We drove south out of Worcester on Route 146 the other day. Those who have lived in Worcester long enough know that the view used to be quite different. The land upon which sits a Wal-Mart, Olive Garden and Sam’s Club used to he home to American Wire & Cable Co.
At its peak, American Wire & Cable employed more than 3,000 people in three Worcester plants. The one in Quinsigamond Village was named the South Works. You probably are more familiar with its counterpart off Grove Street, the North Works.
We thought about the Quinsigamond Village land, past and present.
According to a National Park Service report, its first industrial use “was Isaiah Thomas’s water powered, two-vat, paper mill established in 1794 on the headwaters of the Blackstone River just below the confluence of the Middle River and Mill Brook at Quinsigamond Falls (present-day Hurley Square) where Thomas constructed his dam (Pierce and Andrews 1795).”
In 1846, Ichabod and Charles Washburn turned the paper mill into the I & C Washburn Wire Manufacturers Co. The company and its factory continued to grow. In 1868, the company became Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Co. and began a two-decades-long period of major expansion.
“Worcester saw continued industrial development, new housing construction, an expanding immigrant population, and the growth of newer transportation technologies,” the NPS report states.
In 1899, American Steel & Wire purchased Washburn & Moen. A year later, it merged with United States Steel. “The merger initiated a period of increased specialization and gradual decline during the twentieth century,” according to the report.
In the 1920s and ’30s, “large departments were relocated from Worcester to United States Steel plants in the west.” The North Works closed in 1943 and another facility, the Central Works, was shut down later.
The South Works operated until 1977, after which various businesses, including metals recycling, operated there, but by no means did it employ as many people as the plant did at its peak.
The site began to be transformed in 2005. The area was rezoned, building razed and land cleared. A Wal-Mart superstore was proposed in 2007 and opened in 2010. Other businesses appeared later, all consumer-focused.
Once it was home to jobs — some well-paying and some not, but a great number of jobs that existed for a very long time. Jobs in which people produced material goods, earned enough to support families and start and live middle-class lives.
Forty years after the plant closed, the land had been transformed. There are many fewer jobs, and the prime use is not to create products but to sell them. Its major employer is continually criticized for the number of its employees who require government food assistance.
We asked ourselves a lot of questions the day we drove down 146. How common is that type of transformation? Is this a function of decisions made locally or are there larger economic forces at work? Is this good or bad for the Worcester economy? If we can answer those questions, can we somehow divine what the future holds.
Welcome to Worcesternomics.
Worcesternomics will be a recurring feature in the Sun that will try to answer those questions and others like it.
The goal of Worcesternomics is to view the economy at large through a Worcester perspective. We’ll try to engage the best economic minds in the city to give you a better understanding of what Worcester was, what it is, and what it will become.