Worcester, Massachusetts - A Short History
On this page I will tell you a little about the early History of Worcester, Massachusetts. I will include a few "Firsts" and "Facts" about Worcester that you may find interesting. Where appropriate, I will interject points about Worcester's Postal History as it relates to other pages on my site.
Worcester, Massachusetts - The City
Worcester, Massachusetts, the "Heart of the Commonwealth," is located about 50 miles west of Boston. The first settlement was established in 1674 when Daniel Gookin exchanged some money, some cloth and a couple of coats, the aggregate value being about twelve pounds sterling, to the Indians for a deed to eight square miles of land called Quinsigamond. This settlement was later destroyed by Indians in 1675. The second settlement was made in 1684. It was on September 10, 1684, that Daniel Gookin, Thomas Prentice and Daniel Henchman, inhabitants of the plantation at Quinsigamond petitioned the General Courts of Massachusetts to call their settlement Worcester. No special reason was given for the choice of the name.
There is, however, a city in England on the banks of the Severn River named Worcester, which has been there since the Roman Occupation of Britain. The spelling in the "Doomsday Book" is "Wircestre" which has been translated as "station or camp under the hill" or "war-castle" by scholars. It was in Worcester that Charles II was defeated by Oliver Cromwell in 1651.
Some scholars speculate that Worcester, Massachusetts was named after the battle of Worcester, England noted above. Tradition has it that Daniel Gookin visited Cromwell in England in 1655 and, as a demonstration for his support of the Puritan cause in America, named the settlement to commemorate the battle. It is rare, however, for towns to be named to commemorate battles. Additionally, there are no records which show that Gookin had any personal association with the English city of Worcester.
There is further scholarly speculation that Daniel Henchman gave Worcester its name. Henchman was the person who drew up the court petition papers or agreement noted above. In those papers he refers to the plantation as "Quinsikamon (allius Worster)." While the ancestry of Henchmen is not fully known, there are Probate records of Worcester, England in the seventeenth century in which the name "Henchman" is mentioned. It is probable, though not certain, that Daniel Henchman chose the name "Worster" because of his family ties to the English city.
The second settlement was abandoned in 1702 when Queen Anne's War broke out. The third and permanent settlement was made in 1713. The first permanent settler of Worcester was Jonas Rice.
On June 14, 1722, Worcester was incorporated as a town. In 1731 it became the Shire Town or the seat of county government. Worcester became a city on February 29, 1848.
The term "Minute Men", which is familiar to all those who have studied America's War of Independence, was coined in the Court House in Worcester on September 21, 1774. The first reading of the Declaration of Independence on Massachusetts soil was made by Isaiah Thomas on July 14, 1776 from the porch of the Old South Meeting House in Worcester.
General George Washington made two visits to Worcester. The first was made on July 1, 1775 when he passed through on his way to take command of the Continental Army. He remained one night at the "Stearns Tavern", formerly the "King's Arms".
Isaiah Thomas was Worcester's first Postmaster. He was appointed to that position by Benjamin Franklin, then Postmaster General, on November 15, 1775, and remained Postmaster until 1801. When Thomas was Postmaster, the Post Office was located in his printing office on Court Hill at the far north end of Main Street. Thomas would receive and forward one mail from the west on Tuesday evening and one from the east on Friday morning. Nathaniel MacCarty, who had been an apprentice for Isaiah Thomas, became his first postrider. He delivered papers to Fitchburg every Wednesday. For a sample of Manuscript and Straight Line Postal Markings used during Worcester's earliest postal days, please go to the The Stampless Era page on my website.
Washington's second visit was in the fall of 1789 during his tour of New England. He was met at the Leicester town line by forty of Worcester’s leading citizens who escorted him to the Old South Church. Here he was saluted by eleven cannon, symbolic of the number of states then in the Union. Washington, in a show of gratitude to the people of Worcester, got out of his coach and rode along Main Street on horseback to the "United States Arms" where he had breakfast. Washington then continued his journey by coach up Main Street, across the north end of Lake Quinsigamond and then to Shrewsbury.
After the death of Washington and the War of 1812, Worcester stood poised on the brink of the Industrial Revolution. Worcester was to be transformed from a small agricultural town into a large manufacturing city. Three main factors contributed to Worcester’s growth. Worcester, as its current nickname, "The Heart of the Commonwealth" asserts, was located in the geographical center of Massachusetts, it was at the hub of an efficient system of transportation and it produced and nurtured many great inventive minds.
The Blackstone Canal, which connected Worcester with the sea at Providence, Rhode Island, was begun in 1826 and completed. The canal had its terminus in Worcester on Thomas Street. It stretched forty-five miles, through sixty-two locks and an elevation change of just over 450 feet. The first canal boat to leave Worcester for Providence, the "Lady Carrington", departed on October 7, 1828 to the cheers of a large crowd and the salutes of cannon. For several years the Blackstone Canal did produce a profit. However, after only twenty years, the railroads brought an end to this mode of transportation in Worcester. Much of the canal was eventually filled in or covered. Some remnants of the lock system and canal structures can be seen along Blackstone in the Blackstone River And Canal Heritage State Park in the area around Uxbridge. The State Park operates in conjunction with the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor.
