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Holyoke Water Power Company
The roots of Holyoke Water Power Company, like those of WMECO, go back to 1792 and the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on the Connecticut River. HWP itself was incorporated on January 31, 1859 by a charter from the Massachusetts Legislature. The birth of this early American business venture was unique and complicated.

The Beginning — Navigation
The South Hadley Canal was the first navigation canal constructed in the United States of America. It opened for business in 1794, enabling traffic on the Connecticut River to move without interruption, bypassing the rapids at South Hadley. Boat cargoes no longer had to be transferred to wagons to be transported around the rapids of the river.

This canal was not only the first built in this country, but it used a unique method of transporting the loaded boats from the river below the rapids up to the navigation canal. It was an outstanding engineering accomplishment based upon the inclined plane. It was a structure built of solid stone, 30 feet wide and 275 feet long, covered with strong wood planks, and having a slope of 13.5 degrees.

A specially-designed car with three pairs of wheels, capable of carrying a loaded flatboat, was lowered into the river at the bottom of the incline. A boat was then floated onto the car which was hauled up the inclined plane to the navigation canal. It then entered the canal and then moved on upstream.

The power to lift the loaded car was supplied by two overshot waterwheels 16 feet in diameter, one on each side of the inclined plane. The wheels turned a shaft which by means of chains was connected to the car. These two waterwheels must have been the first on the Connecticut River which were devoted to a public service — in this case, transportation. The corporate seal of the Proprietors carried the words "SIC TRANSIT — Public & Private Good."

Overshot water wheel
Overshot water wheel
The first boat went through the canal in April 1795. The inclined plane continued in use until 1805, when it was necessary to deepen the canal. At that time it was replaced by a series of locks. During its ten years of operation, the inclined plane attracted many spectators. A local historian wrote: "It was the lion of this section and was the first attraction that drew crowds of spectators." This inclined plane was the forerunner of others in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It is believed that an inclined plane was first used in England in 1789.

The first steamboat to use the river was the Barnet, which left Hartford, Connecticut, on November 28, 1826. On board was Alfred Smith, South Hadley native, Hartford lawyer, and president of the Connecticut River Company, which had financed the boat. The boat passed through the canal on December 1 and several days later reached Bellows Falls, Vermont, where it was met with much celebration. Steamboats used the South Hadley Canal frequently in the 1830s carrying passengers and freight from Hartford to Greenfield. Some were used as towboats, sometimes pulling as many as four flatboats.

early steamboat navigation on the Connecticut River
Riverboat on the Connecticut River
River navigation at South Hadley succumbed to the more efficient rail transportation in 1863. The last boat passed through the canal in April of that year. During the active period of its use for navigation throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, thousands of tons of merchandise and hundreds of passengers passed through this canal system on their way up and down the Connecticut River. Thus, in South Hadley, a truly pioneering venture was conceived which was the forerunner of extensive river navigation on improved waterways throughout the nation and the first root of HWP.

One of the early industries in the area was the Hadley Falls Company, incorporated in 1827. It manufactured cotton cloth. This company was in the forefront of the industrial revolution, using water power supplied by a wing dam to run its looms. Its president was the previously mentioned Alfred Smith. It was the second root of HWP.

In 1848, a second Hadley Falls Company was incorporated for the purpose of developing the power potential of the river, at Holyoke and South Hadley, and creating a manufacturing community. Over a ten-year period it built a dam and canal system to make the power available to manufacturers. It constructed and operated two cotton mills and a plant which made textile machinery. It also laid out industrial, commercial, and residential areas on its 1,100 acres of land. All of it eventually came to completion as planned. It was the third root of HWP.

In 1859, the property of the Hadley Falls Company, which had gone into receivership in 1858, was sold at auction for $325,000 to Alfred Smith. The properties acquired by Smith were of three types. First was the hydraulic system, consisting of a dam across the Connecticut River, the gate houses, and 2.5 miles of power canals with a boat lock. Second was real estate — 1,100 acres of land in Holyoke, several mills, and other buildings. The last were public services, including a water supply reservoir and a gas plant, each with a distribution system. Smith reorganized the property as the Holyoke Water Power Company and sold stock to subscribers who wished to invest in an opportunity to bring together the power potential of the Connecticut River with a sizable land area to create an industrial city. He became its first president.

