Holyoke was a small agricultural village from 1745 to 1849. In 1849 a group of industrialists from Boston started building a planned industrial city in Holyoke. The Connecticut river was damned and diverted into a system of three canals, each at a different elevation. Each of the three canals is about a mile long and the system's total length today is 4.5 miles. Mills were built alongside the canals that utilized water flowing between upper and lower canals as a power source. Tenements were built further back from the canals to house workers. The same strategy of building a town and canal system near a source of water power and then selling land and power to textile mills had been tried several times before by the same group of investors. This same loosely associated group had previously developed Chicopee, Lowell and Lawrence Massachusetts among others.
Initially the main industry in Holyoke was textile manufacture. By the turn of the century, industry in Holyoke had shifted to paper manufacture. Modern paper manufacture requires huge amounts of water and produces huge amounts of pollution. Because of this most modern paper mills are isolated on large tracts of land and usually have their own water treatment plants and ponds. I wonder what Holyoke was like when the paper industry was at it's most prosperous in the first half of the 1900s. It must have stunk horribly. I assume the paper plants would have more or less dumped waste water, bleach, solvents and all straight into the canals. I haven't seen any mention of pollution in any history of Holyoke I've read but I'm sure it must have been bad.
The tenement housing that had been built for workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s consisted of cramped apartments in large 5 story brick buildings. Many of these buildings survive and some are still occupied. The paper industry moved out of Holyoke to larger plants in other parts of the country in the second half of the 1900s. The population of Holyoke peaked in 1920 at 60,203. The current population is 39,880. Many of the residents who remained in Holyoke moved out of the cramped tenements and into more modern, detached homes away from the industrial core of the city. In the late 1960s and early 70s Puerto Rican farm laborers were brought to Western Massachusetts to work in tobacco fields. These workers moved into the cheapest housing available in the region. This was often the recently emptied tenements in the centers of Holyoke and Springfield.
According to most accounts the relationship between the new Puerto Rican residents and the descendents of the Irish factory workers who had moved to Holyoke in the late 1900s was not and is not good. Holyoke today is highly segregated. The result of Holyoke being divided along ethnic lines and the loss of Holyoke's industrial economy has been a broken city. The historic industrial core of Holyoke is apocalyptic. Many buildings have been torn down or are being torn down. Many others are abandoned or empty. I saw no obvious and substantial attempts at preservation anywhere in the industrial core. Holyoke Heritage State Park has a very modern looking interpretive center and a merry-go-round on nicely landscaped grounds. Central NE Holyoke has a few large urban renewal type housing projects in areas that I suspect were once neighborhoods of historic buildings. Scattered throughout the central core of Holyoke are isolated, still occupied, crowded tenements. In spite of loosing as much as half of it's previous population, central Holyoke is still pretty densely populated.
The approach to preservation in Holyoke couldn't be more different from the approach being taken in Lowell. Historically these two cities have a lot of similarities. Lowell has the advantage of being close to Boston and of course being a National Historic Park. Holyoke, even considering it's disadvantages struck me as being exceptionally dysfunctional. I suspect that the stark ethnic division in Holyoke plays a roll in this disfunction. In 2011 Holyoke elected a 22 year old mayor to replace a career politician. I don't know much about the new mayor but this kind of political discontent is sometimes a good sign. Holyoke was selected as the site of a new super-computing center which is unfortunately being built on the grounds of a demolished mill in the center of the historic industrial district. Will the new super computing center provide employment for the impoverished residents of the nearby tenements? Holyoke was a fascinating town to drive around. I was a little uncomfortable at times while I was there. This might have been because of Holyoke's reputation as a center of the New England narcotics trade. It might have all been in my head but in some cases, in some areas, walking around alone with an expensive camera seemed unwise. As a result I didn't get very many good pictures.
Holyoke isn't the oldest of the New England planned industrial cities. In fact it's the youngest. Built in 1849, it was the last major project by the Boston group of investors who built most of the other planed industrial cities in the area. As a result of this, in many ways Holyoke was where the concept reached it's fullest development. It was the most comprehensively designed- the climax example of that 19th century approach to building an industrial city from the ground up. Because of this I think that there is value to saving as much as possible of what's left. The unique history of Holyoke is also one of, if not the greatest of the city's current assets. I hope the community can come together soon and save what's left.
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