When walking along the streets of North Adams in Western Massachusetts, the red-brick outlines of the town’s former textile mills come into view.
For hundreds of years, North Adams was a bustling industrial town. Over the course of more than three centuries, the small town has undergone a cycle of birth and rebirth. It had originally been a part of East Hoosuck. In the 1700s and 1850s, East Hoosuck had included North Adams, and its southern sibling, Adams.
In 1750, Ephraim Williams received 200 acres from the General Court of Mass achusetts Bay Colony on the condition that he build a grist mill and a cotton mill in East Hoosuck, the name for the township that would later become Adams and North Adams. By the time North Adams separated from Adams in 1878, it had steadily become a hub of manufacturing.
Between 1860 and 1870, North Adams’ population nearly doubled from just under 7,000 residents to a little over 12,000 residents. In 1870, the town was even described by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine as “one of the busiest little towns, humming and smoking with various industries.” By this time, North Adams had thirty-eight factories consisting of cotton, paper, woolen mills and shoe factories.
The growth of the small town only intensified when the Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875. The 4.75-long mile tunnel connected North Adams to the rest of the world. The Hoosac Tunnel allowed freight trains to pass through the Hoosac Mountain on their way from Boston, Massachusetts to Albany, New York.
Since the town’s early history, the mills in North Adams had been erected, expanded, swept away by the nearby Hoosic river, torn down and later resurrected. Former giants like Arnold Print Works were replaced by other giants like Sprague Electric Company.
While some aspects of the town had changed, others had stayed relatively the same. Generations of the town’s residents continued to go back and forth from their homes to these mills. They put in hours of hard labor to produce cloth, lumber and eventually in the twentieth-century, electrical parts. It is their stories that have given life to this small town, and that form the foundation of this podcast.
“[North Adams] is one of the busiest little towns, humming and smoking with various industries.”
Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1870
These details may give the impression of a town made up of only gray slabs and concrete. But nature is an intrinsic part of North Adam’s current and past identity.
North Adams sits right at the edge of the Hoosic River and is sandwiched by Mount Greylock, Savoy Mountain State Forest, the Hoosac Range Trail. One could even say that North Adams is nestled in a cradle of nature. It is no coincidence that North Adams was built essentially along the river. Mill owners converted the Hoosic’s water into hydropower.
The power of both the Hoosic and Housatonic are what first attracted early European colonists to construct mills and townships in the Berkshires. Sampson Shoe Factory, Eclipse Mills, and Arnold Print Works are only a few out of many mills that were built along the riverbanks of the Hoosic. Eagle St. and Main St. are just a stone’s throw away from the Hoosic. If looking at the town in this light, the rusty red dots of the town’s factories become only part of a much larger blue and green canvas.
These mills subsisted on the waterpower of the Hoosic to create electricity. Without the river, the history of North Adams would have been entirely different. And so to understand the meaning of these factories in North Adams, one must first begin with the natural landscape of the Berkshires: both its mountains and its waters… and what better place to start than the Hoosic River?
The Hoosic River, Its Geography and History:
The Hoosic River goes by many names: The Hoosuck, The Hoosac, and the Hoosick (spelled with a k). All of these slight changes give name to the same waterway that snakes through Western Massachusetts and Vermont before connecting to the Hudson River in Stillwater, New York. Its 76-mile journey is an adventurous one, accompanied by dramatic mountain rises, dipping waterfalls and bountiful wildlife.
There are birds like the Belted Kingfisher that keep a watchful eye on the river’s surface as they search for unsuspecting prey.
There are white-tail deers that tread on the fallen leaves of sycamore, paper birch and American chestnut trees.
And there are black bears that lumber at the edge of the river waiting to catch wild brown and rainbow trout swimming just within their reach.
For three miles of this intrepid journey, it is accompanied by the Hoosac Range, a 994-acre reserve and mountain ridge trail that sits in the northwestern section of the beautiful Berkshires. Taking its trails, one encounters a Narnia-like landscape filled with bears and beavers, trees twisting into gnarled positions, and rock formations carved 550 million years ago.
It is easy to slip into the idea that the Berkshires is just an endless stretch of open ridges … but in reality, almost all that one sees today has been touched by humans… People have lived in this region for thousands of years, long before explorers like Henry Hudson laid the foundation for European colonization in North America.
