History and Culture
10,000 Years or More of Continuous Native American Habitation at Turners Falls
The largest of the five villages 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 145 armed civilians and professional 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 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, Narragansett, Nipmuc and other native populations were defeated, 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 incursion at the Gill shore, 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 Holyoke, Lawrence, 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 -constructed in segments from 1866-1916- 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 grid pattern with north-south streets alphabetically designated and east-west streets numerically designated 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 Bowie Knife which achieved notoriety on the American frontier, the Cutlery was built with the potential to employ 1,200. (At its height it employed 600) 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 Center, Millers Falls and Lake Pleasant. 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 - 1916) - 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, from their source near the Canadian border, drinking and brawling at one of the many taverns and bars.
Today, many outstanding examples of the late 19th century architecture survive in the Turners Falls Historic District which is listed on the National Historic Register of Places. The Town of Montague has also made a concerted effort to preserve the village’s architectural heritage as part of its on-going revitalization effort. Prime examples of this preservation focus include the adaptive reuse of the Colle Opera House building and restoration of the Cutlery Block and the Crocker Building, the last of which was nearly destroyed by fire in 1997. These recent projects build upon earlier successful restoration efforts including the Shea Theater and Discovery Center buildings. These efforts, combined with nearly forty years of stagnation, have preserved Turners Falls and contribute to the cohesive character and architectural integrity of this late nineteenth century New England industrial village.
The Shea Theater is a small, community theater which builds upon the tradition of the earlier Colle Opera House and former Shea. Owned by the Town of Montague and operated by a private-non profit group, the Shea provides a venue for year-round theater, featuring Shakespearian and modern plays, Broadway musicals, and musical performances by a variety of popular and traditional groups. Performances at the Shea Theater, which occur on most weekends, feature both local performing artists, from the Franklin County area, as well as regional and national talent. Those visitors to Turners Falls who are interested in learning more about the village’s history are encouraged to take the Historic Walking Tour (see attached link).
Today, the village of Turners Falls is much more than just a collection of beautiful buildings. It is a vibrant place, where there is much to see and much to do. In fact, the Boston Globe travel piece recently described Turners Falls as “historic, but not traditional; (where) fossils and a funky art scene share the spotlight in the tiny village of Turners Falls.” Turners Falls has always been considered attractive to artists, and eccentric types, even before it emerged from its decades-long period of decline and decay (1950-1980). The villages’ industrial character, architectural integrity and its setting along one of the most scenic stretches of the Connecticut River have combined to create a visual quality that is appealing to artists (photographers, sculptors, and painters) who have in many cases relocated to the area from Boston and New York City.
Once described as a beautiful place with great potential, a “diamond in the rough”, and because of the apparent lack of activity on main street, a “Hollywood set between takes”, Turners Falls has been transformed into a popular destination for people seeking fun and entertainment, culture and recreation. With the advent of the RiverCulture Program (see link) in 2005, Turners Falls now offers a full calendar of activities and events for people of all ages and interests. Some of the regularly scheduled events include the Crab Apple Festival – a month-long festival that takes place in May celebrating Turners Falls in the Spring; the Turners Falls Block Party and Fashion Show a downtown street festival featuring live music, art booths, food and a fashion show from local designers, that is always the 2nd Saturday in August; and Suzie’s Third Street Laundry’s Lost + Found Fashion Show – a happening in December, the Laundromat on Third Street is transformed into a catwalk featuring clothing designed from items left behind in the laundry machines over the past year plus live music, art show and drinks to mention but a few of the many events organized and promoted by the RiverCulture Program. Each year RiverCulture joins with its partners to create a whole range of creative programs and events based on original themes. Visitors to Turners Falls can, on any weekend, take in a show at the Shea Theater, visit the latest photography exhibit at the Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography and discover the Great Falls Discovery Center – an environmental center featuring the ecology of the Connecticut River, from its source at the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. The village also offers opportunities for a wide variety of spontaneous experiences including visits to popular eateries including Italian fine dining, Mexican-American, Chinese and American fare. Several local eateries host regular open mic nights where visitors have an opportunity to listen and enjoy, or to share music, voice, slam poetry, or stand-up comedy.
Turners Falls also offers sites of rare natural beauty, and opportunities for both active and passive recreation along the Connecticut River and canal. As visitors approach Turners Falls from Route 2 in Gill, they may view the village from a scenic overlook, located on the south side of the highway in Gill. From this vantage point, the canal and mills, the spires of several churches, and brick buildings dominate the skyline of this late 19th century industrial village. In the foreground, the dam, and during periods of peak flow, a cascading waterfall with rapids below, illustrate the power of the river. The Connecticut River has been designated an American Heritage River, one of only fourteen nationwide and at Turners Falls offers outstanding scenic and recreational attractions, particularly in the Barton Cove area.
Above the Turners Falls dam, the Connecticut River is impounded in a large pool which extends twenty miles to the north and forms the lower reservoir of the Northfield Mountain Pumped Storage facility. This reservoir plays an important role in the generation of hydropower at Northfield Mountain, but is also an outstanding scenic and recreational resource. Above the Turners Falls Dam and falls, the river opens out into a large pond, which includes Barton Cove. The serene beauty of Barton Cover can be appreciated in any season. During the winter months much of the cove freezes over and ice fishermen can be seen out on the river setting their lines. During the late winter, ice jams work their way down the river and over the falls. As Spring arrives, the Cove is often enveloped in a Turner-esque like fog of “river smoke” during the early morning hours, with a silhouette of Barton Cove peninsula visible through the haze.
Besides offering incredible views and terrific photo opportunities, the Connecticut River and Barton Cove are also a major recreational resource. Opportunities exist for fishing (ice fishing in winter months), canoeing, sailing and picnicking along the riverfront, at the Community Riverfront Park in Turners Falls or Barton Cove Recreation Area, located on the Gill side of the River. Both facilities are operated by Northeast Generation, which also provides a portage service for canoeists wishing to circumvent the dam and to enter the Connecticut River below the falls. FirstLight Power Resources/ Northfield Mountain also operates the riverboat, Heritage. Riverboat excursions go between Northfield and the Barton Cove area. A particular treat is a ride on the Quinnehtuk II during the peak fall season, a return excursion which takes passengers from Northfield down the river and back, through the French King Gorge, under the French King Bridge and into Barton Cove, with views of Turners Falls on the nearby horizon. Motor boating is also possible from the State Boat Ramp located on the Gill side of the river. In July, The Franklin County Boat Club and Turners Falls Rod and Gun Club jointly sponsor the Christmas in July event, which features a major fire works display over Barton Cove and a boat judging competition.
Hikers and Bicycle enthusiasts alike will also enjoy a walk or bike ride along the recently completed Turners Falls Bikeway, a three mile stretch of paved bikeway that extends a short distance along the Connecticut River from the Riverfront Park in Turners Falls, then along the power canal, and across the Connecticut River to Deerfield, where it links up with the Franklin County Bikeway. The bikeway is also a popular attraction for walkers, including many bird watching enthusiasts who enjoy the rich diversity of migratory birds that visit the Barton Cove area and the Conte Wildlife Refuge throughout the year. Visiting naturalists will also have the opportunity to observe rare wildlife including families of bald eagles, which have taken residence in Barton Cove and on other island locations along the Connecticut River. The eagles were relocated to Massachusetts from Cape Breton Nova Scotia, as part of a State environmental initiative; and it is now common to view eagles as they fly overhead.