Northampton’s River Of Time
Disasters, both National and Local,
Have a Grave Impact on the Town,
Which Grows Up to Become a City
By BRIAN TURNER
In 1861, the national struggle over states rights and slavery culminated in the Civil War. Hundreds of Northampton men fought for the Union, and almost a hundred died. Frank Bois, a Canadian, was quartermaster on the U.S.S. Cincinnati at Vicksburg, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He did not live here long, but he enlisted here, so Northampton received credit. For the story of one Northampton native’s experience, see When This Cruel War Is Over, The Civil War Letters of Charles Harvey Brewster (1992), edited by David Blight. Jim Parsons, the unfailingly generous local historian and resident of Leeds, transcribed many of the Brewster letters.
The greatest impact of the war upon Northampton was economic. The mill villages of Bay State, Florence, and Leeds boomed. Workers came to work in the mills, the cutleries, wire-works, brush factories, brass works, button-makers, broom-bundlers, basket-makers, and stove manufacturers—all demanding hydropower. Local businessmen assumed responsibility for building a privately-held dam to regulate the flow of the Mill River from Williamsburg to Northampton.
The contracting of public works to private interests had a long history in Northampton. At a 1662 town meeting, a motion was made to build a bridge across Lickingwater Crossing. The settlers who lived at the crossing were instructed to build the bridge “if they saw cause,” and for their efforts were excused from road maintenance. A century later, civic projects were still assigned to citizens with vested interests. In the 1790s Shop Row needed water, so merchants built a privately-owned reservoir on Prospect Street.
In 1782 the “Northampton Society for the Detection of Thieves & Robbers” was organized, again by merchants, in lieu of a municipal police force -- only members in good standing could expect protection, however. Even fire companies were sponsored by merchants (The Torrent Company) and mill owners (The Deluge Company). In this, Northampton was little different from other towns and cities where businessmen were regarded as exemplars of the American Way.
The Williamsburg Reservoir Company included many leading figures, all of whom had mutual business interests and social ties, such as Alfred Critchlow, Lucius Dimock, Samuel L. Hill, Alfred Lilly, William Clement, John Payson Williston, Joel Hayden, Sr., and William Skinner. As Elizabeth M. Sharpe observes in In the Shadow of the Dam (2004), these businessmen, politicians, and bankers, while admirable, were ill-equipped to oversee the construction of a dam. Presented with an original design estimated to cost $100,000, they funded a cheaper version, a loose stone wall packed by long earthen slopes. This dam received only cursory inspections by county commissioners on familiar terms with the owners.
At an inquest after the Mill River Flood it was revealed that former Lt. Gov. Joel Hayden, Sr., who first searched for a place to build the reservoir, never believed the dam was safe. In fact the dam leaked in so many places that Hayden ordered that the reservoir level be kept low. His concern was regarded by others in the company as the fretfulness of an old man. When Hayden died, the reservoir level was raised.
It was on the day of Hayden’s memorial service in 1874 that the dam burst. George Cheney, reservoir watchman, saw part of the dam give way. He rode a horse into Williamsburg to raise the alarm. To spread the warning, Collins Graves drove his horse-drawn milk-cart through the villages to the south. Meanwhile, many hundreds of millions of gallons poured forth, creating a wall perhaps 20 feet high, according to eye-witness accounts. The water itself appeared solid with torn up trees and boulders, the debris of crushed homes and mills. People were swept away in mid-flight; others sought safety by climbing onto rooftops, but the flood flattened wooden structures in its path and poured through the windows and doors of more solid structures, drowning anyone sheltering below the water level inside. In all, the flood claimed 145 lives, with many of the bodies washing into the meadows of Florence. Weeks of recovery efforts were required to clean up what was then the worst flood disaster in United States history.
In the disaster’s aftermath, the Gazette praised the reservoir men who, in spite of their losses, came to the aid of the victims’ families and set about rebuilding their mills. Most of the industrialists stayed in the area, with the exception of William Skinner, who disassembled his mansion and floated it downriver to Holyoke. (Today it is the Wisteriahurst museum.) The surviving mill workers, who were almost entirely dependent upon an economic recovery to resume their livelihoods, were not inclined to blame the mill owners, and community solidarity prevailed over calls for accountability.
