Dams, Industry and Power in Northampton 1831-1895 by Kassia Rudd

editor’s note: Kassia Rudd (Smith ’11), along with her special studies advisor Reid Bertone-Johnson (Landscape Studies and CEEDS — Smith Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, & Sustainability),  created a GIS (geographic information system) that will serve as the framework for our narrative of the history of the Mill River Watershed.  By identifying the location and type of industry, along with its source of power, Kassia was able to create a series of maps that tell an essential part of the story of Northampton’s industrial history.


Since the 1650s, the Mill River and its tributaries have provided industry with a cheap and accessible power source. Gristmills, sawmills, and fulling mills appeared first, followed by the paper, wool, and cotton industries, which clustered around natural falls along the Mill River, ideal sites for the erection of power-harnessing dams.

Industrial growth has the potential to alter a landscape beyond the immediate impacts of flow obstruction and course diversion. Population growth is one such example, resulting in an increase in the residential, transportation and agricultural needs of the affected community. The purpose of this project was to map industrialization of the Mill River Watershed, and to collect information into a GIS database that could then be used to assess the impact of local industry on long-term landscape change. Due to map availability, this project focused on Northampton.

Industrial Development of the Mill River Watershed: A Short History

Prior to gaining independence from Britain, industry in New England was mostly limited to grist, saw, and fulling mills. The years following the Revolution were characterized by a shift from the production of raw materials to the manufacturing of finished goods. Industrial development along the Mill River and its tributaries increased in intensity post-1815. The first manufacturing companies established along the Mill River were initially locally owned and run, however, near the latter end of the 19th century, external companies began to open branches in Northampton, such as the internationally successful Belding Bros. Silk Co.


Until the 1840s, industrial expansion along the Mill River was limited due to inadequate transportation. The Connecticut River was historically a poor option for shipping, due to the presence of high falls several miles down river from Northampton (South Hadley Falls). As a result, all cargo shipped to and from Northampton via boat had to be transported overland to and from the falls. In 1794, a canal measuring 2.5 miles in length was constructed, circumventing the South Hadley Falls. This enabled the transport of goods from Northampton to Hartford via boat.

The 1820s brought increased demand for riverine transport, resulting in the construction of a new canal connecting Northampton to New Haven. Although local merchants and manufacturers invested heavily in the project, the canal never proved profitable. Mill River industries only obtained consistently reliable access to a variety of external markets in 1845, when the Connecticut Railroad came to Northampton.


The latter half of the 19th century witnessed a slow shift from waterpower to steam, which was possibly accelerated by damage to facilities caused by the 1874 flood. In 1875 the region obtained 43% of its total horsepower from steam engines. By 1895, that number had risen to 59%. Steam and water as power sources were both replaced circa 1900 by the electrical engine.


200 years of historic maps (1700-1903) were geo-referenced in ArcGIS. Geo-referencing was conducted by comparing historic maps with a base map constructed from local road and hydrology data published by the Massachusetts Office of Geographic Information (MassGIS). It was assumed that the main intersections in towns along the Mill River had remained in the same general location throughout the region’s post-colonial history.

Because the historic maps varied greatly both in accuracy and in detail, it was necessary to compare maps with local industrial histories. Archival sources provided detailed information regarding mill and factory locations, names, changes in ownership, number of employees, product, and power source.

Map Details

Figures 3-6 chart industrial growth at three sites on the Mill River: the Nonotuck Mill site, Paper Mill Village, and the Upper Mill dam. Figures 4-10 chart changes in power source over time. The basemap constructed using MassGIS data is the source for all road, street and water layers included on these maps.


You will find the final project as an Adobe .pdf file: Dams, Industry and Power in Northampton 1831-1895 by Kassia Rudd .

Adobe files for the separate project maps can be found here:

Figure 1: The Mill River Watershed; Figure 2: Dams of the Mill Rive; Figure 3: 1831 Industries; Figure 4: 1873 Industries; Figure 5: 1884 Industries; Figure 6: 1895 Industries Figure 7: 1831 Energy Sources; Figure 8: 1873 Energy Sources; Figure 9: 1884 Energy Sources; Figure 10: 1895 Energy Sources

Detailed descriptions of map contents can be found here:

Industries of the Mill River

Figure Captions


I’d like to thank Reid Bertone-Johnson and John Sinton for their guidance and support, as well as Barbara Polowy and Elise Bernier-Feeley for their help finding appropriate map and archival resources.


Dean, Charles J. The Mills of Mill River. 1936. Typescript in Forbes HE844N+D34.

Hannay, Agnes. A Chronicle of Industry on the Mill River. Northampton, Ma: Smith College, 1936.