Once a thriving mill city and industrial center with a population of more than 24,000 in 1900, ahead of Pittsfield's 22,000, a rebirth is well under way. The city had endured a period of darkness, gloom and depression that descended in 1986 when Sprague Electric and other manufacturers closed their doors forever, leaving behind abandoned, bitter workers and their families, many with no place to turn.
Now, the city is internationally known as the home of the nation's largest contemporary art museum, and it is carving out a place at the county's tourism, cultural and recreational tables.
For 24 years, Mayor John Barrett III, dubbed the "mayor for life" by admirers, has pushed his vision for the city in the post-industrial era. Despite some fierce dustups and legal tangles with a few local property and business owners, Barrett has seen much of what he calls "the real creative economy" come to life with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) as the driving force behind the urban renaissance.
North Adams and Adams were originally part of East Hoosuck township, first laid out in 1739 and divided into homesteads through grants from the Commonwealth in 1762.
Fort Massachusetts, built in 1744 below the junction of the north and south branches of the Hoosic River, fell to General Vaudrevil's army of 900 French and Indians in the summer of 1745.
Became a city in 1895
The community was the industrial center of Adams until the two were formally separated in 1878, the year North Adams was incorporated as a town. North Adams became a city in 1895.
Since the flood-prone land near the river was never well-suited for farming, water power was harnessed for industrial development. Lumber, grist and textile mills developed and many settlers from Rhode Island with power-loom experience moved in.
By the late 1700s and early 1800s, businesses included wholesale shoe manufacturers; a brick yard; a saw mill; cabinet-makers; hat manufacturers; machine shops for the construction of mill machines; marble works; and wagon- and sleigh-makers. An ironworks provided the pig iron for armor plates on the Civil War ship, the Monitor. A stagecoach line connecting North Adams with Greenfield and Albany opened in 1814.
By 1830, the first cotton mill opened but shipping was hampered by mountains to the east. A rail line to Pittsfield was completed in 1846, and by 1875 east-west rail connections were established by the opening of the Hoosac Tunnel, a 24-year construction project with headquarters in North Adams.
Many residents joined the Union Army during the Civil War; Monument Square commemorates their efforts.
Prosperity also came to North Adams during the war as shoe and textile operations expanded; expensive Greek Revival, Second Empire and Italian architecture graced the city's impressive mansions. One of them, the Blackinton Mansion, became the city library. Several historical districts maintain the memories of that golden era. The hills became dotted with smaller homes for mill workers in the 1850s, many with decorated slate roofs and towers. French-Canadian, Italian and Irish workers flocked to the city for employment in the mills. Shoe and boot manufacturing were central to the booming economy in the mid- and late-1800s.
The Freeman Print Works, the Sampson Shoe Co. and O. Arnold & Co. were the major employers as the city became a commercial and industrial hub. Arnold gained lucrative government contracts to supply fabric for the Union Army. By 1905, Arnold Print Works was the city's largest single employer, with 3,200 workers. But the Great Depression of the 1930s finally led to the closing of Arnold's Marshall Street plant in 1942, when the company decamped to smaller facilities in Adams.
Sprague Electric Co., which had arrived in 1929 as a fledgling manufacturer called Sprague Specialties Corp., bought the former print works site and employed physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and skilled technicians to design and manufacture crucial components of some of the U.S.government's most advanced high-tech weapons systems during World War II, including the atomic bomb.
With state-of-the-art equipment, Sprague was a major research and development center, conducting studies on the nature of electricity and semi-conducting materials. After the war, its products were used in the launch systems for Gemini moon missions, and by 1966 Sprague employed 4,137 workers in a community of 18,000 virtually a city within a city. From the post-war years to the mid-1980s, Sprague produced electrical components for the booming consumer electronics market, but competition from abroad led to declining sales. Following corporate takeovers and a souring of management-labor relations, the company suddenly closed operations on Brown Street in 1985.
The local economy was jolted, and the effects on the city were traumatic; unemployment rates hit double-digits and a population exodus began.
Mayor Barrett, still a newcomer at City Hall, developed a strategy built around Mass MoCA as an engine of economic revival and downtown rejuvenation.
