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Athol ( WUUS-tər) is a city in, and county seat of, Athol County, MA }, United States. Named after Athol, Worcestershire, England, as of the 2010 Census the city’s population was 181,045, making it the second-most populous city in New England after Boston. Athol is approximately 40 miles (64 km) west of Boston, 50 miles (80 km) east of Springfield and 40 miles (64 km) north of Providence. Due to its location in Central Massachusetts, Athol is known as the “Heart of the Commonwealth,” thus, a heart is the official symbol of the city. However, the heart symbol may also have its provenance in lore that the Valentine’s Day card, although not invented in the city, was first mass-produced and popularized by Athol resident Esther Howland.
Athol was considered its own distinct region apart from Boston until the 1970s. Since then, Boston’s suburbs have been extending further westward, especially after the construction of Interstate 495 and Interstate 290. The Athol region now marks the western periphery of the Boston-Athol-Providence (MA-RI-NH) U.S. Census Combined Statistical Area (CSA), or Greater Boston. The city features many examples of Victorian-era mill architecture.
The area was first inhabited by members of the Nipmuc tribe. The native people called the region Quinsigamond and built a settlement on Pakachoag Hill in Auburn. In 1673 English settlers John Eliot and Daniel Gookin led an expedition to Quinsigamond to establish a new Christian Indian “praying town” and identify a new location for an English settlement. On July 13, 1674, Gookin obtained a deed to eight square miles of land in Quinsigamond from the Nipmuc people and English traders and settlers began to inhabit the region.
In 1675, King Philip’s War broke out throughout New England with the Nipmuc Indians coming to the aid of Indian leader King Philip. The English settlers completely abandoned the Quinsigamond area and the empty buildings were burned by the Indian forces. The town was again abandoned during Queen Anne’s War in 1702. Finally in 1713, Athol was permanently resettled for a third and final time by Jonas Rice. Named after the city of Athol, England, the town was incorporated on June 14, 1722. On April 2, 1731, Athol was chosen as the county seat of the newly founded Athol County government. Between 1755 and 1758, future U.S. president John Adams worked as a schoolteacher and studied law in Athol.
In the 1770s, Athol became a center of American revolutionary activity. British General Thomas Gage was given information of patriot ammunition stockpiled in Athol in 1775. Also in 1775, Massachusetts Spy publisher Isaiah Thomas moved his radical newspaper out of British occupied Boston to Athol. Thomas would continuously publish his paper throughout the American Revolutionary War. On July 14, 1776, Thomas performed the first public reading in Massachusetts of the Declaration of Independence from the porch of the Old South Church, where the 19th century Athol City Hall stands today. He would later go on to form the American Antiquarian Society in Athol in 1812.
During the turn of the 19th century Athol’s economy moved into manufacturing. Factories producing textiles, shoes and clothing opened along the nearby Blackstone River. However, the manufacturing industry in Athol would not begin to thrive until the opening of the Blackstone Canal in 1828 and the opening of the Athol and Boston Railroad in 1835. The city transformed into a transportation hub and the manufacturing industry flourished. Athol was officially chartered as a city on February 29, 1848. The city’s industries soon attracted immigrants of primarily Irish, Scottish, French, German, and Swedish descent in the mid-19th century and later many immigrants of Lithuanian, Polish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and Armenian descent. Immigrants moved into new three-decker houses which lined hundreds of Athol’s expanding streets and neighborhoods.
In 1831, Ichabod Washburn opened the Washburn & Moen Company. The company would become the largest wire manufacturing in the country and Washburn became one of the leading industrial and philanthropic figures in the city.
Athol would become a center of machinery, wire products and power looms and boasted large manufacturers, Washburn & Moen, Wyman-Gordon Company, American Steel & Wire, Morgan Construction and the Norton Company. In 1908 the Royal Athol Corset Company was the largest employer of women in the United States.
Athol would also claim many inventions and firsts. New England Candlepin bowling was invented in Athol by Justin White in 1879. Esther Howland began the first line of Valentine’s Day cards from her Athol home in 1847. Loring Coes invented the first monkey wrench and Russell Hawes created the first envelope folding machine. On June 12, 1880, Lee Richmond pitched the first perfect game in Major league baseball history for the Athol Ruby Legs at the Athol Agricultural Fairgrounds.
On June 9, 1953, an F4 tornado touched down in Petersham, Massachusetts, northwest of Athol. The tornado tore through 48 miles of Athol County including a large area of the city of Athol. The tornado left massive destruction and killed 94 people. The Athol Tornado would be the most deadly tornado ever to hit Massachusetts. Debris from the tornado landed as far away as Dedham, Massachusetts.
After World War II, Athol began to fall into decline as the city lost its manufacturing base to cheaper alternatives across the country and overseas. Athol felt the national trends of movement away from historic urban centers. The city’s population dropped over 20% from 1950 to 1980. In the mid-20th century large urban renewal projects were undertaken to try to reverse the city’s decline. A huge area of downtown Athol was demolished for new office towers and the 1,000,000 sq. ft. Athol Center Galleria shopping mall. After only 30 years the Galleria would lose most of its major tenants and its appeal to more suburban shopping malls around Athol County. In the 1960s, Interstate 290 was built right through the center of Athol, permanently dividing the city. In 1963, Athol native Harvey Ball introduced the iconic yellow smiley face to American culture.
