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Fall River History

From Community Development Agency– City of Fall River Website Jan/2002

From Community Development Agency– City of Fall River Website Jan/2002

 "Fall River today-the visible city-is the product of its own geography and the first 70 years of growth, an era largely complete by 1875. Streets, blocks, buildings and all, the city itself makes its own history clear and comprehensible. It isnıt that growth and change have not gone on; they have for the most part continued along the geographical (and architectural) patterns established as Fall River grew into industrial importance more than a century ago.

 At the start of the 19th century, Fall River was one of the several small villages of Freetown, MA. Less than a hundred inhabitants in 18 houses were all that made the place a village and Fall River was quieter and less imposing than its fellow hamlets along the Taunton River, Assonet and Steep Brook. Development in the little community was hampered in part by the very characteristics that later encouraged its industrial growth: the steep grade to the waterfront, and its unprotected harbor discouraged the waterborne trade that nourished Assonet and Steep Brook: the granite ledges beneath its surface limited the possibilities for agricultural development. Pinched between the Watuppa Ponds and Mount Hope Bay on the Taunton River, Fall River had no easy access to the major centers of Newport or Providence to the west or New Bedford to the east.

  Early roads connecting those lively commercial places bypasses the little Hamlet in favor of easier paths that avoided the ponds and the long swamps to the north. The only important highway that passed through Fall River was the Boston-to-Newport turnpike which traveled along South and North Main Streets through the village and out through the Taunton Valley, paralleling the course of the river.  Access to its own natural hinder lands to the east of the Watuppa Ponds was limited by the lack of convenient roads, so there was little encouragement for commerce to overcome the difficulties of poor harbor and steep waterfront hill.

In 1803, the southwest part of Freetown-todayıs Fall River and Steep Brook-was set off at its own request from the mother town. The whole town was more than eight miles long, the petitioners complained, and the villagers found it difficult to get to town meetings. The new town hall was at first located in Steep Brook, the ³metropolis² of the two villages; it wasnıt until 1836 that the center of government was moved to Fall River.

A map that shows conditions as they were in 1812 delineates the little village before its industrial development began in earnest. Perhaps 20 buildings clustered around the junction of Main and Bedford streets. More houses were strung out along Main Street, which ran some distance inland from the undeveloped waterfront and was connected to it by streets and paths at only a few points. There was a scatter of homesteads along Bedford Street (which followed the path of the present Bedford Street, Quarry Street, and County Streets to the narrows between the ponds); and a few more buildings stood widely separated in the south part of the village.

 To imagine Fall River as it was in those days, before the mills, the mansions, and the tenements - think of a thin scatter of houses, barns and buildings similar to those that stand today around the center of Assonet, but fewer and less prosperous, for Fall River (Troy, as it was named from 1804 to 1834) did not have the far-flung trade on which Assonet grew comfortable.

 A few of those very early Fall River houses still stand today, most of them out along North Main street toward the still-distinct village of Steeple Brook. They date from the mid to late 18th century and the early 19th century, and their early owners and family names like Borden, Brightman, Hathaway, Davol.

   But even as Troy Village stood in the near-rural form recorded on the 1812 map, an economic shift was beginning to alter longstanding patterns of local development. The maritime-commercial trade that sustained Assonet as it sustained the greater seaports of Boston, Salem, Newport and Providence was stagnated by the war of 1812. Afterwards, recovery was slow and incomplete. New York began to overshadow New England commercially, while new attempts at manufacturing began to spur development in places where rivers and streams offered power sufficient to turn water wheels to operate machinery. With this shift, hilly Troy, with its stream droppings in waterfalls more than 130 feet in a half-mile slope-Troy with its sparse settlement and inconvenient, shallow harbor-had the advantage over mercantile Assonet and its highway-connected rival Steep Brook.

 The Quequechan River had been utilized for mills early in the 18th century-according to local history there were saw, grist and fulling mills on the south side of the stream by 1703. These small mills were the kind that stood in every early town, though, operated solely to process local goods for village consumption. These early mills were not industry.

 When the census was taken in 1810, Fall River (including Steep Brook and the eastern hinder lands) had more than 1000 inhabitants, though it was still smaller than the rest of Freetown, including Assonet. In comparison, New Bedford was more than 5000.

 In 1811, the first cotton mill in todayıs Fall River was established. It stood on the site of Father John Kelly Park on the east side of South Main Street where Broadway meets Globe Street (the site was then in Rhode Island). This mill was driven by a brook that emptied into a small pond near the waterfront.

 Two years later the Troy Mill, first of the great granite structures at the foot of Quequechan River, was built and Fall Riverıs cotton spinning era had begun in earnest. the end of the war in 1815 brought a flood of imported cotton goods into the United states, but in spite of the setback, home manufacture was established and was ready to flourish in New England.

