Drive-In's In the Blackstone Valley
Waking up early one splendid morning (3/26/00), I saw that spring had sprung with a vengeance. I wandered outside and decided that it was time that I revisited a place that I had only seen in passing last fall, the Lonsdale Twin Drive-In, north of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Before I went, I decided to check "drive-ins.com" to see what other drive-ins were local to that area. I came up with a few that I thought I could try and find. These included the Providence Pawtucket. Drive-In (Providence, RI-closed), the Lonsdale Twin Drive-In (Lincoln, RI-closed), the Rustic Tri-View Drive-In (N. Smithfield, RI-open), the Bellingham Auto Theatre (Bellingham, MA-closed), the Quaker Drive-In (Uxbridge, MA-closed), the Mendon Twin Drive-In (Mendon, MA-open), and the Sutton Motor-In (Sutton, MA-closed). I figured that if I couldn't knock off seven screens in a few hours, then I wasn't doing my job right! So I set off to search these out. I decided to make a big loop out of the process, starting with the Rustic and ending at the Lonsdale (with some hopefully great sunset pictures).
After passing through Providence on north I-95, the exit for Route 146 comes up quick (coming south its a bit easier). Route 146 was an older road, but much of it was taken away when the road was improved. As it passes through the Lincoln Woods area (both the park and the race track), you have entered the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. This corridor is not administered like a battlefield or other National Park, but is a cooperative agreement between the National Park Service and local governments, businesses, and private citizens.
The route north passes 116 (where a great sign from an early motel still exists right off the exit) and shortly passes I-295 (the easier access coming from the north or south of Providence) where the road returns to its original feel. Here you will see the Rustic on the south side of the highway. There is a turning lane at the stoplight where you can make a U-Turn. (Make sure you get a glance at the Coffee and Cream sign.)
The Rustic Tri-View Drive-In at North Smithfield, RI is a great theater that uses AM/FM broadcasting. The sign is still in good condition. The three screens are set up in a triangle with the projector booth and refreshment stand in the center. There is an initial payment booth and then you are directed to screens 1, 2, or 3 and told which frequencies to tune to by a large sign. The entire hillside seems to be paved. It's a great field, but I am sure the cars on screens 1 or 3 will have their parking brakes in gear! (One more picture of screen one.)
Leaving the Rustic is a bit tougher. If at all possible, I would suggest finding somewhere to park on the northbound side and dodging traffic. If not, you have to go all the way down to the interchange and turn around. It's a bit of a hassle. As you come back north, there will be a "milk bottle" building that is vacant and on a lot without any paving. Still seems to be in good condition, but a peek inside revealed several paint cans that seemed to be left over from the 1970's. Not a good future for that building it seems.
Returning north, 146 will branch into 146 and 146A. Take 146 north for a few more miles until you see another exit for 146A north. If you cross the Massachusetts line, you will have missed the exit though it isn't terribly hard to get to from the next exit. The exit will be an exit for Slatersville, and may not say 146A. Follow this route for a short distance, where you will see a sign for "Drive In Self Storage."
The Quaker Drive In
Turning at the sign for "Drive In Self Storage," the large screen will loom above the self storage units built on the former viewing area. A space is still cleared out from the area, so getting to the former site is still quite easy. The screen seems to be in good condition and the structure is still solid. The Blackstone River and Canal are about 100 yards from the rear of the screen. This section of the canal is actually part of the river.
Returning to 146A, I drove north to Uxbridge. Here the Blackstone River Valley NHC is in full swing. I started to get sidetracked into the corridor at this point. I followed signs for the Visitors center and found a great place to spend some time if you have it to canoe, read, learn, or just sit and watch the water go by. The Blackstone River and Canal Heritage State Park was being staffed by a wonderful gentleman who pointed me in the direction of all the drive ins on my list and provided me a map of the area that was a bit more detailed.
