Holyoke, MA – Part-I

An aerial view of Downtown Holyoke and The Flats with the Canal System and Connecticut River highlighted. Attr: Holyoke Water Power Company- Canal Park Committee – Canal Park Committee Records, South Hadley Public Library

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.


  1. You know Dan, until I began following you, I never thought about what I was looking at. Factories, railroad tracks, canals, farmland, manufacturing plants, old homesteads, etc. I saw only what was in front of me. But you bring out the long lost history of the men and women who, all those years ago, had a vision for the future that lives on today. And Connecticut is right up there with a very rich history in manufacturing and innovation.

    The canals are an amazing piece of engineering. The planning of Holyoke is mind-boggling. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love sharing things like this, Ginger. It’s so easy these days to put a building wherever we want. These were times when you had to locate a mill near a source of power, or you had to build the source of power. I can’t imagine the undertaking. The canals were dug by hand with picks and shovels. Men with vision and thousands of men with muscles. I find it fascinating, and I’m so glad Holyoke is trying to preserve it, to bring it forward into a more modern era.


  2. I’m often amazed by how little I know, and this post underscores that realization for me. I’ve driven through Holyoke several times but never know of its canals and levels until today. Thank you for the visuals and explanations. I look forward to retracing my earlier journeys and seeing — for the first time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I heard about the canals almost 40 years ago and I was amazed, but it took until now for me to get to learn about them. They’ve only recently started to make them accessible as a park. My consulting manager must have thought I was crazy. We were in Holyoke, trying to convince people to let us help them with modernizing their business with mini-computers and custom software, yet I was fascinated by waterpower.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The people in New England were a creative bunch, that’s for sure. The effort in taming the Connecticut River for commerce and shipping is an incredible story. Cities like Chicopee, Holyoke and Lowell are reminders of that effort.


  3. Thanks, Dan. We all learned about the ‘Industrial Age’ and its beginnings. We all know factories exist and run so much in the country. It wasn’t until I was a young adult living in El Paso that I met people who actually came from cities where they had worked in factories. My father retired from Borden’s, a milk factory and my aunt work for the Jacks cookie company but still, those were isolated. What you present in your history posts gives a clearer impression of what ‘Industrialized America’ must have looked like at its peak. I hope you do get your explorations in sooner rather than later and look forward to your posting. Seeing that warning sign for the canal was sad. My Mom had two cousins drown in the canals around New Orleans. They are deadly places.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so sorry about the memories associated with the sign. My dad worked in a glass factory for several years before getting a job with the Post Office. He got me a job in a machine shop that made gun barrels. It was the hardest, most dangerous job I ever had. I’m glad you enjoy these posts. I love learning about the history around us.


  4. Hi Dan – you like me … learning as we blog – it is so satisfying … I’m going to enjoy these; reminding me of our history here and the earlier pioneers that set this country out on its course of development. It is extraordinary how far we’ve come … just hope we’re sensible enough to let our creativity continue on and protect life in all its ways. Wonderful – I’ll be back to have a closer look … take care – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  5. We only have one local dam that I have seen but did not know too much about. This post is making me go back and read the history of it. You do make history fascinating, Dan! Is that Faith holding out her camera in the second to last photo?

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Dan, you’ve managed to surface some good memories from long ago with this post. Malcolm bought most of the paper we used in our stationery engraving company from the mills in and around Holyoke. Rising paper company was a large supplier for us, but we never visited their facilities, which were constructed in the 1800s. It is now on the National Register for Historic Places. We sold our business in 2004 as ‘engraved stationery’ lost ground to computer printed garbage, which has now given way to digital communications. I wonder how many of the paper plants saw the writing on the wall and moved away from producing fine paper to corrugated boxes. Now, that’s an industry to be in today! Thanks for another entertaining and informative history lesson.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting connection, Suzanne. Thanks for sharing that. I love it when I comments build on what I am able to find. I’m going to look for that company’s information.

      When our company changed its logo, my boss chose blue and silver for colors. Then, when I want to order the stationary package, he said “we can just print it.” I told him that you can’t print silver, so our logo became blue and light gray.


  7. I do love a good canal system, Dan, and I’m looking forward to seeing and reading more about the area as you explore. My husband has a furlough week this week so we went out for an early morning bike ride along one of the canals here. Of course they’re canals strictly for moving water, but they’re still enjoyable. Glad to read the city’s making a comeback. BTW, looks a bit flatter than Pittsburgh!


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Your post and photos remind me so much of where I live – paper mills, the river, a dam here and there. The only thing we are lacking are canals. There is a lot of similar history in Appleton, perhaps something to blog about down the road.

    Hope you are enjoying your Monday, Dan!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. So…. granite is the wining material -nice to know

    Also, I think this post was the perfect length and this has been something I have learned about on and off in my blogging days- finding a good amount and I think you found a sweet spot length for word count and photos –

    And thanks for introducing me to Holyoke –

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Fantastic history lesson, Dan. We in this country in particular don’t seem interested much in history but just go on with our daily lives without considering what was before us. Those canals are incredible and what brains went into designing these waters for factory production. I think they are beautiful! I was intrigued by the map as I say the overhead view and said wow out loud. I’ve never even heard of Holyoke but now because of you I have. Thank you. May all of us follow your example to want to know history of where we live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this, Amy. So much of this country’s history is tied to the rivers that cross the countryside. It’s literally why cities are where they are. The railroads followed the rivers and the highways followed the railroads.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Another piece of interesting history, Dan. I grew up along the Ohio river, so like you, I have always had a strong interest in rivers. Mine might be more the railroads that often paralleled the river. It wasn’t until I moved to Massachusetts that I learned of mills and factories. What a hard life and difficult work for people. I really enjoyed the photo of Connecticut river highlighted in green. I’m looking forward to more posts on Holyoke.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Dan- I found your post while doing research on Holyoke, the city of my birth and developing years. It was a great place then, with all the factories humming. Now it’s a hell hole, and that makes me sad. I would love to read about Holyoke in the the 1950’s-60’s when I was a kid. So sad that it’s gone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have one of those books in a series about all cities on Holyoke. I try not to just plagiarize but I get some information that way. I hope the city, and lots of other NE cities can find their way back. I think, with the canal walk as a draw, Holyoke has a chance.


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