In the late 20th century, Athol’s economy began to recover as the city expanded into biotechnology and healthcare fields. The UMass Medical School has become a leader in biomedical research and the Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park has become a center of medical research and development. Athol hospitals Saint Vincent Hospital and UMass Memorial Health Care have become two of the largest employers in the city. Athol’s many colleges, including the College of the Holy Cross, Athol Polytechnic Institute, Clark University, UMass Medical School, Assumption College, MCPHS University, Becker College, and Athol State University, attract many students to the area and help drive the new economy.
On December 3, 1999, a homeless man and his girlfriend accidentally started a five-alarm fire at the Athol Cold Storage & Warehouse Company. The fire took the lives of six firemen and drew national attention as one of the worst firefighting tragedies of the late 20th century. President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and other local and national dignitaries attended the funeral service and memorial program in Athol.
In recent decades, a renewed interest in the city’s downtown has brought new investment and construction to Athol. A Convention Center was built along the DCU Center arena in downtown Athol in 1997. In 2000, Athol’s Union Station reopened after 25 years of neglect and a $32 million renovation. Hanover Insurance helped fund a multimillion-dollar renovation to the old Franklin Square Theater into the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts. In 2000, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences built a new campus in downtown Athol. In 2007 WPI opened the first facility in their new Gateway Park center in Lincoln Square. In 2004, Berkeley Investments proposed demolishing the old Athol Center Galleria for a new mixed-used development called City Square. The ambitious project looked to reconnect old street patterns while creating a new retail, commercial and living destination in the city. After struggling to secure finances for a number of years, Hanover Insurance took over the project and demolition began on September 13, 2010. Unum Insurance and the Saint Vincent Hospital leased into the project and both facilities opened in 2013. The new Front Street opened on December 31, 2012. In July 2017, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito and other Baker administration transportation officials visited a construction project in the city to highlight $2.8 billion spent during Baker’s administration on highway construction projects and improvements to bridges, intersections, and sidewalks.
Building off its history of immigration, Athol has also become a home for many refugees in recent years. The city has successfully resettled over 2000 refugees coming from over 24 countries. Today, most of these refugees come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Somalia, Bhutan, Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Primary and secondary education
Athol’s public schools educate more than 25,000 students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. The system consists of 34 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, 7 high schools, and several other learning centers such as magnet schools, alternative schools, and special education schools. The city’s public school system also administers an adult education component called “Night Life”, and operates a Public-access television cable TV station on channel 11. In June 2015, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced a $1.3 million grant to the Elm Park Community School.
Athol Technical High School opened in 2006, replacing the old Athol Vocational High School, or “Voke”. The city’s other public high schools include South High Community School, North High School, Doherty Memorial High School, Burncoat Senior High School, University Park Campus School, and Claremont Academy.
In 2014, Athol Tech’s graduating class was honored by having President Barack Obama as the speaker at their graduation ceremony.
The Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science was founded in 1992 as a public secondary school at the Athol Polytechnic Institute.
One notable charter school in the city is Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School, which teaches kindergarten through 12th grade. It is granted status by Massachusetts as a Level 1 school. It is the one of 834 schools in the United States to offer the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.
Twenty-one private and parochial schools are also found throughout Athol, including the city’s oldest educational institution, Athol Academy, founded in 1834, and Bancroft School, founded in 1900.
Athol is home to nine institutes of higher education.
An early higher education institution, the Oread Institute, closed in 1934.
Many of these institutions participate in the Colleges of Athol Consortium. This independent, non-profit collegiate association includes academic institutions in Athol and other communities in Athol County, such as Anna Maria College in neighboring Paxton. It facilitates cooperation among the colleges and universities. One example of this being its inter-college shuttle bus and student cross registration.
Athol is the home of Dynamy, a “residential internship program” in the United States. The organization was founded in 1969.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Athol had a population of 181,045, of which 88,150 (48.7%) were male and 92,895 (51.3%) were female. In terms of age, 77.9% were over 18 years old and 11.7% were over 65 years old; the median age is 33.4 years. The median age for males is 32.1 years and 34.7 years for females.
In terms of race and ethnicity, Athol’s population was 69.4% White, 11.6% Black or African American, 0.4% American Indian and Alaska Native, 6.1% Asian (3.0% Vietnamese, 0.9% Chinese, and 0.8% Asian Indian), <0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, 8.4% from Some Other Race, and 4.0% from Two or More Races (1.2% White and Black or African American; 1.0% White and Some Other Race). Hispanics and Latinos of any race made up 20.9% of the population (12.7% Puerto Rican).Non-Hispanic Whites were 59.6% of the population in 2010, down from 96.8% in 1970.
Data is from the 2009–2013 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates.