Turners Falls History

Anne-Jemas8-450x300

Photo Anne Jemas

10,000 Years or More of Continuous
Native American Habitation at Turners Falls

The largest of the five villages that comprise the Town of Montague, Turners Falls was named after Captain William Turner, who played a key role in the region’s Indian Wars.  In 1676, during the King Phillip War, Captain Turner led a group of about 160 mounted soldiers from Hadley and made a surprise attack on an Indian encampment located near the falls. The attack on a sleeping village of Native Americans on the Gill side of the Great Falls lasted several hours and resulted in the tragic death of many innocent people including many women and children. The area by the falls was traditionally shared by the Pocumtuk Confederacy, the Narragansetts, the Nipmucs, the Wampanoag, and the Wabanaki tribes because of the abundance of salmon and shad available there.

 The Turners Falls massacre is often viewed as a turning point in the King Phillip War.  As the historian Russell Bourne points out, “After the Peskeompskut massacre, allied sachems openly discussed the strategy of King Phillip, the name given to the Native American leader Metacom, and sending his head to the English as a prelude to peace negotiations”.  Within one month of the massacre, the English offensive in the Connecticut Valley ended suddenly.  The end of the King Phillip War came not long afterward.

The King Phillip War (1675-76) marked the beginning of a transition during which a region that had been dominated by Native American culture (fishing, hunting, farming, ceremonial activities and burials) for more than 10,000 years was rapidly transformed into one organized in the form of small New England towns settled by yeoman farmers and enterprising tradesmen.  The Anglo-American settlement of this region is represented by the Old Deerfield Historic District and a number of other early Colonial National Register Districts including Montague Center.

The King Phillip’s War resulted in the virtual extinction of Native American culture in this region, and in the Turners Falls area.  Perhaps as important, it established the pattern of all subsequent relations between Native Americans and our country.  The patterns established during the aftermath of the war ultimately became institutionalized in our national policies, our treaties and our agreements, and in our attitudes and perceptions and prejudices towards Native populations, as the country aggressively pursued its “manifest destiny.”

As the historians Schultz and Tougias (1999) point out in their book, King Phillip’s War:

"Among the handful of seminal events that shaped our mind and continent, King Phillip’s War is perhaps the least studied and most forgotten.  In essence, the war cleared Southern New England’s Native population from the land, and with it a way of life that evolved over a millennium.  The Wampanoag, Narrangansett, Nipmuc and other native populations were slaughtered, sold into slavery, or placed in widely scattered communities throughout New England after the war.  In its aftermath, the English established themselves as the dominant peoples – allowing for the uninterrupted growth of England’s northern colonies right up to the American Revolution.”

In recognition of the tragic nature of the Turners Falls massacre, the Board of Selectmen and Town of Montague, as part of its 250th anniversary, joined with representatives of various Native American tribes on May 19, 2004 in a Reconciliation Day ceremony.

Development of a Planned Industrial Community at Turners Falls

The village of Turners Falls was founded in 1868 as a planned industrial community according to the plan of Alvah Crocker, a prominent man from Fitchburg who envisioned in the immense power of the waterfalls the means of establishing a great city.  Crocker was influenced by other, earlier and successful experiments in Lowell and elsewhere.  Crocker’s vision was to attract industry to the town by offering cheap hydropower that was made by the harnessing of the Connecticut River, through the construction of a dam and canal.  His development concept was to sell mill sites along the power canal to those companies and to sell individual building lots to mill workers who would come to work in the mills.  The rest of the village was laid out in a horizontal grid pattern with cross streets numerically.  Avenue A, the main commercial district was designed as a grand 100 foot tree lined avenue.

Although Turners Falls never quite experienced the scale of development initially envisioned by Crocker, the village did grow significantly, and prospered well into the twentieth century.  The importance of hydropower to this development was apparent in one industrial promotion, prepared by the Turners Falls Board of Trade in 1912, which referred to Turners Falls as the “Home of the White Coal”.  During the period 1868 – 1897, several mills were attracted to the cheap power available at Turners Falls.  The most notable among them was the John Russell Cutlery Company (1868), then the largest cutlery company in America.  Best known for the production of the Jim Bowie Knife which achieved notoriety on the American frontier, the Cutlery employed 1,200 people at its height.  Other industries that figured prominently in the early development of Turners Falls were the Montague Paper Company (1871), Keith Paper Company (1871), Turners Falls Paper Company (1897), Marshall Paper Company (1895), the Turners Falls Cotton Mill (1874) and Turners Falls Power Company (1885), the forerunner of Western Massachusetts Electric Company.  This development was fueled by a flood of immigrants, primarily Irish, French Canadian, Polish and German.

The late 19th century also saw growth and change in the downtown area, as commercial enterprises, as well as entertainment and social institutions developed.  Commercial buildings were erected by individual businessmen during the 1870’s and 1880’s, and consisted largely of three and four story brick buildings with storefront entrances at grade and professional offices and tradesmen housed on the upper floors.  Downtown Turners Falls was a vibrant place at the turn of the century.  From 1895 – 1934 an Electric Trolley ran up Avenue A on its route from Greenfield to Montague and Millers Falls.  The Grand Trunk Hotel was among the most prominent buildings on the village’s main street.  During the height of Montague’s “Big Dig” – the construction of an expanded dam and power canal (1903 - 1914) - the village supported four hotels and direct rail service from New York City.  There were also taverns, as well as the Colle Opera House, which was the chief entertainment center of the village.  The Opera House was built in 1874 and served as a vaudeville theater seating 1,000 people.  At the end point of log drives in the late 19th and early 20th century, Turners Falls also earned notoriety as a frontier town, where lumbermen celebrated the end of long log drives.