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Fall River Open Space Plan
III. COMMUNITY SETTING
A. Regional Context
Fall River, Massachusetts is located 50 miles south of Boston and 25 miles east of Providence, Rhode Island. With a population of 92,703 people (1990 census), Fall River comprises nearly 25 square miles of land area. Historically, development of the city has centered around its abundant water resources. First, in the Steep Brook area on the city's north end as a stop between Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, then later along the Quequechan River Valley where the rapid downward motion of the river created an abundance of water that could readily be utilized for industrial purposes.
Located at the juncture of the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay, Fall River soon became a major shipping point from the northeast to points south, especially New York, where the textile industry soon found a ready market for wholesale products in what was later to become known as the needle trade industry. At its peak around 1920, Fall River had over 100 millls in operation, making it the largest textile manufacturer in the world.
As the textile industry continued to flourish, the city became a destination for new immigrants, particularly Portuguese and French Canadians, who were eager to work and live in what later would become known as "triple deckers" or multifamily housing provided by the mills themselves. This provided a strong sense of stability to families coming to America, and just as important, provided a stepping stone for other family members to come later. This trend has permeated the core of the community for over a hundred years and is still a factor in the city's ongoing growth and development with these ethnic groups continuing to dominate the population mix.
Another factor that lead to the city's growth was related to the coastal climate which provided more stable temperatures than inland sites and helped to encourage the cotton textile industry. While the mill industry served the major role in the City's early development, it also played an overriding role, when in the 1920's the bottom fell out of the national market. In 1927, the textile industry in Fall River suffered drastic production cutbacks.
Today, the mill buildings still seen throughout the city have been converted to mixed-use facilities. Space has been modified to accomodate office, retail and modern manufacturing needs in addition to more traditional manufacturing uses. Currently, all of the city's mill buildings are active including some that have been developed as residential housing.
The city's location between Boston and New York, also led to its becoming a point of departure and arrival for people moving up and down the east coast. A primary mode of transportation until the Second World War was the steamship line known as the Fall River Line. The source of relatively inexpensive transportation provided a means for Fall River to maintain one of the primary transportation links for people, commerce and industry. After the war, the harbor's role would become less important, and the highway system became the primary linkage for Fall River for all points east and west.
B. History of the Community
Two major land purchases in the 1600's resulted in the acquisition of a large portion of the present city by private parties, Europeans who had settled in Plymouth County. The Freeman's Purchase in 1657 from the Wampanoag Chief Wamsutta involved land north of the Quequechan. The deeds included "all the waters, brooks and ponds" within the purchase boundaries, and thus left the ownership of the river and the Watuppa Ponds in the hands of Benjamin Church, a well known leader in King Philip's War. He later sold these lands and water rights to Richard Borden in 1714. Most of the land south of the Quequechan (including Cook Pond and several brooks) was acquired by Stephen Borden through the Pocasset Purchase in 1680.
The city's geography determined its destiny; as historians have pointed out, the significant fact about Fall River is that it had water power and port facilities together, making it both a transfer point for passenger and freight traffic to New York and the site of intense industrial development.
Fall River's industrial history began in 1811 when Colonel Joseph Durfee opened the Globe Manufactory. By 1830 the city had seven textile mills, a steamboat to Providence and Newport and its own newspaper. A staggering population and industrial boom made Fall River one of the textile capitals of the nation with more than 100 cotton mills housing four million spindles, employing more than 30,000 people when its prosperity peaked during the First World War. This was a closely knit industrial complex in which raw materials came into the port of Fall River to be processed into manufactured goods and then shipped out again from the same port.
When textile manufacturing began moving south in the 1920's, the city's decline began, accelerating during a devastating fire, which destroyed the central business district, and then the Depression. By 1930 the city declared bankruptcy and its finances were operated by the state from 1931 to 1941.
City of Mills, Hills and Pork Pies
Affectionately known to its residents as "The City of Hills, Mills and Pork Pies", Fall River is a city with an interstate highway through its heart but a rich sense of history in its brick and granite mills and closeknit neighborhoods.