The area is fantastic. Passing from Uxbridge to the north, the route to the visitors center turns at North Uxbridge and passes through Rogerson's Village and the Crown and Eagle Mill. This mill has a side branch of the Mumford River pass under it in dramatic fashion. Continuing east on Route 16, the sign for the Visitors Center might come up quickly, but if you pass over the bridge, turn back and make sure you find it. It is a worthy side diversion from a Drive-In day. This might be a good place to take lunch. Also make sure to ask the staff if they can point you to the other drive-ins. No guarantees but worth a try. Here I discovered that the Sutton screens were further up 146, headed towards Worcester. I decided that they were a bit too far out of my way and instead turned my attention to the others. (I did finally make it up there later, but those pictures will be posted later. Trust me its worth it.) I knew that since I found this Heritage Park, I would need all the time I could get to make it to the Lonsdale. I was told that the Sutton screens were still standing and were on the wrong side of the highway, if you are going north.
The Mendon Twin Drive-In
Backtracking my route, I decided to explore the rest of the park, but I won't bore you with those details, and instead suggest that you continue on Route 16 east to the town of Mendon. Passing through Mendon, you will happen upon the Mendon Twin Drive-In. It sits to the right if you are going east. There are two screens with a projection booth and concession stand in the center. The front end of a pink Cadillac is attached to the booth. A ticket booth is located towards the west side of the property. (One more of screen two.)
Continuing east on Route 16, you will pass more National Corridor items until you enter Milford. Suddenly you are aware of what the Corridor has allowed these communities to become. Milford is stocked with suburban sprawl-pharmacies, burger joints, and the like. Quickly turn on to Route 140 and put your blinders on. Route 140 is almost entirely outside of the Corridor, and it shows.
The Bellingham Auto Theater
Turning from Route 140 to Route 126 in the town center, the landscape gets a bit more residential. The route will start to build up to a point where there is a five way intersection. Coming south on 126, the turn that you need to take is almost a 60 degree turn back toward the same direction you have been coming, or to the left. Following this out a bit, a large screen will loom into sight. The sign is small and could be easy to miss but it is still standing, in as poor shape as possible and still standing. The screen seems to be in decent condition, but could probably use some fixing on the top parts. The field is grassy and overgrown but still has some pavement.
Returning back to the road you had just entered on, and going south to the major intersection, you may want to stay straight and go through Woonsocket. Woonsocket is an interesting town with a great deal of mills. If you are so inclined, visit the Museum of Work and Culture run by the Rhode Island Historical Society. This is also the location of the National Corridor offices. If you don't feel like visiting, continue south on 122. This passes by the headquarters of CVS and then over 295. The road will pass by Ashton, an interesting mill village and through Berkley. I could feel my time getting tight, so I hurried on.
The Lonsdale Twin Drive-In
Continuing south on 122, and just past a sign for the Ann and Hope Mills (worthy in their own right of a visit), the sign for the Lonsdale will appear. The once vibrant colors still show themselves on the north entrance sign. If you continue up to the traffic light, and turn left, you will find the second entrance to this drive in. This sign is also standing. Visible from the road is one standing screen and the driveway.
Down the driveway, it becomes obvious that the original entry and the side of the screen caught fire. The metal is twisted on the screen and the entire left panel is missing. Charred bits of wood, metal, and cable lie around the former buildings. The field is overgrown but the soft undulations of the ground where vehicles once parked are still evident. Looking out toward the Ann and Hope Mills complex, the second screen has fallen apart more than the first screen, even with its twisted superstructure. An entry portal of three arches is located to the northwest. A playground and light pole stand in the center of the field. On the eastern side, near the river sits a trailer with copious amounts of graffiti. With its mill backdrop, the Lonsdale remains one of my favorite closed drive-ins.
By this time of the day, I knew I wouldn't make it to my final drive-in, the Providence Pawtucket drive in. I wouldn't even know where to begin to find this last screen. I got back on to I-95 and headed home. I felt good knowing that I had visited a several of the screens that had provided a needed diversion on those long Saturday nights during the summers from the mill workers and their families. Even as the mills began to close some of these theaters were full into their swing, providing the diversion so desperately needed from the desperation of losing ones job. To see another Saturday night in the place where Industrial America began, was perhaps one of my more interesting jaunts, and I hope that it becomes one of yours too.