Northbridge’s Landscape Through Time
Three rivers flow through Northbridge: the Blackstone River, running north to south, and two of its major tributaries – the West River which runs through the southeast corner of town, and the Mumford River, which originates in Sutton and cuts eastward across Northbridge to join the Blackstone in Uxbridge. The Blackstone and Mumford valley are wide, in places as much as a mile and a half across, and lie at about 300’ above sea level; the historic Northbridge Center is located on a ridge between these two river valleys. Soils in the valleys are especially good for cultivation, while the stonier hillsides are better suited to pasture, hay and orchards, with occasional granite outcrops that have been quarried in the past. Northbridge is bounded clockwise, beginning in the north, by Upton, Hopedale, Mendon, Uxbridge, Douglas, Sutton and Grafton.
The presence of rich water resources attracted precontact Native American groups to the Northbridge area, especially for seasonal hunting and fishing along the broad Blackstone River valley. Small Late Archaic and Woodland campsites have been located in the eastern part of town, as well as evidence of possible quartz quarrying activity. The Blackstone corridor also provided main routes north/south, with secondary trails along the Mumford River and on the highlands west of the Blackstone, which would later become the center of colonial settlement.
The Northbridge area was part of the colonial Mendon grant of 1667, and was first used by settlers as pasture and, along the rivers, haying meadow. Northbridge and Uxbridge together broke off from Mendon in 1727, and Northbridge became a separate town in 1775. Although Northbridge was primarily a dispersed agricultural community during the Colonial Period, an iron works was established in present-day Whitinsville by 1729. The earliest grist and saw mills were built in Riverdale before 1740.
Northbridge Center and its surrounding agricultural lands remained the focus of town during the Federal Period (1775-1830), with a secondary center around the Friends meetinghouse on the east side of the Blackstone River. In fact, during the pre-Civil War years, more acreage in Northbridge was under cultivation to hay, potatoes, corn and grain than at any other time. In 1814, however, a mill village began to grow where Rockdale is today, and that industrial area subsequently became an important transportation hub: the junction of the Providence Road, the Central Turnpike and the Blackstone Canal (replaced by the Providence and Worcester Railroad in 1847). By far the greatest industrial growth took place at Mumford River Falls (now Whitinsville), south of Northbridge Center. An early cotton manufactory was built near the iron foundry in 1809, with workers’ housing and two more cotton mills built by 1830.
Forty years later, Northbridge’s population had tripled. Northbridge Center had lost much of its importance, supplanted by growing mill villages along the Blackstone and Mumford Rivers: Rockdale, Riverdale, Linwood, and Whitinsville. The town’s main focus shifted to Whitinsville, as the Whitin family, inspired by matriarch Betsy Fletcher Whitin, expanded their two related businesses: manufacturing cotton yard goods and state-of-the-art textile machinery. By the beginning of the Civil War, the Whitins were among the leading manufacturers in the Blackstone Valley. Between 1864 and 1869, John Whitin consolidated all his machine shop operations in Whitinsville, leading to extensive construction activity including worker cottages and tenements, a distinct residential area for management, and numerous large proprietors’ estates. In addition, a library (1844), a high school (1865) and the Whitinsville National Bank (1865) were established.
Whitinsville and the Whitin family’s industrial operations continued to dominate Northbridge in the Late Industrial Period (1870-1915). By the beginning of the 20th century, Northbridge was a thoroughly industrial town with parts of it densely populated, where 78% of the men were employed in the factories. Farm acreage had decreased by a third from its mid-19th century high, although this may have had less to do with the rise in population than with a shift in farming from mixed agriculture to dairying – a change that was echoed throughout the Blackstone Valley including at the Whitins’ scientifically managed model dairy farm on Castle Hill.
The construction of a streetcar line from Northbridge to Worcester in the 1890s gave residents access to the larger stores of the city, putting an end to Northbridge Center as a commercial focus, although Church Street in Whitinsville began to develop as a local commercial district. Streetcar service was replaced by improved roadways for automotive traffic during the 1920s. The Whitin family’s factories continued to prosper until a depression hit the textile industry in 1923. This economic downturn forced the closure of cotton mills throughout the region, including the Whitinsville Cotton Company, the Linwood Cotton Company, and mills in Rockdale and Riverdale. The Whitin Machine Works put most of the buildings to use for some part of their continuing operation, and carried the business through to a brief spike in activity during World War II, when the company manufactured magnetos for American aircraft. Labor unrest and worker strikes in the late 1940s discouraged the Whitins from further involvement in industry. Over the next decade they sold their business interests in Northbridge, as well as the company housing and farm. Today Northbridge is no longer a company town, but memories of that long era remain, kept alive in many of the buildings and structures that define its heritage landscape.
Monday: 8:30AM to 7:00PM
Tuesday : 8:30AM to 4:30PM
Wednesday: 8:30AM to 4:30PM
Thursday: 8:30AM to 4:30PM
Friday: 8:30AM to 1:00PM