The Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Self-Guided Walking Tour

by Noelle Stockwell

With the changing weather and blooming fall foliage, I love going to the state parks and forests controlled and maintained by Massachusetts’ Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). Looking at the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park through DCR’s online website, they have created interpretive resources for self-guided walking tours in Uxbridge, Blackstone, and Millville. Out of these options I chose the Millville Walking Tour which highlights the history of Millville, the Blackstone Canal, and the surrounding railroad and mill industries. Such an outreach resource provides enduring opportunities for visitors to engage with cultural heritage landscapes without having to establish additional staffing or support resources to be enjoyed.

The self-guided walking tour resource is formatted as a multiple-page pamphlet with a map, historical description, points of interest photographs, and suggestions for sites in the surrounding area. It is available as a PDF file through the DCR website, which I accessed through my phone. The Millville Walking Tour includes the Southern New England Trunkline Trail,  Lock #21 on the Blackstone Canal, the Triad Bridge, and sites along Central St in Millville as points of interest. There is a convenient, free parking lot located next to the trail where the walking tour begins. It was easy to follow the trail down and back, following the map and directions to a couple of the side trails, and then return to make a loop along Canal Street to view some of the industrial buildings and canal sites. Overall it was a very enjoyable walk and it connected me with the park in a way I otherwise would not have through introducing the cultural heritage context of the area.

The self-guided nature of DCR’s walking tour was a major benefit. I could choose to participate in the established resource when best for me personally, and can return to it if I so choose. I could also choose to go at my own pace, taking the time to read and reflect on the descriptions created in the walking tour pamphlet. A degree of historical imagination was required to understand the canal and railroad operations described since many of the structures are no longer existing or functional. However, what was incredibly useful were the historical photographs included in the pamphlet that portrayed the historical landscape described.

Although I enjoyed many aspects of the walking tour, some information could be added to the pamphlet to make use easier. One of the first problems encountered was in where to go to begin the walk tour. Although there is a section for directions from surrounding interstates, a street address or name of the parking lot would have required less investigative work on the part of the visitor and made locating the property easier. I also found it difficult to plan as there was no estimated time or distance the self-guided walk would take. Typically this is information that would be valuable to visitors, and was a feature I noted in several of the other DCR self-guided walking tours I viewed.

Given the informational tone of the pamphlet, it would be more appropriate and accessible for older students to adults. While on my walk I saw many other people using the park space, but it seemed like I was the only person using the walking guide resource and engaging in the interpretive material. Instead, I saw people of all ages jogging, biking, walking their dogs, or otherwise enjoying a walk. People are drawn to the park without the interpretive material that peaked my interest. Being located along the Southern Trunkline Trail, one of Massachusetts’ longest rail trails, I was unsurprised to find others enjoying the space.

Observing how many people were naturally drawn to the park, I was disappointed by the lack of signage advertising the opportunities available. When entering from the parking lot there are limited signs, none of which make mention to the self-guided walking tour. One sign has an interpretive description of the history of the area, of which the walking tour could be a great supplement with the addition of a QR-code or other reference to the online resource. The other board was a covered message board with only a couple flyers related to cycling trails. Currently there is ample space that a printout of the self-guided walking tour could easily be added. Following the path, there are also no markers to the points of interest mentioned in the walking tour, some of which could be entrance points to engage passing visitors. Some of the features visible from the pathways, such as the crossing rail lines viewable from the Triad Bridge and Lock #21 along the Canal are visually and artifactually interesting that I believe visitors would be drawn to background information if present and easily available. It is a missed opportunity to not engage those visitors naturally coming to the area who are not doing prior research.

            The Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park covers an expansive area and is only a portion of the public land managed by the DCR. Though I see opportunities for improvement and greater attention to detail in the current version of Millville’s self-guided walking tour, it was likely a comparably low-cost outreach project to add greater detail of the Park’s cultural heritage background. Those who are interested in the heritage and historical background of the area have access to it if, like me, they are interested and go searching for it. Advertising the interpretive resources available through signage could make the resource more successful amongst those drawn more organically to the Park and the Southern Trunkline Trail.

For further reading:

Millville Walking Tour

Blackstone Walking Tour

Towpath Walking Tour

DCR Programs and Events, Interpretive Programs

Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park