Early this year, I laid out my plans for exploring the Connecticut River during my retirement. Having grown up in the definitive river city, Pittsburgh, I have always been enamored with rivers. The Connecticut River is steeped in the industrial history of New England, or perhaps that should be the other way around. The Coronavirus, the attendant lockdowns and closures derailed those plans. Today, the museums are starting to open, the restrictions are easing a bit, we have a good supply of masks and hand sanitizer and I am far enough along on the project list to take a day off now and then.
Holyoke, Massachusetts was always going to be my first stop heading up the river. The unique history of the city has fascinated me since I first moved to Connecticut in 1981. I was working as a management consultant for Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co., and we were trying to sell consulting services to the “paperboard conversion” industry – cardboard boxes. From the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, Holyoke was the world’s biggest paper manufacturer. One of the reasons they were able to achieve that status was location of the city and an engineering feat that began in 1849 but that still seems amazing today.
Holyoke sits on the banks of the Connecticut River just downstream from the Hadley Falls – which is the steepest drop, (53′ – 16m) along the length of the river. Holyoke is a designed industrial city. A group of investors who had success in other New England cities, embarked on an ambitious plan to take full advantage of the available water power of 6,000 cubic feet per second (170 m3/s), the equivalent of 30,000 horsepower (22,000 kW), or enough to power 450 mills (metrics courtesy of Wikipedia).
To harness this power, they dammed the river and built a series of three mile-long canals parallel to major streets in the grid pattern established for the city. Each canal was at a different level, so that mills could take advantage of the water moving from the river into the canal system and from one canal to another. Mills were built on the land between the canals. When the industrial world switched from waterpower to electricity, the power inherent in the canal system was harnessed to produce electricity.
During the course of the past 160 years, there have been three dams built across the Connecticut River at this point. The first dam might not really count, as it failed within six hours. The second dam was of a similar design, built with wood timbers and, unlike the first dam, properly secured to the bedrock. That dam stood for about 40 years until it was replaced by a granite dam which remains in place today.
During the first hundred years, ownership of the hydraulic assets changed several times. One group of investors would go under and another group would emerge. Eventually, the City of Holyoke assumed ownership of the canal system and the Holyoke Water Power Company came to manage the assets for the city.
If you’re wondering about the “Part-I” part of the title, take comfort in the fact that I am not going to drag this post out for a few thousand more words. Holyoke, like many 18th century industrial cities has prospered, struggled, nearly failed, and is attempting to return to success. I am going to explore these facets over time, through text and photos. You can expect to see some doors, and perhaps hear a one-liner or two. I am going to look into the technology, but I’ll try to keep it interesting.