Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

North Adams RISD North Adams 1892

North Adams Arnold Print Work Owl Cooper Hewitt

North Adams Cat


7 responses to “Streets of North Adams

  • anne sterling

    interestingly we recently stayed a night in North Adams and noticed that we could see 9 large church steeples within a very small area of their downtown. I wonder what purpose those churches fill now.

    Anne Sterling

    “Be the Change you wish to see in the World ” Co-Chair, North St. Northfields Neighborhood AssociationFriends of Furlong Park AssociationCo-Chair, HSI 75th Anniversary PartyGHS ’74, Reunion Committee

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    • daseger

      I know–the spires are quite conspicuous at the intersection of Main and Church Streets! Well, one is the Berkshire Art Museum, but it looked to me that the others were still churches.

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  • Katherine Greenough

    Hi Donna,
    I’m shocked about the number of men who died constructing the Hoosac Tunnel —195! That is just a horrible tragedy and I’m amazed that story isn’t more well known. I imagine many of the men who died had fought in the Civil War and survived only to die close to home. Sad story, indeed.

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  • Brian Bixby

    After the southern railroad route from Boston to Albany via Springfield was constructed, hope for a northern railroad to invigorate the economies of towns from Fitchburg to Adams (not then yet split) kept crashing into the problem of getting a railroad through the Berkshires. It took decades to happen, with the Hoosac Tunnel being the last link. And by the time it did, it was too late to change the existing patterns of freight traffic. The northern towns got some boost, but nothing like how the earlier railroad had helped the southern route. That’s a partial explanation for why North Adams’ building spree is late in the 19th century; it’s not even a separate town until a few years after the tunnel was complete, in 1878.

    I’ve never found or visited the west end of the tunnel. But the east end is easily accessible from the River Road in Florida, just north of Hoosac Village. In the summertime, there’s a nice cool breeze that comes out of the tunnel. But don’t go in the tunnel! It’s still used for freight trains.

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    • daseger

      Thank you so much for this history, Brian. I was reading about the tunnel late last night in a source that was really stressing the political rivalry between north and south that you explain so well here, and I fell asleep! So obviously I glossed over it and I’m glad you filled us all in.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for sharing your observations on North Adams, the sad story of the Hoosac Tunnel, and the lovely Victorians still standing in town. I particularly liked the light green one with the forsythia bush to the right. True, most of us on the North Shore are unfamiliar with that interesting part of our state.

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