For those who choose to stop and listen, it is a great storyteller's town, filled with memories of a booming textile industry, the elegant steamships of the Fall River Line which sailed between Fall River and New York, and ,of course, Lizzie Borden.
Lizzie was acquitted of killing her parents with an ax in 1892, basically on the grounds that she was too respectable to have done anything so grizzly. She became the subject of books, plays, television shows, a ballet and one overworked nursery rhyme-turned folk song: "Lizzie Borden took an ax. And gave her father 40 whacks..."
The 100th anniversary of the murders in 1992 drew Lizziephiles from as far away as Australia. The house on Second Street where the murders took place is now a bed and breakfast. Even today, the city has not quite come to grips with its most infamous citizen. Some think she should be a tourist attraction. Some think she should be forgotten.
Fall River was built on a hillside at the head of Mount Hope Bay. Because of the river that flowed through it and spilled over a series of ledges before reaching the bay, the Indians who were the original residents called it Quequechan or "Falling Water".
The importance of the river - which has retained the name Quequechan - as a source of waterpower was recognized early and grist mills and sawmills were built on its banks. Two of those mills, owned by Richard Borden, one of the city's earliest businessmen, were destroyed by British forces during the Battle of Fall River on May 25, 1778 near the site of the city hall that now straddles route 195.
Because of its harbor, its rapids-filled river, its climate and the bans on foreign competition imposed during the War of 1812, Fall River began to develop as a textile center in the early years of the 19th century. Companies like the Troy Cotton and Woolen Manufactory and the Pocasset Manufacturing Company formed the core of an industry that would fill the city with its trademark granite mills and eventually make it the largest cotton cloth manufacturing city in the world.
In the summer of 1843, Fall River's downtown was wiped out by fire. There were 196 buildings destroyed in what was the worst of what has come to be one of the city's most unfortunate traditions-spectacular fires. Old mills, with their oil-soaked floors, and some of the old and elaborate churches have been destroyed in dramatic fashion.
But the city came back to be an industrial giant. The introduction of steam power to supplement that of the river provided the impetus for more and more expansion of the textile industry. And in 1847, the Bay State, the first of the Fall River Line steamers, was launched and an elegant era of steamship travel began. The Fall River Line, which many people took to New York after coming to Fall River by train from Boston, ran until the Great Depression forced it from the water in 1937. Its traditions are celebrated today in the Marine Museum of Fall River.
After the Civil War, during which Fall River provided about 1,800 men for the Union Army, new investors got into the textile business and some mills sold shares for as little as $100. And demand for cotton cloth soared after the was because the cutoff of southern cotton during the war had forced drastic reductions in production and created shortages of cloth and clothing.
Because of the growing demand for labor, which far exceeded what the local population could provide, mills sent out agents to Canada and Europe to recruit workers. A wave of immigration began that continues today.
But early in the 20th century, southern mills began to take away a major share of the textile industry with their cheaper costs and cheaper labor. While World War I provided a sharp boost and brought production back to full capacity in Fall River, the failure of the city's bloated mill owners to update their thinking finally caught up with them. the obsolete mills became easy targets for foreign and southern competition.
The decline of Fall River's textile industry began in the mid-1920's and was never reversed. Between 1925 and 1940, 73 mills were closed.
In 1931, with a drastic drop in tax revenue due to the collapse of the mills, the city declared bankruptcy and was taken over by a state finance board. In its desperation, the city offered free mill space to questionable businesses and a number of quick hit operators moved in, hired workers at low wages, then moved on after filling one or two contracts.
Fall River has never really replaced the textile industry and never really recovered from its loss. It has been a city struggling to find a new identity. It was one of the first mill outlet centers, putting cut rate merchandise in some available mill space. Busloades of bargain hunters used to descend on the city in caravans. But even the outlets are in decline as other towns and cities open mill outlets in more attractive surroundings.
In the 1960's, Route 195 was built right through the middle of the city. It took away the heart of downtown and left behind a divided city center which has come to symbolize the struggle of a gritty old mill town that has a rich, vibrant past and a very uncertain future.
Bob Kerr 2/97