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A Brief History of Fitchburg

The Land surrounding Turkey Hills was a wilderness until 1718. Records of 1663 indicate that an absentee proprietor purchased this wild country and in ensuing years this property changed hands many times. Conflict with the various Indian tribes discouraged settlements in this area any closer than Lancaster. The Nashaway Indians who had never settled permanently in the vicinity fled almost completely after the unsuccessful war of King Phillip in 1675. The sparsely populated region was rich in game and provided fine hunting for Indians and whites alike. In 1718, Samuel Page cut the first clearing in what is now Groton, but it was not until 1735 that his son headed west and built his garrison in Fitchburg. The frontier was settled very slowly as hostilities between England and France encouraged Indian bounty hunters to attack isolated garrisons. In 1748 Indians carried off John Fitch and his family to Canada; the father and children returned from captivity the next year. The bloody war between France and England with its corollary of Indian hostilities lingered on until 1761. By this time the people were ready to turn their hearts and hands to peaceful productivity on their farms.

Settlers in the westerly part of Lunenburg, Amos Kimball, Samuel Hunt, and John Fitch, sought for three years to incorporate as a separate township. In 1764 this was accomplished and the name of Fitchburg -"a synonym for heroism" - was chosen. Farmhouses from this era, such as the Gibson Garrison on Pearl Hill, still stand.

Fitchburg's tranquil development was shattered by the advent of the Revolution. With a total population of about 800, at least 169 Fitchburg men joined the Continental Army and fought in the battles for independence from England. Many of the soldiers faced worse economic tyranny and poverty in their return home. Many residents moved on; -many more moved into Fitchburg. It was a time calling for fresh energy and new ideas.

Shortly after the Revolution, Fitchburg citizens were embroiled in a debate over where to locate the town center - either on the fertile Dean Hill or along the Nashua River. The river location was finally chosen when Captain William Brown donated his land for the town meeting house. This turned out to be a wise decision since the river was to play a major role in the development of Fitchburg in the 1800's.

As early as 1750 the value of the river had been recognized. The Kimball brothers used the river by constructing a dam to power their Gristmill and saw mill. Slowly, other mills were established along the river, including the third cotton mill in the United States. Generally, the mills were diversified in activity and owned by local residents: Brown's Clothier Works , Farwell's Scythe Shop, Kimball's Fulling and Carding Mills, and Burbank's Paper Mill. Factory Square., located near the current site of the Fitchburg Savings Bank was the center for the bustling industrial community. Many of these mill buildings and workers' housing still stand as witness to Fitchburg's industrial heritage.

Soon after his arrival in 1823, the young paper manufacturer, Alvah Crocker, foresaw Fitchburg's potential as a water-powered industrial city. However, transportation of goods over Fitchburg's rocky and hilly terrain was a serious drawback: he was determined to construct a railroad and by 1845 the track reached Fitchburg from Boston. This ushered in three-quarters of a century of industrial expansion, rapid growth, prosperity and fame for Fitchburg.

Fitchburg was somewhat unique in that a number of local people discerned the city's potential, and with their own resources and creative inventions spurred the rapid development of a great and diversified manufacturing city. Large quantities of paper, textiles, machines, saws, chains, guns, axle grease, bicycles, and shoes were produced. Alvah Crocker again helped the local industries when he initiated and advocated the extension of the railroad to the West by drilling the Hoosac Tunnel. By 1875, Fitchburg was linked to the vast western markets by direct rail connection, and industry was thriving.

Along with the growth of industry came the growth of neighborhoods. Most buildings were built during this Victorian era. This was directly related to the rapid population growth from 3,883 people in 1845 to 31,531 people in 1900. Different industries and different decades of time attracted various ethnic groups. These people settled either near particular industries or in certain neighborhoods. The older New England families had already established themselves near the downtown. The Irish and later the Italians lived near Water Street. The Finnish lived near Mechanic Street and the Greek neighborhood was on W. Main Street. The English, many of whom worked in the Crocker-Burbank Paper Mills, lived in West Fitchburg, while the French-Canadians settled in Cleghorn. Churches and small commercial businesses became the focal point of the neighborhoods.

During this time of materialistic prosperity, Fitchburg was not without its social reform movements. The issues of child labor, prison reform, women's suffrage, temperance ( of alcohol and tobacco) and slavery, as well as ethnic prejudice within Fitchburg were important topics of conversation and action. The Underground Railroad was supported by many prominent people in the city. A whole group of Fitchburgers set off to Kansas to insure that that state would enter the Union as a Free State. Fitchburg lost 142 soldiers in the Civil War. Fitchburg, industries were pouring out products - shoes, uniforms, blankets and guns - for the war effort. The Civil War soldiers returned to a situation of expanding productivity, especially in the direction of mechanized industry. Joe Cushing's grain business, Rodney Wallace's paper mills, Ebenezer Butterick's pattern making company, Iver Johnson's arms shops, Burleigh and Brown's engines and Simonds' manufacturing products were solid ventures in the city's productivity.

Fitchburg became a city in 1872. The major commercial area in the downtown flourished, and the primary institutions such as the courthouse, hospital, library, opera house and municipal buildings were nearby. The pattern of the built environment was simple and clear. Factories were next to the river. The residential neighborhoods grew on the slopes of the hills near to the river. The commercial areas developed between the residential and industrial areas, especially where the floor of the river valley was wide. Transportation affected the development. There were no automobiles, so everything was situated compactly for one walking to shop or to work. Major roads and rail lines followed the river. Later, the streetcars followed the river with loops extending into the more built up neighborhoods.

Industrial expansion and growth continued until shortly after the turn of the century. By 1900, the major growth in the country was occurring further west. Fitchburg's growth leveled off. The "Golden Years" of the city came to a close.

In the 1900's, the upper middle class began to move out to more "suburban" homes. This was in part made possible by the advent of the car. Neighborhoods began to lose their economic diversity and stability. Neighborhoods left with a poorer population began to decline. Later in the 1900's, the local industries began to-change ownership. Local owners sold out to national corporations. The industrial leadership which for so long had controlled much of the city was passed on to a leadership which had limited interest in the city other than those things directly connected with their industries.

The downtown also changed. What had been an attractive and vibrant place, with its mix of uses - shops, theaters, hotels, factories, churches, schools, banks, and station - slowly declined. Car ownership encouraged the growth of new strip commercial streets and shopping centers. The downtown, however, remains the only commercial area with a truly urban character: a mix of uses and users, and basically attractive buildings.

The 1990's finds Fitchburg, like other New England cities, trying to sort out her problems while attempting to build on her assets. We, in Fitchburg, have a worthy heritage, not only in our people but in our physically constructed environment. The buildings all around us are an often overlooked asset to our city. Many of Fitchburg's historically and architecturally important buildings are not fully appreciated. Attractive mill buildings lie empty, stores vacant, and at times, what were once the best homes in town are now abandoned. Can we make productive use of Fitchburg's unusually rich history and architecture?

Adopted from The Fitchburg Preservation Plan, by Frank Garretson, 1978