It all started with Holyoke dam

Published Wednesday, March 1, 2006 in the Holyoke Plus section in The Republican. Go to for more interesting stories

In 1887, the Holyoke Water Power Co. directors set up a fund to be used to build a stone dam. An initial payment of $100.000 was deposited into an account called “The Special Dam Fund.” By 1895, these thrifty men had accumulated $600,000.

While the dam was still under construction, the company directors realized that more funds had been accrued than would be needed. They began to give out extra dividends to the stock holders. There were at that time, 12,000 shares outstanding and the regular annual dividend was $10, making the payment $120.000. Extra dividends were paid in 1899 at $10 a share, in the 1900’s $20 a share, and by 1901 they were worth $60 a share. The total of extra dividends amounted to $1,080,000, according to “The History of Holyoke Water Power Company” by Robert E. Barrett, a copy of which is available at the Holyoke Public Library.

The nine men who ran the Holyoke Water Power Co. asked their engineers, Francis, Herschel and Waters to submit plans on how to build a dam. Edward S. Water’s unique design was chosen, although some of Herschel’s ideas were utilized. J.M. Sickman, Robert Ranlet, and W.E. Sawin were also instrumental in designing the dam.

In 1891, different ethnic groups who the built the dam clashed. The vast majority of the laborers used in the construction of both the dam and the canals were Irish. They demanded $1.75 for a nine hour day. They also marched to where the Dan O’Connell firm was building and persuaded 200 workers to join them. The strikers were all fired and replaced with French-Canadians. The fired workers then formed a union and marched on the sites.

The May 7, 1891, Transcript reported there were heated exchanges with the Irish shouting, “Get the Canucks out!” But the French had problems too. Twenty-three workers earning $1.75 a day for the O’Connell Co. were replaced by Italians who were willing to work for only $1.35 a day, according to “Holyoke-Chicopee, A Perspective,” by Ella Merkel DiCarlo.

Surveying work for the new dam began in 1891. In February of 1895 twenty-seven contractors throughout the United States submitted bids to the Holyoke Water Power Co. The low bidder was Fruin-Bambrick of St. Louis, Mo. with a price of $529,621. The highest bid was $881,900.

Broken stone came from the stone crusher in Westfield. The granite stones were quarried on Leadbetters Island near Vinal Haven, Maine. They arrived by rail and were stored in a field about a mile below the dam near the present Riverside Station. They were cut to exact specifications. Each piece was given an identification mark so that it could be placed in its predetermined location. Each stone was measured, if it did not meet its specifications, it was corrected or rejected. Out of the 1,600 stones, only 20 were rejected.

Rubble for concrete for the interior of the dam was quarried from the bed of the river. The stones were lifted into place by the many stiff-leg derricks that were erected in the riverbed at the base of the new dam.

These gentlemen developed an interesting cable system to transfer construction material from the shore to the worksite. It was best described in the “Engineering News” of May 13, 1897, by Sanford E. Thompson. The system basically used a 2-in cable that was strung from South Hadley to Holyoke which was connected to towers on each side. The Holyoke side being 120 ft high, and the South Hadley side, 100 ft. high.

They created a slope in which the material would travel. The total distance between anchorages was 2,200 feet, and the span between towers was 1,615 feet. The cable, which was designed for a safe load of from 6 to 7 tons, was at the time the longest for its strength in the world. A 50-horsepower engine in the Holyoke tower, with two drums, one of which moves the carriage along the cable and the other hoists and lowers, furnished the power. The carriage made a round trip in ten minutes, according to Barrett’s work.

Construction began in the summer of 1895 and was expected to be completed in three years. However, work was delayed for several periods because of unusually high water. In 1897 Fruin-Bambrick gave up the job. It was then assigned to A.McMullen, one of the original bidders that successfully finished the dam on January 5, 1900.

“The names of the Holyoke Water Power Co., who brought this dam into being with tools and methods which modern engineers would call primitive, are fading into obscurity. However, the structure they built stands as a permanent memorial to them and undoubtedly will do so for centuries to come,” Barrett wrote.

Next month, she will travel through a moment in time to explain how water powered Holyoke’s great industrial transformation

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