Center for Community Engagement

‘Making history come alive’

Amherst and Holyoke Community Colleges team up to recreate Holyoke’s history



As one of the country’s first planned industrial cities, Holyoke, Massachusetts has seemingly always been one step ahead of national trends in changing landscapes and fortunes.


During the mid-nineteenth century, eager entrepreneurs rapidly transformed the once-pastoral landscape into a booming city of production, relying on a steady stream of immigrants and the construction of a dam on the Connecticut River to realize their industrial dream. As job opportunities flourished, immigrants arrived to Holyoke in waves from Ireland, Canada, Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Puerto Rico throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the first half of the twentieth century. Holyoke became world famous for its paper production, earning the enviable nickname, “Paper City of the World.” Yet just as Holyoke had been a frontrunner in America’s industrial transformation, so was Holyoke also one of the first cities to be confronted with the challenging process of deindustrialization: as production became globalized, the once active paper and textile mills fell into steady decline. Today, Holyoke is a city that both takes pride in its past and actively engages the question of what it means to be a postindustrial city in the twenty-first century. With the support of the Engaged Scholarship Initiative, students in this spring’s history seminar, Immigrant City, will investigate Holyoke’s history and translate their research into an interactive computer game that allows users to explore Holyoke in each of these eras.

Immigrant City is a joint collaboration between Amherst College’s Frank Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies, and Holyoke Community College’s Mark Clinton, Professor of Political Science. Couvares first developed the idea for the course last year as he was preparing to create a new history seminar. “I wanted to do something in urban history, and I used to teach labor history. I start[ed] thinking about Holyoke— there’s one really good study of immigration and labor industrialization of Holyoke. Ben Lieber, Dean of Academic Support and Student Research at Amherst, asked if I wanted to collaborate with Holyoke Community College.” Couvares agreed, and quickly discovered that he and Clinton were “simpatico.” It wasn’t until a suggestion from Scott Payne, Director of Amherst’s Academic Technology Services, that the idea of using historical data to create a simulated environment became part of the seminar. “Without Scott Payne, we couldn’t possibly be doing this. He told us, ‘You can generate simulations of historical events based on real historical data.’ I thought that this could really be interesting.”

The seminar has 12 students from both colleges and meets weekly, rotating between the Amherst campus and the Holyoke campus. For both Couvares and Clinton, the course is as much about the collaborative process between Amherst and Holyoke students as it is about the historical research. “I want the opportunity for Holyoke Community College students and Amherst College students to not just be in the same class, but in the same research teams. They will work as partners: choosing research topics, working in teams, inputting their data into the computer software,” Couvares notes. To help frame the scope of the students’ research, Couvares and Clinton hired a summer research assistant to generate a dataset of available Holyoke archives. ” We compiled the information about, and databases of, materials that students can use on their research projects.” Meanwhile, Payne worked closely with a summer research assistant of his own— a student who learned ARIS, the computer simulation software, and did a test simulation using the town of Amherst as a case study.


Students in the course will dive into the rich archival materials and spend time discovering the city of Holyoke as part of their process in developing the computer simulation game. “A part of history seminar is archival research, but also we want to emphasize the physical landscape of Holyoke— [students will] map out neighborhoods and landscapes of the city and show it changing over time,” Couvares explains, adding, “I want to get students into the city as a space in time, not just people in time, but a space that has people in time.” While creating a simulated game of Holyoke will certainly engage students with history in a new way, ultimately, the game will be made available to the community as an educational tool. “Everything we do will be filed in Holyoke Community College and the Holyoke Public Library and will be available to anyone who wants it.” The students in Immigrant City will offer Holyoke residents a new way of exploring their rich history while collaborating with new peers and a community in an entirely new way. Couvares is thrilled to watch it all unfold. “In general, I like to get people out of the classroom to make history come alive.”

PHOTOS, top to bottom: 1) Color wood-engraving of the 1849 wooden dam, image courtesy of Wistariahurst Museum Archives, Holyoke, MA. 2) Black-and-white photograph of the 1900 stone dam, still in place today. Image courtesy of Wistariahurst Museum Archives, Holyoke, MA. 3)The Holyoke dam in 2012, photo by Katherine Berry.

Jenny Morgan is a CCE staff writer. She loves typewriters, Independent Lens (as seen on PBS), and egg sandwiches. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.