By PATRICIA McALPINE/ecoRI News contributor
PAWTUCKET, R.I. — A catalyst for the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the Blackstone River, an American Heritage River, has served for 25 years as a catalyst to spur tourism, thanks to the many voyages of the Explorer.
On Aug. 19, the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Explorer, at the same place this 40-passenger educational tour vessel made its maiden voyage, Festival Pier.
It began has a dream of Robert Billington, president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, to reintroduce a river boat to the Blackstone after 150 years of no river activity. Beginning with a glass-bottom boat on loan from Captain Luther Blount, the Tourism Council tested the waters in 1990.
For three years the Tourism Council conducted experimental tours on the Pawtucket and Blackstone rivers, giving viability to the idea of a permanent boat to provide recreational, environmental, and educational tours along the river. This led to a “floating design session” with 200 community, state, and federal officials. This event demonstrated interest in the Blackstone River and the first corporate donation of $1,000 led to the “Build the Boat” campaign.
Working with the support and counsel of Captain Blount, Blount Boats Inc. would build the first riverboat to sail on the Blackstone River in more than a century, just as the Blackstone River was beginning to show signs that it was on the mend from years of industrial use and pollution.
Donations for the boat’s construction came from businesses, foundations, and individuals.
“Everyone had their doubts about the viability of the riverboat Explorer,” Billington recalled. “It has been the vehicle that has educated over a quarter million people in her 25 years.”
The Explorer forged a path of local discovery and helped pave the way for continued development of access to the Blackstone River. The Explorer now shares its journeys on the river with many canoe and kayak enthusiasts. The bike path gives others the opportunity to explore the river and canal from land whether on bike or walking.
The riverboat has covered many miles exploring the river from Uxbridge, Mass., to East Providence, and also explored the waters of the Narrow River in South County in August 1998.
In addition to the popular RiverClassroom educational program and Sunday public programs, the Explorer staff has partnered with many like-minded organizations to bring a variety of opportunities to explore “America’s hardest working” river, such as the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Museum of Work & Culture, Save The Bay, and the Narragansett Bay Commission.
Moving the boat, however, wasn’t an easy task. With the many dams on the Blackstone River, it’s considered non-navigable. For many years it took a crane and a flatbed truck to move the boat from one location to the next. This proved to be costly and for several years Central Falls was the single port of call for the Explorer.
Over the years there have been numerous other challenges, such as discharge from the sewage treatment in plant in 2003 at the headwaters in Worcester, Mass., to periods of flooding or low water and other weather events that had an impact on ridership.
In addition, work needed to maintain the vessel threatened the program, as the Tourism Council struggled to keep the boat afloat. But many still believed in the mission and in 2010 a “Keep the Boat Afloat” campaign spearheaded by Captain Bob Dombrowski kept the Explorer viable.
As the first river ecologist 24 years ago and now the boat’s first female captain, Sheila Paquette, said, “I will never tire of sharing the beauty of the river with Explorer passengers.”
After the 20th anniversary, with dedication of staff and crew and again donations from businesses and foundations, new renovations were done on the Explorer. In 2016, the Tourism Council formed a new partnership with Mystic Aquarium to further develop educational programs, a new logo, and new docks.
Under the direction of current environmental education director, Marina Flannery, additional programming has been added to celebrate the 25th anniversary.
“The Explorer provides the opportunity for people to see the Blackstone River from a very different perspective,” Flannery said. “The river has a story to tell about our collective past, our present, and our future.”
In addition to the boat’s regular Sunday tours at four different ports of call — Central Falls, East Providence, Pawtucket, and Woonsocket — special programs include an author series, culinary series, and special guest speakers.
The Explorer’s Silver Anniversary Celebration will be held Sunday, Aug. 19, at Festival Pier. There will be cake and special activities. River tours will depart from Festival Pier at 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m. Advance registration is recommended.
Patricia McAlpine is the former education coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.