About 15,000 years ago, the current site of the City of Holyoke lay on the bottom of a portion of a 157-mile long body of water known as Lake Hitchcock. As the waters receded, they left a double legacy - the rich alluvial soils which have supported a long history of agriculture in the Connecticut Valley, and the river itself, the original motor of economic progress in the region.
The first inhabitants of Holyoke were, of course, the Native Americans. Since the Connecticut River was a major source of transportation, many different tribes are believed to have resided in the area. These were tribes of the Algonguins, including the Pequots, Mohegans, and Chippewas. Others included the Agawams to the south, and the Nonotucks to the north, from whom early European settlers eventually purchased the land that would be incorporated into the future boundaries of Holyoke.
Holyoke would not take his name for over two hundred more years, but Captain Elizur Holyoke is reckoned to be the first European to explore the City. In 1633, he lead a daring expedition up the Connecticut River to explore the potential for settlement. Two years later, based upon his encouraging report, European agriculture settlement began in the region. Initially concentrated in Springfield, settlers soon began to migrate to the surrounding areas that would later become the towns of West Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke. Holyoke was then known as Ireland Parish, a name that would be in common use until 1850.
Power For The "New City"
Industrial investment and the corresponding growth in population, housing, and employment began in the first half of the 19th century. Once Boston entrepreneurs realized Western Massachusetts could be as profitable as Lowell and Waltham, they set out to plan and create an industrial city on a scale never seen before.
On November 6, 1848, the first of three dams was completed at the South Hadley Falls. Made of wood and financed by Boston industrialists, it was to last only a few hours.
As crowds watched, the dam began to show strain from the rising water. James Mills, reporting for the waiting investors, sent the following telegrams to Boston:
- 10:00 AM: "the gates were closed and the water filling behind the dam."
- 12:00 Noon: "Dam leaking badly."
- 1:00 PM: "Leaks cannot be stopped."
- 2:00 PM: "Bulkheads are giving way."
- 3:20 PM: "Dam gone to hell by way of Willimansett."
Still, the lessons learned were valuable, and the builders did not give up. A replacement dam, also of wood, was completed the following summer. This dam still stands, 150 feet underwater, behind the current, modern stone dam, put into service in 1900.
In 1847, taking advantage of the broad plain and the 57-foot drop in the Connecticut River at South Hadley Falls, work began on a planned industrial City. Canals, mills, boarding houses, offices, and a dam were all built by pick and shovel. The rapid growth of this "New City" led to approval from the State Legislature for a separate municipality to be created. On March 4, 1850, Holyoke finally became its own town.
Holyoke's development was rapid. Within 30 years, America recognized it as the "Queen of Industrial Cities", and soon after as the "Paper City of the World".
Textiles were the first major product of the City, quickly followed by paper. As a major force, the cotton mills did not last, as the Civil War cut off raw cotton supplies from the South.
Paper grew as the dominant force in the City, and at one time over 25 paper mills were in operation. The population followed, expanding from just 4,600 in 1885 to over 60,000 in 1920.
Holyoke also built schools, churches, parks, and many public buildings, including the beautiful and historic City Hall. Much of the land was donated by the Holyoke Water Power Company, owner of the South Hadley Falls dam. The Company's crucial role in the growth of Holyoke is well recognized. Along with supplying power, HWP acted as an industrial developer, preparing sites and selling them to employment-generating industry.
These were the days when Holyoke exerted considerable influence on American life. The Holyoke Opera House was the test location for Broadway plays, before moving on to New York. The Easter parade here drew as many spectators as on Fifth Avenue. Margret Sanger created a controversy when she attempted to give one of her early lectures on birth control in Holyoke.
As Holyoke matured, it began to diversify industrially. Four and a half miles of canals were dug by pick and shovel through the lower wards, and all types of products were manufactured along their banks. Steam pumps, blank books, silk goods, hydrants, bicycles, and trolleys were among a growing list of goods being shipped all over the world.
In 1900, the wooden dam was replaced by a new stone dam, which had taken five years to construct. Known as Holyoke's Million Dollar Dam, it used the most advanced technology of its day and attracted visitors from all over the world.