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Western Massachusetts is a region in Massachusetts, one of the six U.S. states that make up the New England region of the United States. Western Massachusetts has diverse topography; 22 universities, with approximately 100,000 university students; and such institutions as Tanglewood, the Springfield Armory, and Jacob's Pillow.
The western part of Western Massachusetts includes the Berkshire Mountains, where there are several vacation resorts. The eastern part of the region includes the Connecticut River Valley, which has a number of university towns, the major city Springfield, and numerous agricultural hamlets. In the eastern part of the area, the Quabbin region is a place of outdoor recreation.
The western portion of Massachusetts consists approximately of the four counties of Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden and Berkshire. This set of four counties is sometimes regarded as defining Western Massachusetts; for example, the Western Massachusetts Office of the Governor serves residents of these counties. Towns at the western edge of Worcester County, especially those near the Quabbin Reservoir, may be considered to be in western Massachusetts for some purposes; for example, two Worcester County towns have telephone numbers in western Massachusetts's area code 413.
Hampden County, with over half of the population of western Massachusetts, includes the City of Springfield; to the north, Hampshire County contains the college towns of Northampton, Amherst and South Hadley; further north, rural Franklin County borders Vermont and New Hampshire; to the west is Berkshire County, bordering New York, Vermont and Connecticut and the other three counties.
After a number of county governments were eliminated in Massachusetts in the late 1990s (including Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden, Berkshire and Worcester), most county functions were assigned to the state government. The municipalities of Franklin and Hampshire counties then organized two voluntary county-oriented "regional councils of government".
New England's largest river, the Connecticut, flows through the center of its agricultural valley. Nearly bisected by the American east coast's only east-west mountain ranges (the Holyoke Range and the Mount Tom Range), this relatively small area contains a number of college towns, urban environments, and rural hamlets. The portion of this valley in Massachusetts is also commonly referred to as the Pioneer Valley.
At its southern tip, the Springfield-Hartford region is home to 29 universities and over 160,000 university students--the United States' second highest concentration of higher learning institutions after the Boston metropolitan area.
Innovations originating in the valley include the sports of basketball (James Naismith, 1895) and volleyball (William Morgan, 1895); the first American automobile (Duryea, 1893); the first motorcycle company (Indian, 1901); the first use of interchangeable parts in manufacturing (Thomas Blanchard, 1825); and the first commercial radio station, (WBZ, 1920, from Springfield's Kimball Hotel).
Significant Massachusetts towns and cities in the valley's so-called "Knowledge Corridor" include Northampton, Amherst, Easthampton, Holyoke, Chicopee, West Springfield, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow, Ludlow, Agawam, and Westfield.
The Connecticut River Valley is an ancient downfaulted graben or rift valley that formed during the Mesozoic Era when rifting developed in the Pangaea supercontinent to separate North America from Europe and South America from Africa. Secondary rifts branched off the main crustal fracture, and this one was eventually occupied by the Connecticut River. The Metacomet Ridge is a series of narrow traprock ridges where lava penetrated this rift zone, beginning at the northern end of the graben near Greenfield and extending south across Massachusetts and Connecticut to Long Island Sound. Fossil dinosaur footprints in Holyoke attest to the life present in this region during the Mesozoic.
As continental glaciers receded near the end of the last glacial period, a moraine at Rocky Hill, Connecticut dammed the river to create Lake Hitchcock, extending northward some 200 miles (320 km) inundating places such as Springfield, Agawam, and West Springfield, while certain highlands remained above water, (i.e. sections of Holyoke).
Accumulation of fine sediments iduring the era of Lake Hitchcock accounts for this region's exceptionally rich agricultural soil, which attracted settlers as early as 1635. Although the Connecticut River Valley's soil is the richest in New England, many of its fields have been covered by urban and suburban development. Regardless, the valley remains New England's most productive farmland. Tobacco, tomatoes, sweet corn, and other vegetables are still produced there in commercial quantities.
The Berkshires have long been patronized by artists (e.g. Herman Melville, who wrote Moby-Dick while living in Pittsfield; Edith Wharton, who wrote The House of Mirth and Ethan Frome while living in Lenox; and Norman Rockwell, many of whose painting were based on scenes that he observed in the town of Stockbridge. Cultural institutions include Lenox's Tanglewood, Becket's Jacob's Pillow, and Stockbridge's Norman Rockwell Museum, as well the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown]. The city of Pittsfield is the largest community located in the Berkshires.
The mountain range in Berkshire County at the western end of Massachusetts is conventionally known as the "Berkshires". Geologically, however, the Berkshires are a westward continuation of uplands west of the Connecticut River and a southern extension of Vermont's Green Mountains.