In 1831, the Boston and Worcester Railroad received its charter, thus making it the earliest incorporated railroad in Massachusetts. On July 4, 1835, Worcester celebrated the arrival of the first train which consisted of twelve cars and two wood-burning locomotives. One of the most famous locomotives of the Boston and Worcester was the "Lion" which in its thirty-two year career, traveled over 700,000 miles. The depot of the Boston and Worcester line was located on Foster Street. Later this depot was also used by the Norwich and Worcester Railroad and also the Providence and Worcester Railroad. Railroad tracks to the depot ran across the Common in the area that is now just behind the present City Hall.
During the American Civil War, Worcester was at the forefront of the Anti-Slavery Movement. As early as 1767, Worcester advised its representatives to the Massachusetts General Court to pass laws against slavery. In 1784, its representative, Joshua Bigelow was instructed to vote to resist slavery. Anti-slavery societies were addressed by militant opponents of slavery such Stephen Foster. After Worcester County's representative to the Whig Convention of 1848, Charles Allen, declared the Whig Party dissolved because of its stance on slavery and returned to Worcester, he was greeted with jubilation. At a reception held in his honor at City Hall, he spoke to the crowds which overflowed on to the Common, Front Street and Main Street. After he spoke, his brother, Rev George Allen proposed this resolution: "Resolved: That Massachusetts goes now and will forever go for free soil, free men, for free lips, for a free land and a free world." Thus was the beginning of the Free Soil Party. The first postage stamps were issued in the United States in 1847. To see some of the Postal Markings used during the early days of adhesive stamps, please go to the page titled When Adhesives Were Introduced on my website.
During the Civil War, a total of 3967 men from Worcester enlisted for duty. They served in fifty different regiments of infantry, fourteen regiments of cavalry and five of artillery. They fought and died in every major engagement of the war. Those that stayed home enthusiastically supported the army. Speeches were given at Mechanics Hall. Women made bandages and looked after wounded soldiers sent to Worcester for treatment. The Dale Hospital, which opened in September of 1864, treated almost 1200 soldiers.
The escape route for southern slaves, the "Underground Railway" included Worcester as one of its stations. Many escaped slaves found comfort and solace at the "Liberty Farm" on their way north to Canada and freedom. This farm was located on Mower Street and was owned by Abolitionist Stephen Foster and his wife, Abby Kelley Foster, who was a national leader in the anti-slavery movement.
Worcester businesses contributed to the war effort. Osgood Bradley produced gun carriages. George Crompton made looms for the woolen mills. Gun barrels were manufactured by Nathan Washburn while Mayo and Fox made woolen kersey fabric for soldier's clothing.
It is evident that the Civil War caused deep resentment between many folks from the North and the South. Worcester is noted for two Fancy Cancels which portray two hands joined in a handshake with the words "NORTH" and "SOUTH" or the letters "N" and "S" above and below the clasped hands. It is believed that these were made and used as a gesture of reconciliation between the Yanks and the Rebs. Examples of these Fancy Cancels can be found on the page titled A Selection Of Fancy Cancels on my website.
Worcester's manufacturing history has three eras. The first period starts with the building of a water-driven saw mill and grist mill on Mill Brook by Captain John Wing in 1685 and ends with the passage of the Embargo Act in 1807. The second period extends from 1807 to about 1840 when the number and type of water mills in Worcester increased dramatically. The third period began with the introduction of steam power and the advent of the railroads.
Worcester's early mills were generally small and produced only limited amounts of goods. They were located along the many water courses in Worcester including Mill Brook, Tatnuck Brook, Beaver Brook, Kettle Brook, Lynde Brook and Parsons Brook. All these brooks generally start in the area near Mount Wachusett and all empty into the Blackstone River. These brooks saw grist mills, cotton mills, woolen mills, saw mills, fulling (hammer) mills and wire mills along their banks.
After 1807, home production in the United States increased and so did manufacturing in Worcester. By the mid-1800s, Worcester was producing shoes, wool carding machines, mail coaches, railway coaches, wagons, firearms, machine tools, textiles, carpets, wire and screws but the manufacturing processes were still fairly primitive and the shops were small. With the advent of steam power, however, Industrial Worcester flourished.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, wire making became Worcester's greatest industry. Wire was required by farmers for fencing during the western expansion. Morse's telegraph of 1843 required miles of wire for interconnections. Fashions of the day required proper women to be attired in hoop skirts. Worcester's premier wire manufacturing company, Washburn-Moen, produced over 1500 tons of hoop skirt wire annually. In 1889, Washburn-Moen produced over 100,000 miles of barbed wire for western cattle ranchers. In 1876, Bell invented the telephone. About the same time, Edison produced the electric light. Both these inventions required wire for their use and Washburn-Moen made much of it. A selection of advertisements from early Worcester companies can be seen on the page titled Vintage Advertisements on my website.
