Van Sickler’s Mill, Pittsfield, Mass

Looking upstream on the east branch of the Housatonic River, from the Dawes Street bridge, around 1906. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

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The scene in 2016:

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Pittsfield is located at the confluence of the east and west branches of the Housatonic River, and for several centuries these two waterways have helped develop industries in the city. The first mill dam in Pittsfield was built on the east branch, a little further upstream of here near the present Elm Street bridge. It was in existence by 1778, when Ebenezer White leased it and used it to operate a sawmill. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, though, riverfront property would be in high demand for large-scale industrial uses.

In 1832, a group of businessmen, including Samuel McKay and Curtis Fenn, purchased the dam and the property downstream of it. That same year, the building in the first photo was completed, and was used as a cotton mill. It went through several ownership changes over the years, starting in 1839, when it was purchased by Thomas F. Plunkett. He removed the old dam and built one closer to the factory, as seen in the first photo. Along with this, he expanded the building and increased the workforce to 100 employees, enabling the mill to produce around 1.5 million yards each year.

A year later, in 1840, Martin Van Sickler became an overseer in the mill, and steadily worked his way into ownership. He purchased a quarter interest in the company in 1849, and after several ownership changes his percent of the company increased until 1867, when he became the sole owner. However, by the late 1800s Pittsfield’s textile industry was already in decline. The cotton mill closed in 1883, and Van Sickler found himself $70,000 in debt. He sold the building, which was subsequently used for other industrial purposes, and Van Sickler died eight years later, penniless and homeless.

Although no longer a cotton mill, the old building was still in use when the first photo was taken. In 1930, while being used by Dale Brothers Laundry, it was gutted by a fire, nearly a century after it first opened. Today, a corrugated sheet metal building stands on the site. The old 1845 dam is also gone. It was removed in 1966 to improve drainage and to avoid sludge buildup, and the Housatonic River now flows freely through this scene, with hardly a trace remaining of the mill that once stood here.

Willys-Overland Block, Springfield, Mass

The Willys-Overland Block at the corner of Chestnut and Winter Streets in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2016:

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As mentioned in the previous post, Chestnut Street was once home to some of Springfield’s wealthiest residents. However, by the early 1900s the city’s commercial center was growing east from Main Street, and this area around the corners of Chestnut, Bridge, and Pearl Streets became the center of the city’s automotive business. Springfield played a pioneering role in early automobile manufacturing, starting with Charles and Frank Duryea. In the 1890s, they developed the country’s first gasoline-powered car here in Springfield, just a few blocks away on Taylor Street. In the years that followed, other automobile companies came to the city, drawn by its manufacturing tradition and large pool of skilled workers.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, Springfield was home to many car manufacturers. The Knox Automobile Company was headquartered in the city, and other companies had branches, including Rolls-Royce and Willys-Overland. Unlike Rolls-Royce, the Toledo-based Willys-Overland no longer exists, but its legacy in Springfield lives on in this building, which they built in 1916. The first floor housed their showroom, and the rest of the building had a service station along with a thousand-car garage.

The company remained here for just five years, but the building continued to be used for automotive-related purposes. In the first photo, the upper floors were the Kimball Garage, serving the Hotel Kimball, which is located diagonally across Chestnut Street from here. However, it has since been neglected for many years. It was damaged in a November 2012 natural gas explosion that leveled an adjacent building and shattered most of the windows in the Willys-Overland Block. Although listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the building’s future is uncertain, and in 2015 the City Council established it as a one-building historic district, in an effort to protect it from possible demolition.

130 Union Street, Springfield, Mass

The building at 130 Union Street, just east of Main Street in Springfield, around 1938-1939. Image courtesy of the Springfield Preservation Trust.

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The building in 2015:

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This two-story brick building was built around 1906-1910, on the site of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Bethesda Church, which had been built here in 1897. Although the church building was short-lived, I suspect that part of the church walls may have been incorporated into this building, because part of the first floor walls are made of stone, the same material as the church. This is also consistent with the church’s footprint as it appeared in the 1899 city atlas, although I do not have any photos of the church to confirm my theory.

In any case, when the first photo was taken the building had a sign that read “Bay State Mattress Company,” which may have occupied the upper floor, because the ground floor appears to have been used as a repair garage. There is a car visible inside the building, with signs on the exterior for “Brake Service & Greasing” and for Exide batteries. Later on, this building was home to Radding Signs, as the vertical neon sign on the left still indicates. Most recently, the building was owned by the Anti-Displacement Project, but it was damaged in the 2011 tornado and now appears to be vacant.

Willow Street, Springfield, Mass

Looking north on Willow Street in Springfield, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

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Willow Street in 2015:

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When the first photo was taken, the building on the right was the headquarters of the Milton Bradley Company, which had been founded in Springfield in 1860 as a lithograph company. Its owner, Milton Bradley, soon switched to board games, beginning with The Checkered Game of Life in 1860. By around 1880-1881, the company built this factory on Willow Street, as seen on the right side of the photo. This is the oldest part of the facility, which was soon expanded as demand increased. By the early 1900s, the company owned the entire block between Park, Willow, and Cross Streets, with its buildings almost completely surrounding a central courtyard.