 The decade of the 1820ıs was a time of building and prosperity for Fall River. The tumbling Quequechan River and a navigable harbor were the natural resources that together determined growth, and merchants and farmers from the Taunton River Valley were able to supply the capital needed to begin the building. The Fall River Ironworks was founded in 1821; Town Hall symbolically moved halfway to Troy from Steep Brook in 1825; and by 1834, when the custom house was moved to the prospering town (renamed Fall River at the time), the industrial pattern was set for the next half century of growth.

 Beginning around 1820, Fall Riverıs population increased steadily, with many newcomers drawn from areas around the Taunton Valley for factory jobs. The village pattern began to emerge, and the residential area northeast of the old town core at the ³four corners² of Bedford and Main Streets built up quickly with handsome houses of the late Federal period. Many of these houses from the earliest days of industry remain today, in the neighborhood of Cherry, Rock and June Streets. Other structures from this era stand elsewhere in Fall River, but the greatest concentration of them is, understandably, close to the historic town center.

    By the early 1840ıs Fall River was fast becoming the major center in its valley, having surpassed rivals Taunton, Freetown and Somerset, all greater and wealthier during the earlier agricultural-maritime-commercial era. By 1842 Fall River citizens were complaining to the state legislature that they could not compete with the increasing foreign population-most of it Irish and English-willing to work in the mills for wages lower than local laborers would accept.

 By 1845 the Fall River mills were employing more than 2000 people. After 1845, Fall Riverıs status as an important town was recognized and solidified by impressive improvements in its transportation system. Once bypassed by most of the major land routes, and not distinguished by the excellence of its harbor, Fall River had been a virtual backwater: accessible, but only with effort. In 1846, the railroad from Boston reached town, locating a terminal near the waterfront between Central and Anawan streets. The next year saw the start of the steamboat line between Fall River and New York, thus, at long last, Fall River was finally connected with the mainstream of the northeastern transportation network.

 In the early part of this decade of intense growth and development, the disastrous conflagration, still known locally as ³the great fire², consumed 20 acres between Borden and Franklin streets in the heart of the village. At 2:00pm on a dry and windy Sunday in July, 1843, the fir was discovered; it was not checked until it had destroyed all the village stores, ninety-five houses, a factory, three churches, two hotels, two banks, the customs house, post office, printing offices, and about seventy-five merchant shops: the center core of a prospering town. It wiped out any first period structures that might have remained in the early settlement area, it destroyed the residential section (probably built with houses like those that still stand around the junction of Cherry and June streets) closest to the village center.

 With resilience typical of the mid-19th century, though, the Fall River merchants and manufacturers quickly rebuilt the burnt district, raising blocks of bricks and stone more substantially and elegant than the pre-fire wooden buildings they replaced. Regrettably, most of the post-fire blocks from the 1840ıs have been lost, some through demolition, the rest in another fire in 1928. Just half of one brick block remains on North Main Street today, the north end of the handsome Mount Hope Block, but in 1845 as a hotel.

 Much of Fall Riverıs characteristic building dates from this decade before mid-century. All of the early mills were along the Quequechan, foundations firm on its granite bed, wheels suspended over the falling water. With the mills and the river forming a strong east-west spine, Fall River was not yet the elongated city of today, but a highly centralized one- the Main street business section hugged the mill core closely, the residential districts fanned the northeast and southeast from the old ³four corners².

 This early pattern is still visible in places today: some of its substantial Greek Revival houses still stand in the lower section of the Highlands, primarily on Rock and High Streets to Walnut Street. Then south of the Quequechan stands Corky Row, its predominant character created today by the multi-family houses of the second half of the 19th century, but retaining a good many smaller houses of late federal and Greek revival style from the 1830ıs and 40ıs. Only the least trace remains, though, of a third neighborhood that rivaled the Highlands for desirable house sites during the 1840ıs were subsequently moved up to the Highlands, one to make way for a school, one for a railroad right-of-way. Later building in that area located close to the cityıs transportation center and to some of its most important industries, was more modest: mostly tenement houses shouldering one another closely to economize space on their lots.

 By 1850 Fall River was an established industrial center along with Lowell, Lawrence and Springfield. It had grown in a few decades from a tiny hamlet showing little promise for development into a major center, and its future growth was assured. No more land was available for new mills on the falls of the Quequechan, and the expansion that followed changed the contours of the place.

    Late in January, 1854, a town meeting was held in Fall River ³to see what action, if any, the town will take in relation to obtaining a city charter². The step was taken later the same year. New mills started up along the Quequechan, away from the first-developed falls. The houses of owners and officers steadily climbed the hill while the tenements and cottages of workers filled block after block in Corky Row, in the district below Bedford Street, around Ferry Street and Broadway, and in the Durfee Street district down near the river. By the 1850ıs, Fall Riverıs populace was distinctly heterogeneous, with the labor force largely drawn from English and Irish with a few French Canadian immigrants, all of whom preferred to dwell in communities of their own.

