Greylock Arts

The Division of Adams

As part of Networked Realities: (Re)Connecting the Adamses, we have asked historians Paul W. Marino and Eugene Michalenko to write about the division of North Adams from Adams.

Below are both of their fascinating accounts. We hope you enjoy them.

Please join us on Wednesday, July 23rd 2008 for a lively discussion between these historians at the Bounti Fare Restaurant, 200 Howland Ave. Adams, MA 01220, (413) 743-0193.


Dividing a Town by Paul W. Marino

The communities of Adams and North Adams began as a single township, called East Hoosac. English settlers began coming here in the 1740’s, during the third French and Indian War, though the area was not surveyed until 1749. The surveyors were instructed to lay it out as a square, containing six square miles. Instead, they laid it out as a rectangle, running seven miles from north to south, and five miles from east to west. As more and more people moved in, they settled in a loose system of villages throughout the township, finally incorporating as a town on October 15, 1778. They elected to name their town after the patriot and statesman, Samuel Adams.

From it’s earliest days, Adams had two major centers of population, one in the north, called North Adams, and another in the south, called South Adams. Farmers settled throughout the town, but the two converging branches of the Hoosic River attracted more industry. The town’s first two mills—a grist mill and a saw mill—were located in the village of North Adams, and were soon joined by a nail factory, a flaxseed oil mill, a brick works, and a variety of cottage textile concerns. As the population grew, the mills grew with it to include woolen (and later cotton) textiles, textile machinery, leather production, wagon and saddle makers and iron smelting furnaces.

In 1851, a new industry came to North Adams in the form of the Hoosac Tunnel. Mining was already here, but the tunnel was different. Spearheaded by the Troy & Greenfield Railroad, the tunnel project was meant to provide affordable rail service for towns in the northern part of the state, centers of population and industry that were being ignored or gouged by the Boston & Albany line that already ran through the southern part of Massachusetts. In addition, the tunnel would allow these communities access to the burgeoning markets of the west by way of the Erie Canal.

The “Big Dig” of its day, the tunnel project quickly became a quagmire of technical delays, cost overruns, fool-hardy investments and vast numbers of fatalities. But it also acted as a catalyst to develop new technologies and innovations is drilling, blasting and tunnel engineering. Even more than this, when excavation on the tunnel began, a line was laid from Greenfield to the East Camp (the eastern portal of the tunnel) and another from Troy to North Adams. Later, the B&A put in a north-south spur, connecting Adams to Pittsfield. These two lines gave the Town of Adams access to the western markets throughout the twenty five years of off again, on again excavation it took to complete the tunnel.

Once the tunnel was completed in 1875, the villages of North Adams were put at a crossroad. Nationally known companies like Purina Feeds and Armour Meats built warehouses in its railroad yards; both the T&G and B&A built roundhouses. Industry was booming. The Arnold Print Works was in the process of building the largest textile mill complex in western Massachusetts (now the home of MASS MoCA); shoe companies were proliferating. By the time North Adams incorporated as a city in 1895, it would be internationally famous as a center of shoes and textiles.

Industry was growing in South Adams as well, in textiles and paper manufacturing. In less than ten years, it would be home to one of the nation’s first plastics companies, American Zylonite. In 1878, just a few months shy of the town’s centennial, its leaders got together and decided it was time for the two communities to go their separate ways. It appears to have been an amicable decision, approved by civic leaders and citizenry alike. According to W.F. Spear (author of a History of North Adams, in 1885) “….the two villages had been as twin sisters, sharing their prosperity and adversity alike. But the south part was growing so rapidly that the fathers of the town and, in fact, nearly all the inhabitants of both villages, were unanimous in the belief that the division was a very advisable thing.”

It happened formally on April 16, 1878, the southern town retaining the original name of Adams, and the northern one keeping its long-time moniker, North Adams.


A Town Divided by Eugene Michalenko

The seeds of division were planted in the history of Mother Adams when the town was carved out of the wilderness. When colonial land developers surveyed a rectangle five miles wide and seven miles long, they created two halves of a town that were only briefly joined at the center. The northern half and the southern half had different characteristics and grew in different directions; like two sons in the same family that shared nothing in common other than a last name.

Northern Adams has a different topography than southern Adams which has semi-flat upland fields suitable for farming. Northern Adams had hills suitable for lumber harvesting. Northern Adams had hills and fast rivers and aggressive industrialists who turned them into money. There were more factories in northern Adams than southern Adams and more people. Cotton printing, shoe manufacturing and the railroad made more people richer in northern Adams than in southern Adams.

The pressure of wealth and growth made the Mother Adams the largest town in Massachusetts and forced the electorate to consider becoming a city or dividing into two towns. Both ideas were proposed. If the city plan was enacted, some southern Adams people felt that their village would become a political satellite to northern Adams. Candidates from the south feared that they would never get enough votes and all the good positions in town government would be held by people from the north. South village people pushed for division and north village people didn’t resist their efforts. The process was concluded by an act of the State Legislature that was passed on April 19, 1878, six months short of the 100th Anniversary of the incorporation of the Mother Adams in October 15, 1778. The agreement was that southern Adams kept the name of the Mother Town and the northern half was re-named North Adams and kept all the municipal records.

The division of the two towns created a unique municipal boundary shape—a parallelogram, a rectangle, on the map of the squiggly-bordered towns of Massachusetts. Adams, the southern Adams, is the only town in Massachusetts whose four boundaries still meet at right angles. The east and west borders follow a line that runs along the peaks of the valley walls. In the center of the western wall is the summit of the Mt. Greylock massif, the highest peak in the state. At sunset it casts a shadow over the five mile distance to the eastern valley wall.

The man who spearheaded the campaign to divide was Isaac Collins, a shoemaker who became wealthy in real estate. He built the Second Empire-style Collins Block on Center Street that once housed all four banks operating in South Adams. It was demolished in the Urban Renewal of 1967. He was a Democrat in an ocean of Republican power. Mr. Collins audaciously requested the Annual Town Meeting several times to compensate him for expenses he occurred while lobbying for the division of the towns. He was always refused. The last word was his. In Maple Street Cemetery the following sentance fragment is carved in the granite base of his tall obelisk tombstone:

by his means and labor, succeeded in securing an independent township to Adams, in 1878, by setting off North Adams from Adams

The campaign to divide the Mother Adams does not glimmer in the glorious history of town government. There was rancor, allegations and rebuttals. It’s not an event that was celebrated and is only rarely acknowledged when someone asks the trivia question, “Did you know that Adams and North Adams were once one town?”