HWP's income during its first year was $20,934, derived largely from water power rentals, tenement house rentals, leases of manufacturing space in existing buildings, and sales of water and manufactured gas. That sufficed to pay investors a 5 percent dividend. The early life of the company also involved a variety of minor income-producing activities, such as rental of a grist mill, lease of a brickyard, ice cutting from the pond above its dam, rental of property to a shad fishing company, and lease of a quarry.

The first 30 years of the corporate life of HWP were a time of rapid growth for it, and for Holyoke. The energy produced from waterpower for industry was transmitted mechanically through gears, shafting, pulleys, and belts. Multistoried mills of three and four floors were built. The power from the waterwheels was transmitted vertically by belts to lines of main shafting which ran the length of the mills. Machines such as textile mill looms or paper mill beaters received their power by being connected with belts and pulleys to the main shafting.

By 1884, many of the mill sites along the canal system had been sold and industries using water-power, particularly manufacturers of paper and textiles, were in operation. As more and more sites were sold, it became evident that other land without waterpower would have to be developed if industry were going to continue to expand in Holyoke. Accordingly, industries with lesser power requirements than those needed by the paper or textile industries began to buy sites which were not in the canal system. They supplied their own power with steam engines.

1880's power transmission
1880's power transmission
HWP's first office was the former Hadley Falls Company building, but in 1868 the company's directors authorized construction of a new office structure. That building, located at 1 Canal Street, was expanded over the years and remains the HWP office today.

The Present Canal System
The canal system of HWP, in conjunction with its dam across the Connecticut River, brings to Holyoke industries and power plants water which is the source for their hydroelectric power. The canals also supply the process water used in the manufacture of paper.

The present canal system is 4.5 miles in length and has three different levels. Electricity is generated by the water falling from one canal level to another, or from a canal to the river, turning waterwheels and electric generators in the process.

The canals were dug by men with picks and shovels and horse-drawn teams. Begun in 1847, they were completed in 1892, 45 years later. One section of the canal banks has been developed as a park planted with a variety of shrubs. It looks out upon a group of five fountains with jets of water rising 50 feet high.

The first dam for power purposes spanning the 1,000-foot-wide Connecticut River was built in 1848 by the Hadley Falls Company. It was constructed of wood. In 1900, a granite-faced concrete dam superseded it. Designed by HWP engineers, the dam stands today, nearly 100 years later, as a tribute to their skills.

From Water Power to Electricity
On October 14, 1884, HWP began furnishing electricity for streetlights in Holyoke. An account in the local press noted that

"boys were playing marbles on the streets of Holyoke at nine o'clock in the evening under the illumination of the electric lights.placed about the streets by the water power company..Dark spots were as light as need be wished for the first night in the memory of inhabitants old or young..When the big machine [a new generator] gets here and the system is completed, Holyoke will be as safe a city after dark as it is before sunset for any lady to walk abroad, which has not been the case."

The electricity came from an electric generator connected to a water wheel-driven shafting in an HWP industrial building.

In 1871, Holyoke purchased the HWP domestic water supply system, which had been serving the community since prior to 1859.

In 1888, HWP built a combination hydro and steam electric power plant on the First Level canal to supply electricity to Holyoke. Not long thereafter-in 1897-the city set a course for municipal takeover of HWP's gas and electric plants. The issue of public versus private ownership was fought through the newspapers and the Legislature. In 1902, for a price of $706,000, the properties were transferred to the city of Holyoke. The following year, however, HWP was enabled, through legislation, to return to the business of generating electricity for sale only to municipal customers and to industrial customers with high usage. During 1905 and 1906, it built a combination hydro and steam electric power station located between its Second Level canal and the Connecticut River. It contained two 600-kW hydroelectric units and one 1,000-kW steam electric unit.

1920-1945: An Eventful Quarter Century
In 1920, HWP directors chose Robert E. Barrett, an hydraulic engineer with the Turners Falls Power and Electric Company, to become its treasurer. He set about increasing the electric generating capacity of the company, and increasing the number of HWP customers. In 1923, he became HWP's president.