 Civil War

Despite the disruption of steady cotton supply, the Civil War advanced Fall River. Cotton had been purchased in unusual abundance prior to 1861, enabling the mills to run a pace for some time. And although the Southıs curtailed purchases of rough cotton goods depressed the production in other New England mill towns, Fall Riverıs print clothes were less affected. Not only did the city come through the war years without devastation, but some new mills had actually started up. The Union Mills opened a new factory during the period; and the Granite Mill, organized in 1863, began operation in 1865. The next two years brought anticipated post-war demand, and an unprecedented optimism rose with the productivity of the mills.

 The Era of New Mills

 Late in 1870 a two-year period of high prices and increased demand for print cloths brought Fall Riverıs manufacturers to a new level of optimism that resulted in a virtual explosion in growth. During the two years that ended in early spring of 1872, 15 new corporations were formed and 20 new mills built.

 Real estate values skyrocketed as the new corporations sought great, level parcels for mills and mill related housing. No longer did the mills need to be sited on flowing water. Now that steam was in use, ponds or even wells could satisfy the demands of industry. Thus the mills of the 1870ıs built on previously non-industrial sites, altered the shape of Fall River, giving it the basic structure within which it has developed to the present. The ³era of new mills² exploited several new sites, laying the foundations of three major new residential areas now very tightly built: Mechanicsville, Globe Village and the Flint.

 So much of the present-day physical character of Fall River dates from the decade of the 1870ıs that some of its essential elements deserve mention. First is the new, elongated shape of the city itself, thin and linear at the north end where the hamlet of Steep Brook brackets North Main Street; widening at the south end where Fall River joins Tiverton at the nether shore of Cook Pond. From the 1870ıs through the rest of the factory-building years the new mills multiplied near the old ones, north of the bank of the Taunton, along the Quequechan River, on the Mount Hope Bay, on Cook Pond and its outlet stream. From the early days of industrial development into the 20th century, the cityıs wealthy families built houses on the upper part of the Highlands, Italianate villas and Mansard-roofed mansions crowding even closer on blocks perhaps dominated by a single house with a tall, columned portico in the 1850ıs. High Victorian Gothic and big, turreted Queen Ann houses filled out the pattern, spilling the elegant Highland District out to Prospect Street with venturesome examples as far north as President Avenue. Blocks and blocks of tenement houses, handsome in their large scale, tight groupings, and repeated detail filled acres in and near Mechanicville in the northwest part of town, Flint Village in the east, and Globe Village south of Kennedy park. Smaller housing districts clustered in other areas too. There was a distinct neighborhood, too, in the American Linen Company Area around William and Bay Streets, where the factory built some tenement blocks for workersı housing.

 It is tempting, if not completely valid, to reduce Fall Riverıs urban development into a simple formula based primarily on the mills: the mills, sited to meet industrial demands, were the firmed structure on which the rest of the city plan depended. Workers, in self-owned or rented tenements, lived within walking distance of the mills in neighborhoods whose blocks of space were ever more economically filled with houses. Manufacturersı families dwelt in spacious splendor in the Highlands. Banks, insurance companies, and hotels were concentrated on North Main Street while commercial enterprises tended to locate on South Main Street. Wharves and coal yards and harbour traffic crowded the waterfront from Central Street up to Bowenville. Cemeteries (except for the ancient North Burial Ground and Oak Grove laid out in 1855) were on the fringes of town.

By 1875, the blueprint for development was complete. Later population growth and industrial expansion increased the size of the city, but new buildings essentially continued the pattern that had emerged by the 1870ıs.

     At the beginning of the 1880ıs, Fall River and its recent rival New Bedford were the leading textile-producing centers in the United States; but almost unregarded by their manufacturers, the post-bellum South had entered the field. The early part of the decade saw a major ethnic group expand Fall Riverıs work force: the Portuguese immigrants from the Azorean Islands.

 The 1890ıs saw the rise of a number of technological advances in cotton spinning and weaving, which Fall River accepted reluctantly. By the end of the decade and the century, the rivalry of the South, especially the mills of South Carolina, could no longer be ignored. The total value of southern production exceeded New Englandıs for certain coarser types of goods, and the South was beginning to show proficiency in the manufacture of print cloths, Fall Riverıs primary product and the basis of the cityıs prosperity.

 The city greeted the turn of the century sobered. The Southıs competition was admitted: after all, the upstart factories had the advantage of lower labor costs due to lower wage rates, easier labor laws, less unionization, and the most of the new southern mills were designed to use the most modern spinning and weaving machinery.