These hills are the homelands of the Mohican people. The Nipmuc and Pocumtuc also lived near here along the rivers of what is now considered Western Massachusetts. The Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) name appears here often now, on maps and trails, as they lived and live north and west among the six nations of the Haudenosaunee in what is now New York, as the Wampanoag [Wôpanâak ] and other nations lived to the east.
The Mohican people lived by both the Hoosic and the Housatonic rivers and through the hills and valleys west to the Mahicannituck, now often called the Hudson River. They tapped trees for maple syrup and sugar, planted corn, beans and squash for the year’s harvest and taught their children about the ways of the world. Today many in their community live in Wisconsin, and they live here and return here to their homelands.
As we go on, we will hope to focus more on the history and contemporary presence of the Mohican people, now formally recognized as the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican nation. But to begin, we will focus on two rivers, the Hoosic, translated as a place like a bowl (like the Hopper on Mount Greylock) or the beyond place, and “the river of the mountain place” known as the Housatonic in Mohican language.
The Mohican people lived by both the Hoosic and the Housatonic rivers and through the hills and valleys west to the Mahicannituck, now often called the Hudson River. Today many in their community live in Wisconsin, and they live here and return here to their homelands.
From atop of the trail’s Spruce Hill, one gets sweeping views of Mount Greylock, the highest point in all of Massachusetts. Standing at 3,491 feet, Mount Greylock has inspired literary giants for centuries. From his house in Pittsfield, American writer Herman Melville imagined Mount Greylock as a massive sperm whale. He later featured this depiction in his acclaimed 1851 novelMoby Dick.
On cloudy mornings, these mountain ranges get blanketed by a beautiful mist, their jagged edges softened by a lazy fog. But when this fog is lifted and the sky is clear, one can see as far as 90 miles away. Mt. Greylock is also one of the origin points of the Hoosic, and another river by a similar name, the Housatonic. At such a great height, these two magnificent rivers emerge– two siblings diverging to make their distinctive impact on the world around them: the Hoosic flowing to the North and the Housatonic to the South.
The Housatonic River, not to be confused with the Hoosic, is another river that makes its way through Western Massachusetts. Whereas the Hoosic meanders through the towns of North Adams, Adams and Williamstown, the Housatonic flows through the Pittsfield, Lee and Great Barrington. Its journey is nearly double that of the Hoosic: beginning roughly around Pittsfield and traveling 149-miles to Milford Point, Connecticut.
Like Mount Greylock and the Hoosic, the Housatonic has also impacted the lives of its surrounding community.
W.E.B. Du Bois and the Housatonic
On February 23, 1868, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He is more widely known as W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights pioneer, co-founder of the NAACP and author of the American classic, “The Souls of Black Folk.” But before Du Bois attended Fisk University or became the first African-American to earn a PhD from Harvard in 1895, he was just a boy … enjoying what he called a “boy’s paradise” in the Berkshire town of Great Barrington.
Great Barrington’s natural landscape provided the ideal backdrop for Du Bois’ adventure-loving spirit. In his 1968 autobiography, he details how, “there were mountains to climb and rivers to wade and swim, lakes to freeze and hills for coasting. There were orchards and caves and wide green fields, and all of it was apparently property of the children of the town.”
And at the center of all of this magnificent landscape was the Housatonic River. In a 1930 speech to his fellow Searles alumni, Du Bois described the Housatonic as “the physical center; perhaps, in a sense, the spiritual center” of Great Barrington.
Du Bois could not have been more spot on. His boyhood home… the town’s Congregational Church… and Great Barrington’s Town Hall were all just a minutes walk from the river. DuBois’ high school, Searles High School, was even built right on its banks.
From the school’s vantage point on 76th Bridge St., students would have had a perfect view of the Housatonic: its flowing current, its bubbling surface, the rocks lying just at its edge. One can even imagine a young Du Bois peering down from his classroom window to distract himself with its beauty.
A peaceful stroll along the Housatonic is not just a recreational activity, however. It is also a walk into the past. Du Bois knew this all too well. Dutch slave traders kidnapped his maternal great grandfather from West Africa in the 18th century, and forcibly brought Tom, the name that Du Bois uses to refer to his great grandfather, to the Hudson Valley as a small child.
The family of the Burghardts, a White family of Dutch ancestry, that later enslaved Tom. He possibly gained his freedom by fighting in the Constitutional Army during the Revolutionary War. He would later move to and settle in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, where his descendants eventually congregated in Great Barrington. It is through enslavement and this courageous struggle for liberation that is how the “Black Burghardts” came to have their name. This history is one layer to William Edward Burdghardt Du Bois.
