Worcester Historical Museum


"The whole town is altered very much."

-Louisa Jane Trumbull

In the early 1800s, inventive machine builders and far-sighted investors laid the foundations for Worcester's industrial success.

New transportation systems tied Worcester to a national marketplace, spurring economic development. It was an era remembered as a paradise for mechanics, a time when local men of wealth provided workspace for enterprising men, encouraging innovation and spawning diversity. Thousands of people streamed in from the countryside to take advantage of new opportunities. Factories and tenements sprouted up as if overnight. Along with the whirlwind transformation came political and social tensions. Most significantly, Irish immigrants came to build the Blackstone Canal and the railroads, and stayed to build a Catholic community in Protestant New England.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, a series of changes in how things were made led to the rapid growth of manufacturing in America.
Textile mills led the way. Workers made thread and cloth using new machines that were copied from English models and powered by New England's rivers and streams. Worcester's landscape included numerous textile mills, but limited water power did not attract the Boston investors who founded great textile cities like Lowell. Instead, among the many other industries that developed in Worcester, the city became a center for manufacturing dozens of different kinds of machines used to turn cotton and wool into cloth.

New England Crossroads
Transportation improvements were critical to making Worcester an industrial city.
Irish laborers completed the Providence-to-Worcester Blackstone Canal in 1828 and the Boston-to-Worcester railroad in 1835. The new transport routes made it possible for local manufacturers to obtain raw materials and ship finished goods relatively cheaply and in large quantities. By the 1850s, the city had become a hub in the regional rail system, giving Worcester businessmen a cost advantage over outlying competitors. With these developments Worcester, formerly a farming community, became an industrial boom town.

Invention and Success
Ichabod Washburn (1798-1888) came from Millbury to Worcester in 1818 without money or family ties, and thirty years later he ranked among the city's richest and most influential citizens. Washburn was best known of his generation of men-men with mechanical talent and ambition who were attracted to Worcester by the opportunity to prosper in the growing sector. He established a company for making wire in 1831 and over time developed key innovations in its manufacture. When he died in 1868, the company was the largest wire making firm in America. It was valued at one million dollars.

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