The inquest blamed all parties equally, owners, designers, engineers, and county commissioners alike. The report also faulted the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for having delegated a civic project to private interests without adequate oversight. It was a remarkable finding at a time when government regulation of business was regarded as un-American. Too few state governments followed through on the regulatory reforms suggested by the inquest.
A decade later, in Pennsylvania, another privately-held dam was constructed to create a recreational lake for the summer homes of Pittsburgh’s elite. That dam, also made of earthen slopes, burst in the Johnstown Flood of 1889 that eclipsed the Mill River Disaster in terms of property damaged and lives lost. This time the criticism that fell upon the industrialists and bankers responsible set the stage for lasting reform.
A Noteworthy Bank Heist
Not every disaster in Northampton took physical form. The Great Bank Robbery of 1876, coming so soon after the flood, struck directly at the pocketbooks of the town’s established men and called into question their authority. Beginning with the town’s first bank in 1803, minimal security precautions had been taken to protect the assets of Northampton’s citizens, in large part because no one believed it was necessary to do so.
On the night of Jan. 25, 1876, a gang of experienced thieves struck the “Old Bank,” as Northampton National Bank on Main Street was called. The bank’s cashier was seized in his bed and forced to give up the combination to the safe; the robbers already had keys, provided by a contractor hired to maintain and repair the bank vault. The thieves stored their loot beneath a platform at the Bridge Street schoolhouse, to which they had gained access through a burial vault in the neighboring cemetery. Weeks later they returned and reclaimed their goods, $1.25 million in cash, bonds, certificates, and other securities, a sum so astonishing that the Great Bank Robbery held the distinction of being the nation’s biggest heist until the Brinks job in 1950.
Once they had run through their cash, the robbers sought to sell the securities. They sent anonymous notes to the bank directors suggesting that they place an ad in the New York Herald if they wished to open negotiations. (Some of these notes can be seen today at Historic Northampton.) Agents for the bank slowed the pace of communication in the hope that there might by a break in the case. That break came when a disaffected member of the gang turned upon his fellow thieves, whereupon they were caught. Perhaps $700,000 of the bank’s securities were recovered. After a sensational trial the thieves were imprisoned, and upon their transfer from city jail to state prison, they were met at every station by large crowds.
Town to City
For two centuries Northampton was the county seat of a Hampshire County that covered all Western Massachusetts. By the 19th century, towns and cities had grown up in every corner of the region, making the county difficult to govern. Southampton and Westhampton, once part of Northampton, split away. In 1810 Hampden County separated, with Springfield, the largest city west of the river, as its county seat.
Northampton grew, too, but at a slower pace and with unique results. Northampton’s institutions became more complex, her social environment more various, while she retained many of the civic forms of a small town. From the 1820s to the 1870s, the grocer Ansel Wright, along with two of his three sons, served as a part-time constabulary.
The Wright family illustrates Northampton’s gradual transition, in which the local and the national, the provincial and the universal co-exist. Chauncey Wright, Ansel’s other son, declined to join the family enterprise. Instead, he attended Harvard and remained in Cambridge as a “computer” (statistician) at the Nautical Academy. According to The Metaphysical Club (Louis Menand, 2002), Chauncey Wright presided over a weekly gathering of young Harvard men, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. From these intellectual “jousting matches,” the philosophy of pragmatism was born. Holmes went on to serve on the Supreme Court; James (Henry’s brother) wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience; Dewey transformed American education.
Charles Sanders Peirce had his own Northampton connection: his father Benjamin had tutored at the Round Hill School, and later married Northampton’s Sara Hunt Mills, daughter of U.S. Senator Elijah Hunt Mills. Among his contributions to American thought, Charles Sanders Peirce introduced the study of signs, semiotics, from which other branches of modern philosophy have grown. Each member of the Metaphysical Club acknowledged the debt he owed Chauncey Wright, whose own life was brief and success limited, but until now it is Ansel, the constable, who has received attention from local historians.
In 1886 Northampton was incorporated as a city. The spirit of reform continued to transform public and private institutions. The Clarke School for the Deaf was founded with a $50,000 gift from John Clarke, who was deaf, and the campus opened on Round Hill in 1867. It was at the Clarke School that Alexander Graham Bell taught his “visible speech” technique; later he invented the telephone, an application of his experiments in assisting the deaf to hear.
