JIM PEPPER pushes aside brambles, strides across spongy bottom
land, and scrambles up a rocky embankment. About 50 yards from the
road, he stops and looks around at what appears to be nothing but
a patch of Rhode Island woods.
"We're standing in the mill," he says. "The water ran down
this trough," he explains, gesturing to stone walls and arches
under the overgrowth.
Mr. Pepper is a visionary with a twist. Not only can he peer
into the future to see what might be, he also can gaze into the
past to see what has been. Now he is seeing Mammoth Mill, once a
bustling woolen factory on the Blackstone River in North
Smithfield, R.I. These neglected ruins are all that remain of the
1836 mill, which was torn down in 1930 - but to Pepper, they are
the substance of things hoped for.
Pepper is the executive director of the Blackstone River Valley
National Heritage Corridor Commission. He has guided a pair of
journalists to this obscure spot to make a point about his job and
the work of the commission.
"Mammoth Mill is symbolic of so many places in this valley that
are unknown and unseen. Our job is to make them known," he says.
Although Pepper has no plans for the site yet, his imagination
already is leaping ahead to a day when the plot, tidied up and
properly "interpreted" through signs and diagrams, may inform
tourists about America's early industrialization.
The Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor is one of
five regions that have been designated "American Heritage Areas"
by Congress. Besides the Blackstone River Valley in Rhode Island
and Massachusetts, there are the Illinois and Michigan Canal
National Heritage Corridor in Illinois, the Delaware and Lehigh
Canal National Heritage Corridor in eastern Pennsylvania, the
America's Industrial Heritage Project in southwestern Pennsylvania,
and the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage
Corridor in Connecticut, which Congress approved just this fall.
If a bill in Congress that passed the House of Representatives
is reintroduced and enacted by the 104th Congress, 10 more zones
from Georgia to Washington State will be designated
national-heritage areas and become eligible for federal matching
funds. The legislation would establish a mechanism whereby
additional regions could obtain heritage recognition by Congress in
As important as they are, however, federally sanctioned heritage
areas are just the crown jewels of a burgeoning movement to
revitalize distinctive but underrecognized parts of the American
landscape. Scores of places in nearly every state have acquired or
are seeking a degree of official or unofficial classification as
It is primarily a grass-roots movement, explains Shelley
Mastran, a program director at the National Trust for Historic
Preservation in Washington and the executive director of the
recently formed National Coalition for Heritage Areas (NCHA).
Referring to a long list of putative heritage areas compiled by the
National Trust, Ms. Mastran says, "These are initiatives that are
or have the potential to become heritage areas. Some of them are
But many other heritage areas have progressed beyond the
gleam-in-the-eye stage, Mastran says. Their proponents are working
with state governments and the National Park Service to create
programs through which a heightened "sense of place" can help
achieve environmental, economic-development, and
Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania have their own
programs for recognizing heritage areas, though sometimes by other
names. New York, for instance, has established the Hudson River
Valley Greenway Council, a regional-planning compact among 240
cities and towns in 10 counties from Albany to New York City.
Despite its name, the members of the compact are cooperating on a
much broader array of initiatives than are implied by the term
green way, says David Sampson, director of the Hudson River Valley
Greenway Council. …