The State of the Housatonic:
Another layer is Du Bois’ love for the river he grew up with.
In his 1968 autobiography (published posthumously), Du Bois recounts how he “was born by a golden river and in the shadow of the two great hills, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation.” Such description of the river could not have been more accurate, with the name of the Housatonic deriving from the Mohican word for, “place beyond the mountain.”
Even so, Du Bois’ description of the Housatonic certainly had a twofold meaning. While Du Bois surely meant to convey the river’s magnificent beauty, he was also referring to its polluted waters. In his autobiography he described how the paper and woolen mills of Great Barrington would dump their refuse into the river.
In his earlier 1930 speech to his fellow alumni, he urged mill owners to stop with such harmful practices, and implored the graduates of his alma mater to protect and restore “the ancient beauty” of the Housatonic. For Du Bois, his golden river was a vibrant ecosystem not a public dumping ground.
‘[The Housatonic was] the physical center; perhaps, in a sense, the spiritual center of Great Barrington.’ – W.E.B. Du Bois, Reflections Upon the Housatonic River
The unfortunate state of the Housatonic was not particular to Great Barrington, however. Water pollution was a major issue for many cities whose economies were built on industrial power– and Western Massachusetts was no different. For generations, the mills along the Hoosic had done the same as the ones along the Housatonic. Arnold Print Works, a cloth and printing factory in North Adams, was notorious for spilling its dyes into the Hoosic. This was so common that it became a passtime for students returning from school in North Adams to guess what color the river would be that day.
This pollution only intensified when Sprague Electric Company, formerly known as Sprague Specialties, settled in North Adams in 1929. By the time World War II began ten years later, Sprague had taken the place of Arnold Print Works as the town’s largest employer.
It also took up the charge of further polluting the Hoosic. Instead of dyes, however, Sprague, an electric component factory, dumped Polychlorical Biphenyls or PCBs into the river. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs and began phasing out its usage. Even so, PCBs caused the fish in the water to become so contaminated that they could not be consumed. Fishing remains limited to catch and release in North Adams.
But the Hoosic would not lie dormant as its waters were being polluted. 1785, 1869, 1927 and 1948 mark only a few out of many instances in which the Hoosic overflowed into the town. One of the most severe floods occurred on August 20, 1901 when heavy rainfall caused the Basset Reservoir Dam and Dean’s Dam in Berkshire county to burst.One person lost their life, and houses and mills were torn apart. The total damages amounted to a soaring $250,000 in Adams and $100,000 in North Adams.
In 1948 after another calamitous flood, the North Adams government petitioned the federal government to finance flood-control projects in Adams and North Adams. They were completed in 1959 and continue to stand til this day. Although the chutes have acted as a preventative measure against potential floods, these twenty five-foot high barriers have all but separated the town from its glorious river.
The Current State of the Hoosic
Today, local organizations and volunteer groups in North Adams are working to restore the Hoosic to its former glory. The Hoosic River Watershed Association hosts volunteer clean-ups, and advocates for land management to help rebuild the habitats of the Hoosac Valley.
Hoosic River Revival, another volunteer organization, focuses primarily on the flood chutes in North Adams and how to transform this dated protective system into a more modern and natural one. Right now, these 25-foot barriers just separate the town from its river.
Their concrete material also kills all the native cold-water species by heating up the water to a degree that is not viable. The Hoosic River Revival has proposed a project that will update the older flood chutes and establish ways to restore the river’s natural habitat and create trails and walking paths for North Adams residents. This project also hopes to reinvigorate the economy and culture of the small factory town.
When Sprague Electric Company, the town’s primary employer, closed in 1985, North Adams struggled to reinvent its economy. A sense of despair overcame many residents whose families had for generations worked in the mills. While all the mills in North Adams had been progressively closing down during the postwar period, the closing of Sprague felt like the last straw. For many residents, the electric factory was truly the heart of North Adams and had been for more than half-a-century.
But like the flood chutes, such an attachment has come at a hefty price. PCB’s have contaminated the rivers. The chutes have made the Hoosic unsuitable for aquatic life.
The revitalization of the Hoosic is no easy matter. The Housatonic has also dealt with similar issues. It too has been contaminated by PCBs. Like in North Adams, these chemicals originated in a nearby factory. Specifically, General Electric, in Pittsfield, a town 20 miles south of North Adams.
