways. The stream has been bent into a sloppy bow. Keep away, keep away we no longer need you to turn a wheel, this mill features comfortably electrified living quarters now. The river wanders through the woods, not caring. Trailer 3 shines in the sun standing ready for a shipment that will never come. Behind me the sun dissolves a screen of rusting vegetation.
N 41°52´15.57 W 71°24´11.5
Mineral Spring Avenue. Door bashed in at General Vault & Safe. Soft rain falling on leaves and a dead rat. From the road I’m walking the railroad tracks. The river crosses a salvage yard, rows of trailers and unfriendly signs. A high fence and an actual junkyard dog, I’m not even close and he has me scared. I met this salvage guy before. Tin foil hat. I had been warned to dress down and to not mention the government. Sure enough while haggling for a door I listened politely to a lengthy description of the imaging capabilities of spy satellites. And so I follow the tracks around. In the woods the track diverges. And so to Robert Frost I say, if you come across a wye in the woods it doesn’t make any difference which track you take because you’ll end up in the same place, just pointed in the opposite direction. Still I fail at this attempt to locate the where the river passes under ground. I walk back on an interrupted road named Grotto. The land on either side marked with the fresh scars of makeshift levees.
N 41°51´41.94 W 71°24´14.59
Moshassuck Road to namesake. A Gordian knot of vines and the steady hiss of the interstate. Sweet air. Birds wheel up and around from the roof of a mill. Despite the lateness of the month I discover a very green marsh along the highway. Beyond the cattails I find the tunnel where the river reemerges from its trip underground. It starts to rain and I find shelter inside a concrete tube awaiting its turn.
N 41°51´08.39 W 71°24´27.46
North Burial Ground and three ghost stories or perhaps just one. The river passes through the North Burial Ground, bounding the area set aside as a potters field. When the canal was dug were bodies moved to make way? Unknown. This was the case years later when I-95 claimed some land on the edge of the cemetery. Record keeping over the decades if put kindly has been uneven, put more honestly, a disaster. In the potters field where the graves carry no names but merely numbers, there seems to be order in the tidy rows of stones. But it's an illusion as the records have been lost. The potters field is in fact a mass grave. There is an account from a traveler on a canal boat who reported when passing through the burial grounds "a strange blue tinged orb that seemed to hover just at the level of the trees, then dart quickly forth and back…" Current employees of the cemetery relate a story of a "spirit in the trees" which sometimes "seems dark and sometimes glows with light".
Just to the north, on the rail line that put the canal out of business there was a terrible accident. Two trains collided at the Valley Falls station, 13 people were killed. One of the victims is buried in the cemetery under a headstone with a locomotive on it. This accident is notable beyond the loss of life for the fact that it is considered the first train wreck ever photographed. A Pawtucket man made a daguerreotype at the scene, an engraving made from it was reproduced in newspapers only weeks later. Some see the ghosts of 13 victims at Valley Falls, never arriving in Worcester. I prefer to imagine the ghost of the daguerreotypist, preparing his plate and hauling his tripod and camera down to the station, year after year, focusing his brass lens on the same horrific pile of splintered wood and twisted iron.
N 41º50´09.14 W 71º24´41.04
A terrific thunderstorm and downpour, I duck for some shelter and finding none, I slide down the bank. Can't get any wetter. I'm pretty much in the river here, water going to water. The stones behind me still radiate heat. Stones drilled, quarried and cut, still bearing the marks, carefully stacked and fitted by men with names like…?
No one remembers any names.
For what purpose… a bridge? Canal? Railway? May as well be a launch pad to the moon. The road recently crossed just north of here, the bridge closed now due to age and flooding and lack of ambition. No ambition even to remember.
N 41º50´09.14 W 71º24´39.63
The water chatters, over falls, falls over. The river runs behind an apartment building bearing its name built on the bones of a textile mill. Quite lively at the edge of a parking lot. What did the canal do when it got here? Was it here? You can follow water but you can't go where water goes. This is now the least likely path to the city but still the best path to the bay, if you are water. Ponds to river, to industrial ditch to canal, to river, to harbor. To the sea.
The river can still make a claim:
"PROVIDENCE, R.I. – - A Providence man plunged his car into the river Sunday near Charles Street, got out and went home, leaving the automobile in the drink.
The incident happened around 5 a.m.
Police found the green 1998 Jeep Wrangler around 1 p.m. after someone reported seeing a vehicle in the river near 1 Charles Street and the river overpass, according to a police report.
The police traced the license plate to Jay H. Je, 28, of 230 South Main St. Je told the police he misjudged while backing his car in the rear parking lot of 125 Charles St. and plunged into the river, which was swollen from heavy rain. After pulling himself out of the car, he went home.
When police asked Je why he didn’t call the police or fire departments, he had no response.
The Jeep will remain in the water until it’s safe to pull it out."
Reported by Tatiana Pina firstname.lastname@example.org
N 41°49´51.40 W 71°24´36.29
Near the end and the city. The meat packers are dead. The meat packing plant gone but remains. Canal gone but remains. An apartment block rises.