Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Rise and Demise of the Connecticut River Valley's Industrial Economy

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Rise and Demise of the Connecticut River Valley's Industrial Economy

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction: In this illuminating photo essay, Dr. Robert Forrant traces the rise and fall of the Connecticut River Valley's precision machine tool and industrial economy. Hundreds of precision machine and metalworking factories once populated the 200-mile industrial corridor between Bridgeport, Connecticut, and central Vermont. The industrial revolution took off, and innovation thrived, in this area. Forrant writes that "[i]t would not be hyperbole to call the collection of towns and cities along . . . [the Connecticut River] the Silicon Valley of its day, one of the most advanced manufacturing regions in the world at that time. "

Both the physical traces and personal memories of this historical landscape are slowly disappearing. The Spring-field Armory National Historic Site (part of the National Park Service) and the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont (115 miles north of Springfield) are two important sites that help preserve the area's rich industrial history. Many smaller museums also dot the region's landscape, such as the Museum of Our Industrial Heritage in Greenfield. Its innovative website offers videos and historical records relating to many Franklin County companies. Local historical societies also play a critical role in preserving the records, archives, and artifacts of the region 's economic, technological, and industrial histories}

The genius of this new country is necessarily mechanical. Our greatest thinkers are not in the library, not the capitol, but in the machine shop. . . . Our education is no genial culture of letters, but simply learning the use of tools. - Putnam's Magazine, 1854

For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Connecticut River Valley's machine tool and metalworking firms constituted a highly innovative region, much akin to today's Silicon Valley. In 1777, patriot colonists had established "The Arsenal at Springfield." The soon-to-be federal armory became one of the nation's primary centers for the manufacture of U.S. military firearms until its closing in 1968. By the 1850s, the federal gunmaker had diffused its discoveries about mechanized production. In 1852 this analysis appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. "[At the Springfield Armory] we have the very singular and extraordinary operation going on, of manufacturing with the greatest care, and with the highest possible degree of scientific and mechanical skill, a vast system of machinery." In almost religious terms, one British visitor described the Armory as "beautifully situated on an eminence overlooking the town."2

The machine tool industry consisted of firms, large and small, that made the basic machinery used in manufacturing production. Cars, bicycles, sewing machines, motorcycles, toys and games, and paper all needed to be produced on machines. As a general rule, the goods producer did not build its own production machinery. Companion firms, like Greenfield Tap & Die, made the cutting tools, reamers, drills, and taps that the machinery builders included with their finished machines. The valley did so well in the manufacture of machines, tooling, and finished goods because there existed a symbiotic relationship between the two. When things were going well there was a virtuous circle in the valley; when things went badly, a vicious cycle took over.

Integral to the river valley's industrial success were two historical continuities: the region's capacity to design and build machine tools and related accessories; and the numbers of skilled machinists and apprentices attracted to it. Firms cultivated and recruited workers through their sponsorship of apprentices and vocational-technical education. According to historian David Meyer, early nineteenth-century machinists set the stage for "the extraordinary machinery and machine tools of the late nineteenth century, when the United States moved to the forefront in making much of this equipment." 3 Meyer explains that:

The active engagement of mechanics in advancing the sophistication of machine tools and in incorporating them into firearms manufacturing caused firearms and machine tool networks that concentrated in or near the Connecticut and Blackstone valleys as early as the 1820s. …

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