Immigrant sweat built Paper City
The first group of immigrants came to Holyoke in the 1840s.
BY MIKE BURKE
HOLYOKE- If one were to write a textbook on immigration and ethnic patterns
in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, Holyoke could be a prime example.
A proposal to bring Somali refugees to this city would be in keeping with a
tradition in which Holyoke has been home to many different immigrants.
To understand Holyoke and its growth, you must understand its history.
The very exploration of the site where the city now stands was done by one
Elizur Holyoke, an English explorer, for whom the city, the college and the
mountain were all named. Holyoke in fact was married to the daughter of William
Pynchon, one of the founders of Springfield, according tot he city annals available
through the Holyoke Room of the Holyoke Public LIbrary.
At that time, the area was inhabited by American Indians. An occasional farmer
would come along, usually up river from Springfield.
For many years, Holyoke was known as Ireland Parish and was a section of West
Springfield. At that time it was little more than a way station on the road
between Springfield and Northampton and there were taverns along the road for
weary travelers to refresh themselves.
The first Irish immigrants to the area arrived in the 1840s and helped to build
It was about this time that The Hadley Falls Co., a group of Yankee businessmen
from the eastern part of the state, heavily invested in Holyoke, seeing the
potential of the Connecticut River as a source of power to drive the turbines
of industry. That group has also invested in eastern cities such as Lowell,
Haverhill and later Lawrence.
Many of Holyoke's downtown streets such as Cabot, Dwight, Lyman and Appleton
were named after the officials of the company.
Construction of a dam across the river, financed initially by the Hadley group,
was begun in the 1840s and more Irish workers were brought in at that time to
do that work.
After several failed attempts at building a dam, the Daniel O'Connell's Sons
Co., replete with Irish workers, finally finished the dam under the auspices
of the Holyoke Water Power Co., which had supplanted a bankrupt Hadley company.
When the dam and canal systems were in place, heavy industry, paper manufacturing
and silk mills among others, were constructed. Again the Irish had a hand in
the construction and also got many of the new jobs that opened up when those
Once the factories and mills opened, the owners looked around and saw that
they needed more help to keep them running.
The mill owners hired an agent, one Jones Davis, who also looked around and
found that the nearest "help" would come from Quebec Province in Canada.
Davis sent an agent there, especially to Sorel in Quebec, to recruit female
labor. The women came for the work and brought their families, parents, brothers
and sisters with them.
The first settled area of the city was the old Ward 4, now pretty much the
downtown of the city.
The Irish moved into recently constructed "blocks," one of which,
"Dillion Block" at Maple and Hampden streets, was a huge edifice that
housed many families over the years. In fact, it became known as Dillion's "baby
factory" because so many of the city's new citizens were born there.
The churches also came along with the immigrants.
St. Jerome, the "mother church" of Holyoke, on Hampden Street, which
still serves a population in the city, was the first "Irish" church
When the French-Canadians came, they followed the Irish, first into Ward 4
but more prominently into "the Flats" section or the old Ward 1. An
"Irish" church, Rosary, was already built there and gradually the
French-Canadians had their own church, Precious Blood, in South Holyoke and
later Immaculate Conception in Ward 1.
The Polish immigration began later, in the 1880s and they gradually took over
the old Ward 4 from the Irish. Their Church, Mater Dolorosa, opened in the mid-1890s.
Many Germans came in the 19th century. Those who were mill-wrights and the
like, took up residences in the old Springdale section of the southern part
of the city along the river. Many others, farmers, moved into West Holyoke to
operate the dairy and vegetable farms.
Scotsmen came too. They were well schooled in the paper industry and they settled
in Holyoke as well.
The Lutheran churches followed in with the Germans, and the Scots brought their
denominations with them as well, including the Presbyterian Church.
From the 1920s on, the rate of immigration slowed and as the work in the factories
and mills began to ebb away, the immigration rates slowed even more.
During the 1960s, a new ethnic group began to move to Holyoke: the Hispanics,
mostly Puerto Ricans, came to this area to work in the tobacco fields and in
the various farms surrounding the city.
As the Irish, French-Canadians, Polish and others gradually moved from their
neighborhoods, the old blocks became available to the new waves of people coming
to the city. Holyoke had the housing stock and the jobs were there in the fields
and indeed in some of the factories in the city.
The Hispanic population has grown in the city so that today about one third
of the population of 40,000 is Hispanic. Seventy percent of students in city
schools are Hispanic.
Recently. Southeast Asians such as Vietnamese and Laotians have also moved
to the city, although numbers are smaller than the groups that preceded them.
All this sets the stage for the influx of new people into the city. And, as
it was over a century ago, newcomers are bound to come.
"This is a free country and people can go where they want," Mayor
Michael J. Sullivan has said.
Mike Burke can be reached at email@example.com