Maximum upland elevations increase nearly 1,000' (300 meters) from east to west, and 400' (120 meters) from south to north, so maximum elevations of The Berkshires proper are about 2,000' (600 meters) in the southwest and 2,400' (730 meters) in the northwest. The practical limit of agriculture is somewhat below 2,000' (600 meters). Above this climate and ecology become increasingly boreal with acidic soils.
The Hilltown-Berkshire upland ends at the valley of the Housatonic River which flows south to Long Island Sound, and in the extreme north west of Massachusetts at the Hoosic River, a tributary of the Hudson. From these valleys, uplands to the east appear as a rounded mountain range, rising some 1,600 feet (500 meters) although they are actually a plateau. West of the Housatonic-Hoosic valley system rises the narrower Taconic Range along the New York border. Upper tributaries of the Hoosic separate Massachusetts' highest peak, Mount Greylock 3,491' (1,064 meters) from both ranges, however Greylock's geology connects it with the Taconics.
In northern Massachusetts, the higher altitude area to the east of the Connecticut River Valley is known as the North Quabbin region. These northern municipalities include Warwick, Orange, Petersham, Phillipston, Wendell, New Salem, and Athol near the New Hampshire border.
The South Quabbin region (formerly the Swift River Valley) includes the towns of Barre, Belchertown, Pelham, Ware, Hardwick, Leverett, and Shutesbury. This area once included the four "Lost Towns" of Enfield, Dana, Greenwich, and Prescott, which were destroyed to make way for the Quabbin Reservoir.
Farther south, the area called the Quaboag Hills includes Hampden, Monson, Wales, Warren, Holland, and Wilbraham on the Connecticut border. Numerous other towns stretching east towards Worcester are sometimes included in the Quaboag Valley region.
Geology is similar to the Hilltown-Berkshire uplands with resistant metamorphic rocks overlain by thin and rocky soil. With less relief, the river valleys are less pronounced, but still moderately high gradient. The Quaboag Hills and Valley, the Quabbin Regions, and populated places stretching east towards Worcester are all locally known as "Hill Towns;" a term interchangeable with the Hill Towns west of the Pioneer Valley.
The Hilltowns include the areas of Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden Counties west of and above the escarpment bordering the ancient rift valley through which the Connecticut River flows. Elevations increase from about 200 feet (60 meters) to at least 1,000 feet in the escarpment zone. On top, elevations rise gradually to the west. Williamsburg in Hampshire County and Becket in Berkshire County are prominent Hilltowns. Generally, the Hilltowns west of the Connecticut River Valley were less attractive for agricultural uses, which resulted in later migration there than, for example, the fertile Connecticut River Valley. Subsistence farming predominated in this area.
The 1,000 foot (300 meter) elevation difference between uplands and the Connecticut River Valley produced streams and rivers with gradients around 40'/mile (8 meters/km) flowing through steep-sided valleys, notably the Westfield and Deerfield Rivers and their larger tributaries. Mills were built to exploit the kinetic energy of falling water and mill towns grew up around them, or company towns integrating production, residential and commercial activities.
The development of steam engines to free industrialization from reliance on water power brought about the so-called Second Industrial Revolution when railroads were built along the rivers to take advantage of relatively gentle grades over the Appalachians. And so as hilltop farming towns declined in importance, industrial towns in the river valleys rose to local prominence.
Most of this region is a rolling upland of schist, gneiss and other resistant metamorphics with intrusions of pegmatite and granite. Scraping by continental glaciers during the Pleistocene left thin, rocky soil that supported hardscrabble subsistence farming before the Industrial Revolution. There was hardly a land rush into such marginal land, but the uplands were slowly settled by farmers throughout most of the 18th century and organized into townships. Then in the early 1800s better land opened up in Western New York and the Northwest Territory. The hilltown agricultural population went into a long decline and fields began reverting to forest.
Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties, in the year 2000 collectively had 814,967 residents, a population greater than that of any one of the six smallest U.S. states. The population amounted to approximately 12.84% of the 2000 population of the entire state of Massachusetts, which was 6,349,097. Its average population density is 293.07 inhabitants per square mile (113.16/km2), compared to 422.34/km2 (1,093.87/sq mi) for the rest of Massachusetts, and 312.68/km2 (809.83/sq mi) for the state as a whole.
Western Massachusetts' population is concentrated in the cities and suburbs along the Connecticut River in an urban axis surrounding Springfield that is contiguous with greater Hartford, Connecticut (i.e. the Knowledge Corridor.) A secondary population concentration exists in the Housatonic-Hoosic valley due to the industrial heritage of Pittsfield and North Adams, and the development of tourism throughout that valley. This far-western zone is linked to New York City and Albany, New York more than with the rest of Massachusetts, however both populated zones are ultimately part of the Northeast megalopolis. The rest of Western Massachusetts is lightly populated, particularly the Hilltowns where densities below 50 persons per square mile (20 per km2) are the rule.
