Enthusiastic throng drawn to annual Holyoke canal tour

  • Local historian Bob Comeau holds up a diagram of the canal system during Saturday’s walking tour in Holyoke. STEPHEN FAY

  • Local historian Bob Comeau points out the former location of a well-regarded church off Lyman Street in Holyoke. The brick structure in the background was once workers’ housing. Today the units are condominiums. STEPHEN FAY

  • Tour leader Bob Comeau takes questions at the final stop, Pulaski Park, situated above the Hadley Falls dam and gatehouse. On the far shore (upper right) is the South Hadley Public Library. STEPHEN FAY

For the Gazette
Published: 11/25/2019 11:29:24 AM

HOLYOKE — They’re not producing as much energy as they once did, but Holyoke’s canals continue to generate a powerful level of interest.

Dozens of local history buffs, roughly 100 in all, gathered at Heritage State Park on Dwight Street Saturday afternoon for a canal tour led by former high school teacher Bob Comeau. Stops along the way focused on the mile-long canals hand dug by Irish, French-Canadian and Polish immigrants in the years before the Civil War.

Water dammed and diverted from the nearby Connecticut River was — and still is — channeled through the multi-tiered canals to produce energy. The original energy, back in the mid-19th century, was hydro-mechanical. Canal water flowed through subsurface tunnels to be caught in turbine cups that set flywheels and looms in motion. By the end of the century, that same water power generated hydro-electric power for mill operation and city illumination.

The city’s cotton, thread, wool, silk, wire and paper mills made Holyoke an economic powerhouse into the first decades of the 20th century. The canals’ waters still produce the power with which Holyoke Gas & Electric provides the cheapest, greenest electric rates in the region.

Comeau guided the walking tour across Race Street and up Lyman Street to the former workers’ housing development where mill laborers and their families paid rent of $4 a week.

The 90-minute walking tour concluded at Pulaski Park overlooking the dam and gatehouse through which diverted river water flows at a rate of one million gallons every 20 seconds.

Throughout the stroll, Comeau took questions from the group on subjects ranging from river ecology, destructive fires of yore, megawatts and mill workers’ hours. Though the tour was free, Comeau advised the gathering that each year’s event aims to raise money for worthy causes in the city.

In the recent past the recipients have been the city Historical Commission, Providence Ministry and Girls Inc. This year’s charity is Homework House Holyoke at 54 North Summer St. which provides free educational tutoring and mentoring for at-risk children. Participants in the tour were encouraged to express their appreciation for the afternoon’s history lesson with a gift to the agency.

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