Holyoke’s industrial history includes dam

Published on Wednesday, September 28, 2005 in Holyoke Plus for The Republican. Go to www.masslive.com for more interesting stories.

In the year 1827, John Chapin, Stephen Chapin, Warren Chapin and Alfred Smith were authorized by the state Legislature to construct a wing dam extending diagonally up the river somewhat above the present Holyoke dam. They named the new company the, Hadley Falls Co.

With their ingenuity and resources, these gentlemen constructed a wing dam that supplied water for a sawmill, gristmill and cotton mill. They even manufactured iron with this newfound water marvel.

The wing dam was a device for channeling a portion of the river’s water upstream and bringing it down at the higher level to turn a wheel at the mill. These mills employed 70 people in 1837. Most of the women in the mills were local farmers who with machines twirled $30.000 a year of products, which would ultimately double in six years according to the book, “The Story of Holyoke” by Wyatt E. Harper, which can be found at the Holyoke Public Library.

In 1838, 4000 spindles were twirled by the force of the water swinging down over the old overshot wheel in one of Holyoke’s first industrial mills. These entrepreneurs, who did not live in Holyoke, manufactured thousands of dollars worth of products daily. They also provided clean lodging, good food to their employees and were alert to see that all the mid-century proprieties were taken care of.

The manager of the mill wrote, “In 1836, I left a farm an aged father at 30 years of age, with about $8,000, to take charge of a small cotton mill at Hadley Falls. In 1847 when I sold to the new company my $8, 000 had grown to about $40,000, every dollar of which was put into the new concern,” Harper wrote in his “The Story of Holyoke.” 

In 1846, Mr. George W. Ewing, of Fairbanks Scale Co. and Boston Financiers finally succeeded in purchasing not only the property of the first Hadley Falls Co., but was able to negotiate with a determined farmer, Samuel Ely. Ely said at the time, “he was damned if he wanted to see the corporations control everything.”

Another representative of the Fairbanks Scale Co. had tried to persuade Ely to sell, to no avail. After Ewing, a man of principle and compassion, spoke to him, Ely changed his mind. He illustrated this compassion when the Boston financiers ordered employee’s wages be cut in the mills. Ewing had promised them 85 cents a day, the financiers wanted to only pay 75 cents a day. Ewing made up the difference out of his own pocket. Also, when the management insisted on another day’s work, he said no because the laws of God state that no man should work on Sunday, according to Harper’s book.

Finally, Ewing’s dream was unfolding before his very eyes. Surveying work was done in the summer of 1846, which gave the engineers an estimate of how they would construct a new dam. The total watershed of the valley was 8,000 square miles and the minimum flow of the river past a given point was about 7,000 feet per second. They estimated that a 30–foot dam would give enough industrial power for a city of 2,000 people. They went on to further speculate, that 30 cubic feet of water to fall of 25 feet each second and a 30-foot dam across the river would be cheap power for hundreds of mills.

They started building the canals and dam in 1848. There was not a shortage of labor due to the influx of Irish immigrants. These immigrants had all ready been constructing roads and buildings. The dam was over a thousand feet long, with stone abutments at the ends as anchor piers. It was framed of wooden timbers and covered with wooden planks, mostly hemlock and spruce. Over two million board feet went into the work.

The sides were made up of large timbers, some of them 40 feet long. The face of the dam was straight up and down and the crest of it was armored with a boilerplate. The timbers were joined together with one-inch iron bolts. Across the full length ran a footbridge three feet wide to be traversed for purposes of inspection. It was a typical design using standard building methods according to Harper’s work.

In the next issue, you can read how trouble started to brew even before the 40-foot long timbers had a chance to settle.

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