This compelling town is in the Blackstone Valley, which is where the American Industrial Revolution gathered pace in the early 19th century.
Northbridge is part of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, and the perfect place to dive into the region’s industrial history.
You can visit mill communities like Whitinsville and Linwood, which were molded by the textile industry in the 19th and early 20th century, and discover the remnants of the Blackstone Canal, built in the 1820s and once creating an artery between Worcester and Providence.
In the mix is some wonderful scenery, at the mysterious Purgatory Chasm or high on the sides of the Blackstone Valley at Lookout Rock and Goat Hill, in the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park.
1. Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park
Encompassing a stretch of the river and the old Blackstone Canal, this 1,000 state park blends astounding natural scenery with industrial history.
You can get oriented at the River Bend Visitor Center in Uxbridge, which has a museum upstairs detailing the role of canals in moving raw materials and goods between these new industrial centers in the valley in the 19th century.
You can launch a canoe for a paddling trip along the river, and there’s a big network of trails on land, taking you to some scenic locations on the high slopes of the valley.
One is Goat Hill, from which you can see a big section of the canal, together with its granite locks and towpaths. In the south, the river widens at Rice City Pond, another beauty spot attracting diverse birdlife.
One of the most rewarding things you can do in Northbridge is spend some time discovering its individual mill villages.
The best starting point is Whitinsville, thought to be the most complete example of a Rhode Island System Mill Village.
It was founded as a center for textile-making in the early 1800s by the Whitin family, which loomed large over local life for more than a century.
The Whitin Machine Works here became the largest manufacturer of textile machinery in the world, employing 5,600 people at its height. Known as The Shop, this factory complex still presides over the village, and has found a new role as office and light industrial space.
Here for six generations, the Whitins constructed a town hall, a library, churches, schools, and recreational facilities for the village, along with 1,000+ units of worker housing, most of which is still intact.
This mill village, preserved as a U.S. Historic District, was first developed in the early 19th century when the Mumford River was dammed for water power.
As the century progressed, industrial facilities like the imposing Linwood Cotton Mill took shape, and the village was settled by a population of French-Canadians who worked in the textile industry.
The presiding building in Linwood is the cotton mill, built in 1866 to process cotton, producing cambrics, sateens, and shirting fabric, and resembling a mansion with its Second Empire-style mansard roof.
In its shadow is the proprietor’s residence, in the same style, while the district preserves the duplexes, dormitories and tenements built for workers.
Today the mill complex contains senior residential units, and a slew of local businesses like a crêperie (Maison de Manger), Purgatory Beer Company, a barber shop and an upmarket store for alcoholic beverages (Mill House Wine & Spirits).
4. West End Creamery
The VandenAkker Family has worked this land in Whitinsville since the turn of the 20th century. The farm’s main product changed over time, from eggs to milk and cream.
Since the fourth generation took over, West End Creamery has focused on agritourism. Spring through fall you can stop by for all kinds of attractions. A highlight is the farm-themed miniature golf course, with 18 holes, 9 of which are ADA-compliant.
Later in the year you’ve got the Fall Festival, bringing a pumpkin patch, pony rides, and a giant corn maze.
During your time here, you have to treat yourself to some ice cream, from regional premium producers, while the Snack Shack offers kettle corn, hot dogs and cold soft drinks all summer long.
5. Massachusetts State Police Museum & Learning Center
Next to Whitinsville’s picturesque Town Common, this attraction is in the handsome Whitinsville Bank Building, constructed in 1905.
Inside you’ll find out everything you need to know about the Massachusetts State Police (MSP), from its foundation in the mid-19th century to its duties today.
The museum is staffed by retired troopers, and among the exhibits are historic cruisers and motorcycles, uniforms, equipment, badges, patches, an original teletype machine, historic station logs and memorabilia relating to JFK.
The Learning Center hosts youth-oriented workshops, dealing with different aspects of law enforcement, like forensics, public safety and criminal justice.
6. Purgatory Chasm State Reservation
On the other side of Route 146 from West End Creamery there’s a rocky property that once belonged to the Whitin Machine Works.
Becoming a state park in 1919, Purgatory Chasm is a dramatic, 75-foot depression in the granite bedrock about a quarter of a mile long.
Leading to precipices, caves and giant formations, the Chasm Trail is an unforgettable adventure in the summer months, but is closed during the winter because of the dangers caused by icy conditions.
Rock climbing is allowed with a permit, and the reservation also has a visitor center, picnic areas and a playground.
7. Purgatory Beer Co.
In a woodsy stone outbuilding at the Linwood Mill complex (Building C) there’s a craft brewery that was founded by two friends in 2017.
The tasting room at Purgatory Beer Co. is warm, comfortable and welcoming, and always full of fun. As for the beer, the menu constantly changes, with a wide spectrum of styles and flavor profiles from hoppy IPAs to rich Porters.