Isaiah Thomas, the first Worcester printer, was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1749. He began publishing "The Massachusetts Spy" in Boston on July 17, 1770. His criticism of the British government soon brought him into conflict with the authorities. After he was openly threatened by British soldiers, he packed his press and type and sent them secretly to Worcester just a few days before the Battle of Lexington. Timothy Bigelow, along with two friends, undertook the difficult and dangerous task of moving the press. The press was ferried, under the dark of night, out of Charlestown and then transported overland to Worcester. The press was set up, at first, in the basement of Bigelow's home at Lincoln Square in Worcester.
Isaiah Thomas went to Lexington and joined the militia in opposing the British troops on the 19th of April. He then continued to Worcester and on the 20th of April he opened his printing office. He reestablished the paper "The Massachusetts Spy" and on May 3, 1775, in its first Worcester issue, published and eye-witness account of the Lexington battle. This was the first printing done in any inland city in New England.
Besides his printing business, Isaiah Thomas established a book binding company and a paper mill. In 1788, Thomas published America's first dictionary in Worcester. In 1812, Thomas founded the world-famous American Antiquarian Society, which was the first national historic society founded in America.
Worcester is also associated with several other notable "firsts" in America. As early as 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. He also standardized parts of other products and opened the way for mass production.
In 1835 Osgood Bradley built the cars for the Boston and Worcester Railroad, probably the first passenger cars made in America.
The first letter-spacing typewriter was invented in Worcester in 1843 by Charles Thurber.
Elias Howe in 1846 patented the first lock-stitch sewing machine.
In 1852 a physician, Dr Russell L Hawes invented the first machine for folding plain paper into envelopes.
The first piano wire drawn in America came from a Worcester mill.
Erastus Bigelow invented the first power carpet loom.
Thomas Blanchard invented the first lathe for irregular shapes.
In 1854, the land for Worcester's Elm Park was identified as being the first purchase of land in the United States for a public park.
From Worcester came the first steam calliope which was invented by Joshua Stoddard in 1855.
Worcester is also noted as the home of the street lunch cart.
The first mass-produced Valentine's Day greeting cards were made by Esther Howland, the daughter of a Worcester stationer.
The first bicycle made in America was built in Worcester in 1878 by W H Pierce.
The first Anti-G suit, which prevents pilots from blacking-out under severe maneuvers, was invented in Worcester by David Clark during World War II.
After graduating from Worcester Polytechnic Institute and while a faculty member at Clark University, Robert H Goddard designed then static-tested the first liquid-fueled rocket. He flew his rocket in March of 1926 at his Aunt Effie's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts.
The first "Perfect Game" in professional baseball was pitched by J Lee Richmond on June 12, 1880, when the Worcester Ruby Legs retired the Clevelands in order nine straight times.
The poem "Casey at the Bat" was written by Ernest Thayer, a graduate of Worcester's Classical High School.
The Birth Control Pill was developed at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology by Doctor Gregory Pincus and Doctor Min-Chueh Chang.
Worcester's Higgins Armory Musuem has the largest disply of armor in the western hemisphere.
Judge Webster Thayer of Worcester presided over the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who were tried, convicted and executed for the double-murder committed during a robbery. Thayer was widely criticized for his apparent mis-handling of the trial and his charge to the jury.
Abbie Hoffman, founder of the radical Yippie Movement of the 1960s and one of the "Chicago Seven", was a native of Worcester.
George Bancroft, founder of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, was a native of Worcester.
Marshall "Major" Taylor was known as "The Worcester Whirlwind" in the sport of bicycle racing. He was the first black athlete to win an international competition of any kind.
Actor and comedian Denis Leary is a Worcester native.
Three members of the 1960s rock band "Orpheus" were from Worcester - Jack McKenes, Bruce Arnold and John Gulliksen. One of theirs songs, "Congress Alley", was named for the Worcester street where the band hung-out and practiced.
Before he became President, John Adams taught school in Worcester.
As a Congressman, Abraham Lincoln came to Worcester for the 1848 Whig Party State Convention and made a speech at Worcester's Old City Hall, which stood at the corner of Main and Front Streets.
President William Taft came to Worcester in 1914 for the Trainmen's Convention.
President Teddy Roosevelt came to both Clark University and Holy Cross College in 1900 to attend their commencement exercises.
President Lyndon Johnson came to Holy Cross College in Worcester in 1964 to give the commencement address.
Dick Smith, a DJ with Worcester Radio Station WORC, was the first to "break" the Token's song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in the fall of 1961.
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