History & Industry

The dense forests and powerful rivers that make Western Massachusetts such a draw for outdoor adventurers also enabled towns to thrive during the industrial period of the 19th century. The Deerfield, Westfield, Green, Connecticut, Millers, Hoosic and Housatonic rivers and their tributaries all provided power to mills that produced everything from woolen fabric to leather shoes to paper and even tapioca.

An unlikely shopping list

Through the first half of the 19th century, western Massachusetts produced a huge array of goods. Mills on the Westfield River manufactured cloth, paper and abrasives, and processed quarried stone. Those on the Millers, Deerfield, Connecticut and Green Rivers turned out furniture, tools, sewing machines and tapioca. Hadley farmer Levi Dickinson innovated the use of broom corn (sorghum) to make brooms in 1797 and set off a local industry that provided brooms to markets in Boston and beyond. The town of Orange had many prosperous industries, including shoes and boots, palm-leaf hats and the 1899 Grout Automobile Company, considered the first automobile plant in America. The Deerfield River still powers Lamson & Goodnow, the country’s oldest continuously operating cutlery manufacturer.

History on the rails

Local railroads transported raw materials, finished goods and factory workers before highways became a quicker and less expensive alternative. Signs of the railroads’ early infrastructure are found throughout the byways. On the Jacob’s Ladder Trail Scenic Byway, keystone arch bridges from the early 1800s, the Railroad Depot and Museum in Chester, and the Berkshire Scenic Railroad and Museum all honor railroading’s past. The Old Chester Jail—now a museum—even includes a cell that was built to hold “incorrigible workers” during construction of the Chester railroad in the 1840s. At the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum you can ride the Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway Trolley car No. 10, which traveled back and forth across the Deerfield River—over what is now the Bridge of Flowers—for 20 years starting in 1896.

Step back in time

It’s easy to get a sense of the region’s industrial heyday from the architecture of brick mill buildings, row houses built for factory workers and the grand homes of factory owners. But to explore more, visit the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage in the historic Newell Snow Factory in Greenfield. The Great Falls Discovery Center focuses more on conservation and ecology, but is housed in a former mill building in Turners Falls.

Industrial arts

Some towns have turned to the arts to help revitalize now-quiet factories and railway lines. The Shelburne Falls and Colrain Street Railway bridge was built in 1908 but highways made it obsolete by 1929. The community turned it into the Bridge of Flowers that has now beckoned visitors for more than 80 years. One of the most dramatic transformations of former industrial space is at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams. Since 1999 MASS MoCA has become a world-class museum exhibiting the art of our time. It occupies the sprawling factory complex of the Sprague Electric Company.

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