A couple of long-running favorites are the smooth Two-Car Garage (Double IPA), and the citrusy What a Fool Believes (IPA). There’s an outdoor area with umbrellas in the summer, and you can order a fresh-baked pretzel to go with your beer.
8. Pirate’s Cove
In Linwood, there’s a seasonal fried seafood and ice cream stand, of the kind that everyone associates with New England.
Open March through October, Pirate’s Cove serves fried clams, fried scallops, clam cakes, fish & chips, lobster rolls, clam chowder, and a wide range of other non-fish options like hot dogs, burgers, wings and tenders.
Frozen desserts are part of the joy of this place, with more than 25 flavors of soft serve, as well as a big menu of flavors by the award-winning Gifford’s Ice Cream, based in Maine. Top flavors for the latter are the acclaimed chocolate and the black raspberry.
9. Lookout Rock
Along Quaker St in the Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park there’s a parking lot serving as the trailhead for this awesome vantage point.
The path guides you through boulder-strewn woods on a moderate incline to Lookout Rock, which has one of the great panoramas over the Blackstone Valley.
From here you can survey the wriggling Blackstone River, River Bend Farm, Goat Hill, and Rice Pond, and some dreamy sunsets (bug spray is a necessity in summer).
For a longer hike you could park at Rice City Pond in Uxbridge, making your way through the woods on King Philip’s Lookout Trail for about 2.5 miles out and back.
10. Sparetime Recreation
Along Church St in the center of Whitinsville there’s a bowling alley for candlepin bowling.
This variation on ten-pin bowling emerged in Worcester in the 1880s, and differs from its relative in a few ways. For one thing the pins are taller and narrower, making it much harder to bowl a strike.
Added to this, the ball is smaller, fitting into the palm of your hand without finger holes. For all those differences Sparetime Recreation has all of the hallmarks of a modern bowling alley, including bumpers, which are necessary if you’re here with smaller children.
This spot also has a vibrant social calendar, with regular nights for comedy, trivia and even karaoke.
11. West Hill Dam Reserve
East of the state park, the West Hill Dam was built on the West River by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the late 1950s.
This was a flood control project, in response to the extensive flooding in the Blackstone Valley caused by Hurricane Diane in 1955.
The dam is at the heart of a reserve, run by the USACE, welcoming visitors for a host of activities, from mountain biking to fishing.
There are seven miles of hiking trails through woods and grasslands, as well as a beach area at Harrington Pool, and more than 30 picnicking sites across two different areas. Additional amenities include horseshoe pits, a sand volleyball court, and an accessible playground.
12. Foppema’s Farm
A go-to for local, seasonal produce, Foppema’s Farm runs a store in a rustic post-and-beam building raised in 1998.
The farm is dedicated to fruit and vegetables, with 75 acres growing fruits like blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and apples, and tons of vegetables from sweet corn to zucchini.
The season normally begins around June, with greenhouse vegetables, early greens and rhubarb, and does not stop until Thanksgiving week.
Fall is a fine time to be here, when as well as winter squash and pumpkins you can get hold of the farm’s own fresh pressed cider.
13. Southwick’s Zoo
A mere ten minutes from Linwood, this family-run zoo has been one of the area’s big draws for more than 60 years.
This attraction covers 300 acres on what was once a dairy farm. In the early 20th century, owner Justin F. Soutwick, who had a love for birds, began collecting exotic poultry, and the zoo grew from there.
Today there are more than 100 different species at Southwick’s Zoo, with big cats like cheetahs, Bengal tigers and lions, as well as New England’s largest collection of primates.
Adding to the zoo’s appeal is a host of extra attractions, like the Woodland Express train passing through the North American exhibit and native wetlands, and the Skyfari Sky Ride for a bird’s eye view of several exhibits, including the Deer Forest and African Plains.
14. Mendon Twin Drive-In
There are only two drive-in theaters still in business in Massachusetts, and one of them is about five miles east of Northbridge in Mendon.
The Mendon Twin Drive-In opened in 1954, and added that second screen in 1998. Gone are the old-timey speakers on metal poles, and instead you can tune with an FM radio for audio.
Both screens have full digital projection and sound, and the owners recently opened a 5,000-square-foot patio where you can order beer and wine.
With a season from March to November, the drive-in is open daily during the school summer break, and then on Fridays and Saturdays at most other times.
15. Shining Rock Golf Club
Open to the public, this 18-hole golf course near the center of Northbridge is easy to miss, hiding among new housing developments.
The course had been in the pipeline for years, and finally opened in 2010 after a tumultuous development period.
Shining Rock Golf Club benefits from sharp elevation changes, slick, sloping greens, and extraordinary vistas over the Blackstone River Valley.
You’ll play a few holes that will stick in the memory, like unusually short but very technical par-4s, and long par-3 pushing 200 yards. In the last few years the course has enhanced its practice facilities, adding a driving range.