Worcester: History

Plantation Becomes Transportation Center

The first Englishmen to visit the area surrounding present-day Worcester arranged in 1673 to purchase eight square miles of land near Lake Quinsigamond. They made the bargain with the resident Nipmucks, giving them twelve pounds sterling. The English called their settlement Quinsigamond Plantation. These first settlers and those who followed them in 1675 were eventually driven out by the Nipmucks when they learned that the newcomers did not intend to share the land. A third, successful attempt at settling the area came in 1713 when Jones Rice built his home atop Union Hill. By 1722, the settlement was large enough to incorporate as a town, renamed Worcester in honor of the English county and town.

Worcester early became a transportation center, initially as a stagecoach stop on the way west from Boston. Just prior to the American Revolution, rebel printer Isaiah Thomas printed his anti-British newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, from Worcester; he later gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Following the war, Thomas built his printing business into the country's largest publishing house, printing the first dictionary in the United States in 1788. Shays's Rebellion, in 1786 and 1787, tested the country's new constitution when a company of poor men from the towns north of Worcester entered the city and seized the courthouse. Their protest against poor government ended when a volunteer army expelled them.

Worcester was one of only a few major U.S. industrial centers that was able to thrive without being located on a navigable river or coastline. The local water supply was adequate to provide steam to run its mills, which turned out wire, nails, and paper. The population stood at 58,300 people in 1800 when textile production became the next major industry in Worcester, including the weaving of the country's first corduroy at a Worcester cotton mill. In 1828 the Blackstone Canal opened, connecting Worcester with Providence, Rhode Island. A period of industrialization and expansion followed, fueled by the arrival of the railroad in 1835. Once again, Worcester flourished as a transportation hub, shipping out manufactured goods via rail to Springfield, Norwich, and Boston. In 1837 the first power loom capable of intricate designs was invented by William Chompton, whose loomworks in Worcester revolutionized the industry.

Manufacturing Precedes High-Technology

During its industrialization, Worcester relied increasingly on the labor of women and children. A women's rights movement blossomed, culminating in the First Women's Suffrage National Convention in 1851, followed by a second convention in 1852. The women then agreed to put aside their own cause and focus on the Abolitionist Movement that was then gaining followers in the North. The city subsequently became a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping North. In 1848 Worcester helped create the Free-Soil Party, which advocated allowing Kansas to enter the Union as a free state.

After the Civil War, Worcester resumed its quick industrial pace. The first bicycle was built in Worcester, leading to a national bicycling craze. During the last half of the century, Worcester experienced an influx of immigrants eager to work in its mills and plants. Irish, Canadian, and Swedish workers arrived before 1900, followed by Poles, Italians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, and Lebanese. By 1920 Worcester's population had grown to 179,754 people.

Worcester continued its manufacturing course, taking advantage of new technologies as they were invented, including automation, mass production, and the assembly line. During World War II, many of the city's plants were converted to the war effort and 27,000 men and women from Worcester served in the armed forces. The USS Worcester, a 17,000-ton light cruiser, was launched in 1948.

Worcester's population peaked in 1950 at 203,000 people. Like many industrial centers in the north, Worcester experienced difficult years in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the textile industry moved south in search of cheaper labor, and the expressways lured a majority of the city's middle class to the suburbs. Worcester enjoyed an economic revival late in the 1970s, spurred by the building of the Centrum Civic Center and the Galleria Shopping Center downtown.

In recent years, the city has been marketing itself to business as a research and high technology center with a solid manufacturing base. Worcester is rapidly becoming known as a hub for education, research, and business. Reflecting that development, approximately one third of Worcester's population is employed by the service industry, while another third work in a professional or managerial capacity. The education and flexibility of the city's populace have allowed it to move relatively comfortably through a period of economic transition.

Historical Information: Worcester Historical Museum & Library, 30 Elm St., Worcester, MA 01609; telephone (508)753-8278