"I don't think there's a community in western Massachusetts that has developed as much commercial space and filled up retail as much as we have," Barrett asserted. "That's always part of the vision and the plan, and you can't change the image until you make an attractive, clean city.
"We're still fragile," he acknowledged, "but we're less and less fragile as each and every year goes by, and it continues to be a work in progress."
Major progress has resulted, with momentum picking up during the past five years. Although the city remains the third-poorest in the state, with a relatively high unemployment rate, the population drain has been plugged. The mayor believes the census count misses some residents, and he puts the actual figure at around 16,000, back where it was 25 years ago.
Three key institutions
The city's economic well-being relies heavily on three key institutions MCLA, Mass MoCA, and Northern Berkshire Healthcare.
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) began in 1894 as North Adams Normal School, was renamed North Adams State Teachers College in 1932 and then North Adams State College in 1960. It is now the city's second largest private employer, with 268 on the payroll.
Enrollment is nearly 1,475, down from a peak of 2,000 in the mid-1970s. But enrollment is on the rise ever since the college refocused on the liberal arts in the 1990s. The most popular programs now are English/communications, business, education, history, fine and performing arts, psychology and sociology.
Professional degrees are offered in business administration, physics, education, biology, and computer science and information systems. The college is adding academic programs in fine arts and arts management, and an ambitious science center is in development under the widely admired leadership of college President Mary Grant.
MCLA touts its cross-enrollment with Williams College, its extensive study-abroad programs, the college-wide honors program, an average class size of 18 and a faculty to student ratio of 1 to 13. It has been ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of "America's Best Colleges" in its category, and cited by Newsweek as a "Hot College" in the category "Most for Your Money." State residents pay $5,400 per year in tuition and fees, and three out of four MCLA students get some form of financial assistance.
The MoCA effect
Since opening in 1999 after more than a decade of struggle, Mass MoCA has become one of the best-known institutions in the nation dedicated to new art. The museum boasts about 125,000 annual visitors, who flock to its 110,000 square feet of open, flexible gallery space. More than 80 major new works of art have been displayed, and there are more than 75 performing-arts events each year, including popular music, contemporary dance, alternative cabaret, world music dance parties, outdoor silent films with live music, documentaries, and avant-garde theater.
Kidspace is a collaboration among Mass MoCA, the Clark Art Institute, and the Williams College Museum of Art. Nearly every elementary student in the region more than 10,000 annually visits to study and create art. In addition, more than 5,000 young people experience world-class music, theater and dance through school-time performing arts events offered by the Art Assembly program each year.
To offset operating costs and stimulate job growth in the region, Mass MoCA develops and leases space to a wide range of exciting businesses, including restaurants, publishing companies, law firms, photography studios, and a firm dedicated to computer-generated special effects.
Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the parent corporation of North Adams Regional Hospital, the VNA & Hospice of Northern Berkshire, two facilities for seniors in Williamstown, and the REACH Community Health Foundation, is recovering from a six-year period of red ink. Northern Berkshire Healthcare ranks as the second-largest employer in North Berkshire (850 in all), and the largest private employer in North Adams, with a staff count of 475.
Northern Berkshire Healthcare, renamed in 2005 after 21 years as Northern Berkshire Health Systems, is the result of a gradual amalgamation of health care providers in the area.
In fiscal 2006, Northern Berkshire Healthcare lost $220,000, a dramatic improvement from the $4.6 million loss the previous year. Under new leadership and management, the hospital is continuing a major renovation and expansion of services, but could face new setbacks if President Bush's proposed cuts in Medicare and Medicaid are enacted by Congress. North Adams Regional Hospital relies heavily on Medicare (about half of its patients are covered by the federal health insurance program for seniors; another 10 percent get state-operated Medicaid for the poor). The worst-case scenario could result in $2.5 million in losses for the hospital.
With people moving back into the downtown area, business activity expanding, the presence of Excelsior Printing (a division of Crane & Co.), an influx of restaurants, the reconfiguration of the Mohawk Theatre renovation, and the strengthening of the three key institutions, a continuing upswing in the city's fortunes seems to be in the cards.