Like Sprague Electric, General Electric closed its facility in 1987 as the region dealt with a decline in demand for industrial manufacturing. The company left an environmental disaster. For decades, it had released tens of thousands of pounds of PCBs into Silver Lake in Pittsfield, and the Housatonic River.
Communities along the Housatonic continue to face ongoing disputes on how to best dispose of the hazardous chemicals, and how to restore their dying natural environment. Just on March 1, 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency issued its final permit mandating General Electric to clean the PCBs from the parts of the Housatonic that are in Pittsfield, Lee and Lenox, Massachusetts.
Looking Towards the Future:
In 1930, Du Bois began his speech to his former classmates by imagining what the Housatonic must have looked like years before the mills began polluting the river. He painted an image of Great Barrington bursting with life, its mountains covered by trees with the Housatonic as the centerpiece. And while Du Bois saw his community “turn [their] backs on the river” and neglect it, he never stopped believing in the potential of Great Barrington and the Housatonic to exist as one… once again.
In the closing segment of his speech, Du Bois said, “we should rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty; making it the center of a town, of a valley, and perhaps — who knows? — of a new measure of civilized life.”
There is still a long way to go before the Hoosic and the Housatonic can return to their pre-industrial glory. Maybe such an endeavor is even futile. There is no turning back the clock. The identity of factory towns like North Adams, Pittsfield and Great Barrington have been molded by their industrial pasts. These red-bricked factories may not be conventionally as natural as trees, rivers and mountains but over time they have become just as intrinsic to the Berkshire landscape as the Hoosic and the Housatonic.
‘It may be that some thoughtful person saw far beyond the present and grasped the idea that they were putting the institution on what was the natural great highway of the valley. They may have looked forward to the time… when public buildings and canoes and pleasure boats and swimming children would make the whole valley glad and the river would come into its own again.’ -W.E.B. Du Bois, Reflections upon the Housatonic River
Du Bois theorized that this “forward-looking” is the reason for why his high school was built just at the brinks of the Housatonic. He wrote, “it may be that some thoughtful person saw far beyond the present and grasped the idea that they were putting the institution on what was the natural great highway of the valley. They may have looked forward to the time… when public buildings and canoes and pleasure boats and swimming children would make the whole valley glad and the river would come into its own again.”
In 1991 after hundreds of volunteers dedicated hours of cleaning up the Housatonic, a part of Du Bois’ dream came true. Great Barrington held its Housatilla Flotilla. Returning to their ancestral homeland, Mohican representatives from the Stockbridge-Munsee nation led the parade of fifty kayaks, rafts and rowboats down the Housatonic.The celebration celebrated the removal of more than 125,000 pounds of waste by more than 200 volunteers. In 1992, The Housatonic River Walk opened to the public, a half-mile trail that allows residents and visitors to take in the glory of the surrounding environment once again.
The plants indigenous to the Berkshires …
the wildlife …
and the meandering waters of the Housatonic …
all can be seen along this path.
At the entrance of this River Walk and only a few steps from where he was born is W.E.B. Du Bois River Park: an homage to the great believer and his beautiful Golden River.
Even with the tremendous organizing that was done in Great Barrington, the clean up of the Housatonic is still an ongoing issues. Community members, local officials and even an agency of the federal government have all contributed to the debate on how to hold former industries accountable. What the River Walk and the Du Bois River Park did succeed in showing was that community participation can create meaningful impact.
The Hoosic River, like the Housatonic, also has a long journey ahead of it. But if, Du Bois’ writings teach us anything it is the power of hope and of imagination. More than one hundred years ago, a little Du Bois would have been running around Great Barrington, jumping over fallen trees, feeling the warm sun against his skin, and swimming through the brook that passed by his house as it emptied into the Housatonic.
Due to construction in Great Barrington, the brook eventually dwindled and ultimately disappeared. That same brook will never return but in its place, is the Du Bois River Park where a rain garden that collects water. It is not the same as the brook but it does represent a hopeful future for the Housatonic– one where Great Barrington will forever live facing its great natural highway.
Like Great Barrington, North Adams too shares this potential. Organizations like the Hoosic River Revival are testament to the hard work that community members in North Adams have been putting into the revitalization of the Hoosic. Through this dedication, maybe the Hoosic and the Housatonic can ascend to their ancient thrones once again.