Aside from Milton Bradley, this section of downtown Springfield was once home to several other factories. On the other side of Cross Street from the Milton Bradley factory was Smith & Wesson, whose factory also occupied an entire block. None of the buildings are visible in the first photo, but the brick and concrete building just beyond the Milton Bradley building was built by Smith & Wesson in the early 1900s.

Today, all of the houses on the left side of the photo are gone, and the lots are now used for parking. Smith & Wesson moved its factory to a different location in Springfield in the mid-1900s, and around the same time Milton Bradley moved to nearby East Longmeadow. Most of the Smith & Wesson buildings are gone now, except for the one in the distance of the 2015 scene. The Milton Bradley buildings are still standing, though, and along with the Smith & Wesson building they have since been converted into apartments.

Whip Factories on Elm Street, Westfield, Mass

Looking north on Elm Street in Westfield, toward the intersection of Franklin Street, around 1890-1895. Image courtesy of the Westfield Athenaeum.

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Elm Street in 2015:

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As mentioned in a previous post, Westfield was once the world’s leading producer in whips. When the first photo was taken, there were some 37 whip factories in the city, and by the start of the 20th century they combined to produce 99% of the world’s supply of whips. Two of these companies were photographed here; in the foreground to the right was the New England Whip Company, and just beyond it, in the much larger building with the tower, was Cargill, Cook & Co. Beyond these two factories were several other brick buildings, all of which were probably built around the 1870s or 1880s, just as Westfield’s whip industry was reaching its peak.

The whip industry was a boon to the entire city, but the lack of diversity in Westfield’s economy was felt as the whip factories started closing in the early 1900s. Automobiles had largely replaced horse-drawn carriages, which meant little demand for the city’s whips. Some of the historic whip factory buildings were later repurposed and are still standing in Westfield, but the ones in the first photo have since been demolished, and there is now a gas station on the site. The Swift Building, a three story brick building barely visible at the far end of the row of buildings in the first photo, is the only one left from the 1890s view. Otherwise, the only surviving structure from the first photo is the railroad trestle in the distance. There have not been any trains along this track for many years, but the right-of-way is in the process of being converted into a rail trail.

Armory at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

The ruins of the Harpers Ferry Armory, photographed in October 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Civil War Collection.

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The scene in 2015:

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Prior to the Civil War, Harpers Ferry was the location of one of the country’s two federal armories, with the other being in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Both sites were chosen by George Washington, and they had similar advantages.  Harpers Ferry and Springfield are both located on major rivers at the intersection of major transportation routes, but they are also located above the head of navigation on their respective rivers, preventing a naval attack from a foreign enemy.

In the first half of the 19th century, these two armories developed new ways to manufacture firearms, using machinery that mass-produced identical, interchangeable parts and that could be operated by unskilled workers.  By the start of the Civil War, there were over 15,000 guns stored here, which helped entice John Brown to lead a raiding party in 1859.  His goal was to start a slave rebellion by taking the arsenal and distributing the weapons to area slaves, and although the plan failed, it helped to spark the Civil War only a year and a half later.

By the time the first photo had been taken in October 1862, Harpers Ferry had already changed hands a number of times in the Civil War, and armies on both sides had steadily destroyed the buildings in order to prevent the other side from making use of them.  The ruins seen here are from the same building that can be seen on the right hand side of the 1861 photo in this post.

Around the time that the first photo was taken, the ruins had several notable visitors, including Abraham Lincoln, who toured the armory site in October, perhaps on the same day that the photo was taken.  Author Nathaniel Hawthorne also visited Harpers Ferry earlier in 1862, and wrote the following description in his essay “Chiefly About War Matters”:

Immediately on the shore of the Potomac, and extending back towards the town, lay the dismal ruins of the United States arsenal and armory, consisting of piles of broken bricks and a waste of shapeless demolition, amid which we saw gun-barrels in heaps of hundreds together. They were the relics of conflagration, bent with the heat of fire, and rusted with the wintry rain to which they had since been exposed. The brightest sunshine could not have made the scene cheerful, nor have taken away from the gloom from the dilapidated town; for, besides the natural shabbiness, and decayed, unthrifty look of a Virginian village, it has an inexpressible forlorness resulting from the devastations of war and its occupation by both armies alternately.

The town became part of West Virginia in 1863, and things were relatively stable here until the end of the war.  However, at that point the damage had been done.  The pre-war economy of Harpers Ferry had relied almost exclusively on the armory, but it was never rebuilt following the war.  The land was sold, and the Baltimore & Ohio built railroad tracks through part of the land, including the present-day railroad station, which was completed in 1889. Today, this area is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, and although there are no buildings still standing here from the armory, the interpretive signs help to give visitors an idea of what was once here.