‘The Water City?’: Water continues to energize Holyoke

  • Nancy Condon, an interpreter with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, describes to a tour group last week the function of Holyoke’s canal system during the heyday of the city’s mill economy. FOR THE GAZETTE/STEPHEN FAY

  • Devin Kwisnek, head of property maintenance at Open Square, the former Lyman Cotton Mill, discusses the output of a century-old turbine that continues to generate electricity for Open Square and the city. FOR THE GAZETTE/STEPHEN FAY

  • Iron artifacts of an earlier era at the former Lyman Mill. FOR THE GAZETTE/STEPHEN FAY

  • Visitors wend their ways through the former mill’s sub-basement. FOR THE GAZETTE/STEPHEN FAY

  • This 1928 turbine still rolls out 280 kilowatts an hour. FOR THE GAZETTE/STEPHEN FAY

For the Gazette
Published: 8/5/2021 3:49:05 PM

HOLYOKE — The catacombs of the old Lyman Mill are an Industrial Age boneyard of brick and iron whose ancient turbines and flywheels are rusty reminders that Holyoke is a city that ran on water.

Nancy Condon, who co-led a tour of the former cotton mill late last week, thinks it’s high time Holyoke let go of its “Paper City” nickname and replace it with “The Water City.” Citing the dam on the Connecticut River, the diversion of river water to 4½ miles of hand-dug canals and a century of hydro-powered prosperity, Condon said water’s role in Holyoke’s emergence as a planned industrial city deserves better acknowledgement.

Condon, an interpreter with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, prefaced the tour with a history of the city’s mills that was, not coincidentally, also a history of the city.

Before the construction of the dam on the Connecticut River — that is, before the middle of the 19th century — the river was a source of fish, not energy. But the gradual realization that the falls at Holyoke could produce an enormous amount of power prompted a group of Boston investors to buy land along the river and launch construction of a dam and a series of canals to harness the fast-flowing waters of the Connecticut.

By 1859, the Holyoke Water Power Co. (as the investors called their endeavor) was laying out streets, setting aside land for schools and developing residential areas. By 1900, the canals supplied hydropower to 100 mills producing paper, woolens, thread, silk, cotton, wire and other wares.

Cotton from the South, silk cocoons from Japan and rags from all over for paper production arrived in abundance to be processed into consumer goods and shipped by rail to Boston and New York for distribution.

Raw materials flowed into the city for decades because, Condon said, “Holyoke had the power.” That power was both hydro-mechanical — turning shafts — and hydroelectric. But by the 20th century, water power started losing its monopoly. Steam, coal and gas could generate electricity and fire up the engines of manufacturing. One by one, the mills relocated or ceased operation.

But that’s not the end of the story.

In 1902, Holyoke Gas & Electric was established through the purchase of the Holyoke Water Power Co.’s gas and electric plant. Long before anyone uttered the words “green energy,” HG&E’s hydropower turbines were producing most of the city’s electrical power in a win-win delivery of energy that is not only clean but cheap. Which brings the conversation back to the former Lyman Cotton Mill.

Devin Kwisnek, head of property maintenance of the old Lyman building — now known as Open Square — led Condon’s group down basements and sub-basements at the old Lyman building. Amid obsolete gears as big as meat lockers and locomotive-size compressors, two turbines, Vintage 1898 and 1928, producing 260 and 280 kilowatts per hour, respectively, generate hydroelectric power to serve Open Square and the city of Holyoke which — to this day — runs on water.

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