In descending order of size, its largest communities are: Springfield, Chicopee, Pittsfield, Westfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Agawam, West Springfield, Amherst Center (CDP), Easthampton, Longmeadow (CDP), East Longmeadow, North Adams, and Greenfield (CDP).
Western Massachusetts was originally settled by Native American societies, including the Pocomtuc, Nonotuck Mohawk, Nipmuck, and Mahican. The first European explorers to reach Western Massachusetts were English Puritans, who in 1635, at the request of William Pynchon, settled the land that they considered most advantageous for both agriculture and trading - in modern Agawam, adjacent to modern Metro Center, Springfield. In 1636, a group of English settlers--lured by the promise of a "great river" and the northeast's most fertile farmland--ventured to Springfield, where they established a permanent colony. Originally, this settlement was called Agawam Plantation, and administered by the Connecticut Colony. (Springfield lies only 4 miles north of Connecticut; however, Agawam included lands as far south as Windsor Locks, as far north as Holyoke, and as far west as Westfield.) In 1640, Springfield voted to separate from the Connecticut Colony following a series of contentious incidents, and after a brief period of independence, decided to align with the coastal Massachusetts Bay Colony, thereby shaping the region's political boundaries. The Massachusetts Bay Colony settled the Connecticut River Valley's most fertile land - stretching from Windsor, Connecticut, (once part of Springfield,) to Northampton, Massachusetts - from 1636 to 1654.
In 1675, at the insistence of Chief Metacomet, Springfield was burned to the ground during King Philip's War. Thus began a contentious period between the English settlers and the previously amenable Western Massachusetts Natives. In 1704, the French and their Native American allies led a Raid on Deerfield, Massachusetts, and ultimately burned it to the ground.
In 1777, George Washington and Henry Knox selected Springfield for the site of the fledgling United States' National Armory. Built atop high bluff overlooking the Connecticut River, Washington and Knox agreed that Springfield provided an ideal location--beside a great river and at the confluence of major rivers and highways--it was also easily defensible, due to its position just beyond the Connecticut's tidal influence. For the following 200 years, the Springfield Armory would bring concentrated prosperity and innovation to Springfield and its surrounding towns.
After the American Revolution, a rebellion led by Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary War veteran from East Pelham, culminated in a battle at the National Armory in Springfield. Shays and his followers, the Shaysites, hoped to win government reforms, including the issue of new currency and help for Continental soldiers who had incurred debts while fighting for independence. Shays' Rebellion is often considered the watershed event in the creation of the United States Constitution. Although crushed, this rebellion led Thomas Jefferson to declare that "a little revolution every twenty years or so is a good thing."
More than a few residents of Western Massachusetts take a critical attitude towards Boston, the state's capital and largest city. The belief held by this group is that the Massachusetts legislature and executive branch know little of and care little about Western Massachusetts--over 50% of the land in the state. Among the incidents that fuel this feeling:
Long a haven for small, independent businesses, Western Massachusetts has expressed conflicted feelings towards big box corporations, leading to controversies about zoning changes and variances that would allow companies such as Wal-Mart to build in Western Massachusetts towns. The debate has been particularly strong in northern towns; for example, in Greenfield, Massachusetts and Hadley, Massachusetts.
Whereas Western Massachusetts was once the Republican stronghold in an otherwise heavily Democratic state, it is now consistently viewed by political analysts as one of the most politically liberal regions in the United States. In 2006 and 2010, the region voted heavily in favor of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick.
In Crash!ng the Party, Ralph Nader includes Western Massachusetts, along with Vermont and his home state of Connecticut, as one of the few places in the country where he believes small-town spirit is still strong. In a 2010 editorial, the Boston Globe berated communities in northern Western Massachusetts for resisting efforts to force consolidation of local school districts. In response, the Franklin County School Committee Caucus released a map that overlaid the county north-to-south over Metro Boston. The overlay reached from Rhode Island in the south to New Hampshire in the north and Framingham in the west.
The decline of manufacturing as the region's economic engine since World War II--and in particular, since the controversial closing of the Springfield Armory--was counterbalanced in Western Massachusetts by growth in post-secondary education and healthcare.
This created new jobs, land development, and had gentrifying effects in many college towns. State and community-funded schools (e.g., University of Massachusetts Amherst and Westfield State University) were conspicuous in their growth, as were the region's highly regarded liberal arts colleges, including Williams founded 1793, Amherst founded 1821, Mount Holyoke founded 1837, Smith founded 1871, and American International founded 1885.