 In 1910 Fall River entered a last-ditch attempt to recapture its supremacy in the cotton textile field. Eight great new mills were built; factory after factory began to install automatic looms. Yielding to southern competition in print cloth production, Fall River manufacturers began to diversify their products.

 Fortunately for Fall River, World War I brought a temporary prosperity, validating the new expansion and creating a heavy demand for textiles. By 1920 the city, with more than 100 mills and a population at an all-time high around 130,000, was the largest concentrated area of textile manufacture in the world: it was a gargantuan industrial center too big to sustain itself.

 The last-ditch optimism of the 1910ıs produced more mill-related housing than ever before, most of it the characteristic three-storied, multi-balconied apartment houses known as triple-deckers. In every residential neighborhood these handsome, much maligned houses went up to provide enlightened, comfortable quarters for the workers who poured into the city for jobs in fact, Fall River is now noted for one of the countryıs richest concentrations of this particular architectural form, whose examples are believed to constitute a distinct Fall River type. Unfortunately for the triple-deckers, as for their occupants, the optimism that produced them was short-lived, and within a few years they had become the depression-era homes of thousands of disillusioned, unemployed people.

 Fall Riverıs collapse began late in 1920, when print cloth prices declined sharply after the wartime inflation, In 1924 mills began to close, plunging the city into a 15 year decline during which 75 percent of its textile capacity was lost. Bankruptcy humiliated the city in 1927, forcing it under the control of the State Board of Finance for ten years. Two disastrous fires, one in 1916 and one in 1928 swept away much of the 19th century business district. Mill closings marked the downward trend until a kind of stabilization began near the middle of the 1930ıs.

 By 1940 new industry was stirring inside some of the vacated mill complexes, and a variety of businesses were drawn to Fall River because of its convenient location between New York and Boston.

 Fall River today, is showing a new pride in itself: people are beginning to value the century-old roots of the place and its appearances, and this proud new attitude comes not a moment too soon.

Fall River has not lost much of the city pattern, nor many of the structures that give the place its special character and distinction. It still boasts a length of the central spine of granite mills standing noble on the Quequechan, and other mills remain in the outlying industrial communities. the Highlands still slopes westward to the Taunton, its streets a catalogue of Greek revival, Italianate, Second Empire, and the Late Victorian architecture styles. In Corky Row still stands hundreds of foursquare houses with pitched and mansard roofs, cornice brackets, and spindle trimmed porches. Mechanicville can still be distinguished by its tall tenement houses cleverly placed to maximize their building lots - the great brick bulk of the north end factories visible from main streets. Globe Village is still distinct; and some row houses once belonging to American Linen but long private ownership stand on Broadway near Ferry Street. Flint Village (still ³The Flint² to knowing residents) retains a special character enhanced by its hilltop church and narrow streets. An unusual mix of Victorian Mansions, plain and elegant tenements, and neat cottages characterizes a small-wedged shape area west of North Main Street around Durfee Street-a sweeping view of the bay and river makes this an appealing Neighborhood. Two tiny waterfronts streets of the old wharf-related Bowenville remain; there is mill housing in the vicinity of Ruggles Park, on Robeson Street and nearby on Tremont and Orange Streets. The catalogue of neighborhoods that survive with their historic character intact could go on, for nearly every part of Fall River has kept something of the past. The survival of the cutyıs ³personality² to the extent that Fall Riverıs has survived, is rare, valuable - and fragile.

 Not many years ago, a system of superhighways ³improved² traffic circulation around Fall River so dramatically that it is now possible to pass through the center of town without knowing the place is there. The new roadways squeeze the city painfully on east and west, and bisect it in the middle with a barrier that ironically follows the bed of the Quequechan. Too much of Fall River was sacrificed to the highway: several mills, part of Mechanicville, and worst of all, easy access to the waterfront at some of its most tempting points.

 As this survey began the Hotel Mellon on North Main Street disappeared into its own cellar hole under the wreckerıs ball. And in 1962 the 1845 town hall and market - building that was esteemed enough to merit at least two renovations to keep it up to date-was torn down. An extraordinarily handsome Romanesque Revival-style post office, one of the cityıs truly outstanding buildings, was traded in for the depression-era one now in use. A railroad station of similar beauty is today marked only by a weedy vacant lot .

 Even now a turn-of-the-century overlook structure in Kennedy Park, its prototype specified in the original 1870ıs Vaux & Olmsted plans, stands badly damaged by fire. Its probable collapse or demolition will be a loss indeed. Buildings like the ones we lose today are an irreplaceable resource. Once theyıre gone we will never get them back. Once theyıre forgotten, a little of the cityıs heritage is gone, too, and the city becomes a bit less distinct and valuable a place.