The Northampton Lunatic Hospital opened in 1858, one of a system of mental institutions in Massachusetts, then regarded as scientific and humane. From 1864 to 1885 the Northampton State Hospital came under the supervision of Dr. Pliney Earle, a reformer in the field of mental health. Earle had the inmates work in fields and workshops in order to provide a more dignified and productive life. In the 20th century, however, the state hospital became a warehouse for people with mental or emotional disabilities of every description, and a holding area for misfits unsuited for prison. In 1959, the hospital held 2,500 inmates; by 1983, state budget cuts reduced that number to 230. Today the grounds are empty; the buildings are sometimes used for avante garde art installations or for sets for big budget movies such as The Cider House Rules.
Professionalized health care and attention to the ills of the poor and needy received their portion of charitable giving. In 1882 Caleb Cooley Dickinson, yet another wealthy Hatfield native inclined to make a bequest to Northampton, left money to build a general hospital that provided beds for the indigent. As with Oliver Smith, Dickinson’s relatives challenged the will. They attempted to prove that he was not in his right mind because on occasion he had worn a woman’s hat—a red one. The courts declined to rule on Dickinson’s fashion sense, and upheld the bequest.
In 1881, the will of Judge Charles E. Forbes set aside $250,000 to accumulate interest for 10 years, at which point the money would be used to build Forbes Library. From 1891 to 1894 the library was built, and it was dedicated in 1895. Another benefactor of the library was Dr. Earle, the director of the Northampton State Hospital.
The First Municipal Theater
In 1891, a bequest from E. H. R. Lyman enabled the opening of the Academy of Music, the nation’s first municipal theater, where operas, symphony concerts and plays were performed. With the advent of movies early in the next century, the Academy presented a mix of live performances and screenings. Locals could look for William Powell (The Thin Man) or Frank Morgan (The Wizard of Oz), once members of the Northampton Players, or Antonio Moreno (The Searchers), who had come to live here as a teenager from Spain. Yet another influential filmmaker who lived in Northampton as a teenager was Mack Sennett (Keystone Cops).
Today the Academy shows mostly movies, though its heyday of live entertainment is revived when the Northampton Arts Council (under Bob Cilman) stages “The Really Big Show,” in which someone, anyone is pressed into service to imitate 1950’s variety show host Ed Sullivan. Another annual performance is “Transperformance,” an event that defies description, other than to say that rock stars are “impersonated” by local luminaries without regard to resemblance or in some cases talent.
Northampton’s privately donated parks have given residents much pleasure. The land for Look Park was donated by Fannie Burr Look as a memorial to her husband, Frank Newhall Look, former head of Pro-Phy-Lac-Tic Brush Co. The park, with over 150 acres, opened to the public in 1930, offering picnicking facilities, playgrounds, ball fields, and a scenic duck pond.
Before 1950, Childs Park was called "Watson's Woods." Charles Childs bought the land in 1915, and after his death in 1932, his wife continued to maintain the garden. Mrs. Childs died in 1950 and left funds to establish the Childs Park Foundation. The grounds provide a sedate setting for local residents to jog, walk, rest, and the gardens remain a favorite setting for outdoor weddings.
The passing of the old paternalistic order, epitomized by Samuel L. Hill, revealed the tension between management and labor in the Valley. Hill’s silk workers had never unionized, for they believed in the man’s benevolence. The unions that did form here were in the cutleries, in part because of the hazard posed by metal shavings that lodged in the lungs of grinders. Without Medicare or Social Security, workers had to fight to provide for their families in case of debilitating sickness and early death.
The Northampton Street Railway Company, with trains running from Greenfield to Easthampton to Northampton and Mount Tom, underwent a labor action in 1914. Strikers greased rails that ran up hills, so that trolleys operated by scabs slid to the bottom. Strikers also ran horse-drawn jitneys to offer rides to people sympathetic to their cause. Eventually, the company acceded to the strikers’ demands. But by 1932, the era of the trolley-car had given way to the automobile.
Next: City Hall to the White House
Photograph of Charles Forbes courtesy of Historic Northampton
Brian Turner, who teaches composition at Smith College, is co-author of The Hurrah Game: Baseball in Northampton , 1823-1953 (2002) and co-author of A History of the United States Air Force (2004).
Downstreet.net editor Edward Shanahan prepared the series of articles for publication._________________________________________________________
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