In 1936, a gigantic mile-long ice jam, 1,000 feet wide and 30 feet deep, blocked the river just upstream from Holyoke. When it broke up on March 16, with a tremendous roar, the worst was feared for physical structures downstream, including HWP's dam. However, the ice floes passed over it causing relatively little damage, although they did remove its top layer of granite blocks.

Following breakup of the ice jam, the river began to rise. On March 19 it reached its all-time record height of 16.8 feet of water over the dam. When the flood receded, HWP repaired the crest of the dam and strengthened the gatehouse which controls the water entering the canal system.

Other highlights of the period included major expansion of electric generating capacity and obtaining a long-term contract to supply the nearby city of Chicopee with its electric power.

A dam on the Connecticut River
A dam on the Connecticut River

In 1945, Robert E. Barrett died. During his tenure, the company had expanded greatly. Its electric sales had grown from $86,420 in 1921 to $1,239,000 in 1945. He saw that very few sites were left on the canal system for new waterpower users and that dependable flow of the river had all been allocated. He concentrated upon expanding the electric power capability of the company and aggressively marketing it for industrial and municipal use. He successfully converted HWP into a major supplier of electricity.

Expansion and Fish Conservation
Following Barrett's death, his son Robert was elected president and treasurer. He had joined the company in 1930, following his graduation from college as an electrical engineer. He remained the company's chief executive officer for the next 29 years, until his retirement in 1974. Some of the significant events which occurred at HWP during his administration follow.

In 1949, the company obtained from the Federal Power Commission (FPC) a 50-year license for its dam, canal system, and hydroelectric properties. This followed a vigorously contested licensing proceeding.

The FPC license contained a provision which required HWP to construct fish passage facilities at its dam across the Connecticut River. Ever since 1848, anadromous fish such as Atlantic salmon, shad, and blueback herring had been stopped by the dam in their upstream migration.

fish elevator on  the Connecticut River
Holyoke fish elevator
Ladder-type fishways had been built at the dam by HWP in 1873 and 1940 as required by the Massachusetts Legislature. Both were failures. After receiving its license, the company spent several years trying to find a workable alternative. Finally it developed an entirely new concept, that of lifting the fish by an elevator. The idea worked and, in 1955, 5,000 shad were carried over the dam. HWP received the United States Department of Interior Conservation Service Award for this accomplishment in January 1956.

This fishway is the most successful one on the Atlantic seacoast. In 1990, more than three-quarters of a million anadromous fish passed through it. Of these, there were 187 Atlantic salmon which first started to return to the river in significant numbers in 1978. Visitors are welcome at the fishway during the fish migration. There they can see the fish being lifted in the elevators as well as observe them passing by the window of a glass-walled public viewing area. In 1987, the fish facility was named by NU as the Robert E. Barrett Fishway. Fishing for shad attracts thousands of people to Holyoke during the annual migration. HWP sponsors a Shad Derby on two successive weekends and prizes are awarded to the fishermen catching the heaviest shad in different categories.

canoe on the Connecticut River
Canoeing on the Connecticut River
During these years, much emphasis was placed on industrial development as a means of increasing the sales of electric power. Former paper mills were purchased, renovated, and converted into manufacturing space for small industries. One industrial park was built on HWP land in Holyoke. Eight different industries located there. The company sponsored a similar industrial park in the city of Chicopee. Major expansions to the electric generating facilities of the company occurred during these years. In 1952, the first of two 15,400-kW hydroelectric units was built at the HWP dam.

The second was built in 1983. In 1960, the company built a 136,000-kW fossil-fuel electric generating plant, its Mt. Tom Station, in the northerly part of Holyoke. (Mt. Tom now has a higher rated capacity.) The physical expansion of the company during these years was reflected in its annual sales figures. Revenues increased from $1,776,000 in 1945 to $12,050,000 in 1967.

In the fall of 1966, the management of HWP began discussing with NU the possibility of an affiliation. Soon thereafter, the HWP stockholders and the SEC approved the merger. The affiliation became effective September 30, 1967. Thus came to a conclusion 108 years as an independent company. However, the corporate involvement of HWP with the Connecticut River, beginning in 1792, still continues.

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