Holyoke's history built along canals

Published Wednesday, September 6, 2006 in the Holyoke Plus section in The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

Holyoke must have been something to see.

Holyoke was blessed with abundant natural resources. George Ewing, a salesman for the Fairbanks Scale Co. of Vermont in 1845, capitalized on one especially appealing resource-the drop that lies between Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom in the Connecticut River. He assembled wealthy businessmen from Boston and New York, who eventually established the Hadley Falls Co. Through trial and error, this company built a massive dam that fed a 41/2- mile long canal system.

By utilizing this crucial descent, Holyoke would become the center of commerce on the east coast for generations to come.

According to Anna Scanlon’s book, " History of Holyoke Massachusetts," book, F.W. Murphy said, "Water power exists whenever there is a drop in the level of the water. There is a drop of about 60 feet in the level of the river between the rapids and the dam, and this made possible the building of the Holyoke dams."

Irish laborers dug the canals by hand in 1847 and, finally, laid the last stone in 1893. Philander Anderson of the Hadley Falls Co. designed this innovative system, and Benjamin Prescott of Northampton was the engineer, according to records at the Holyoke Public Library and Holyoke Community College’s history room.

In 1859, the Holyoke Water Power Co. purchased the Hadley Falls Co. Textiles were the first products manufactured in the 1800’s, paper was soon to follow. The following products were manufactured in the many mills built along the canals: silk, nylon, rayon, cotton, alpaca, worsted yarns, thread and knives, refrigerating units, machines tolls, among many others.

The most prosperous time for Holyoke was from the period 1818 to1889. Hampden Mills was established by the Hadley Falls Co which furnished their own textile machines with which it manufactured, "fancy vestings, platoon cloth, and sundry," according to Wyatt Harper’s 1948 book, "The Story of Holyoke."

This mill was later known as the Mackintosh Mills. Jackson Street was named after the founder Patrick T. Jackson, who was a substantial stockholder of the Hadley Falls Co.

Hampden Mills was able to continue operating during the Civil War due to its vast amount of stockpiled cotton.

In 1871, the Holyoke Warp, and the Farr Alpaca companies were organized. The founders thought that Holyoke would evolve into primarily cotton manufacturing town, only to become more diversified.

Another outstanding company was the Germania Mills, owned by August and Herman Stursberg. The workers came from Rhineland, Germany to manufacture some of the finest and well-built wool over coats in the United States.

There were many outstanding firms that were established in Holyoke around this time, amoung them: the Hadley Thread Co., Holyoke Machine Co., New York Woolen, Merrick Thread, Warp Co., Springfield Blanket, Massachusetts Screw, William Skinner & Co., Dean Steam Pump, Seymour Cutlery, Buchanan Bolt and Merrick Lumber.

Main Street in the downtown section of the city became known as Depot Square. Trains came in from Boston, Maine, and New Haven. This station serviced many passengers and transported tons of freight on a daily basis. It was considered the heartbeat of the city for decades until commerce moved up-town to High Street.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the Farr Alpaca Company. The owners Joseph Metcalf and Herbert M. Farr relocated to Holyoke from Hespeler, Ontario Canada, in 1874.

It sold 750 different types of cloth throughout the country and abroad. One of its innovative owners, Metcalf, offered each of his employees the chance to own a dividend in the company. He believed that a man who contributed a hundred dollars in labor aided the firm to the same extent as one who put in a hundred dollars in capital, and so was entitled to a dividend at the same rate. They also retained their massive work force by offering employees health care. This was especially important due to the outbreak of tuberculosis and the close living quarters factory workers endured. The owners also provided sports fields and entertainment.

These men understood that if they invested in their employees, they would benefit in the long run and that it was important to invest in the infrastructure of the city.

Unfortunately, the 1933 depression shut down many textile as well as paper mills in Holyoke. Amazingly, the men and women of this era worked together to create a strong and vivacious city that let the natural resources work for them.

I wish I could have been there for just a moment to witness Holyoke in all its glory and power. One factory after another churning out thousands of products on a daily basis as the city bustled with people, horse buggies and trains. So clean and new, it must have been magnificent. It must have been some thing to see!

In the next issue, she will travel through a moment in time with one of the Paper City's most prominent families, the Skinners.

© 2006 The Republican. All rights reserved. Used with permission