Fall River was originally called “Quequechan,” which meant “falling water” by the Wampanoag Indians. The Wampanoag’s named the area for the small river that turned into steep falls before flowing into the Taunton River. Quequechan was the ancestral home of the Wampanoag Indians until King Phillip’s War in 1675.
An abundant water supply along with access to the Taunton River made “falling river” a great place to settle during the colonial period prior to the Revolutionary War. Ultimately the Quequechan River attracted thousands of people from all over the world. These people provided Fall River with a diversity of character held together by cohesion built on local pride that characterizes the spirit behind Fall River’s resurgence as America’s “Spindle City.”
Manufacturing is not new in Fall River. While no one city can lay claim to being the birth of American manufacturing, Fall River was a key contributor to the origins and success of the American Industrial Revolution. Driving Fall River’s early growth was a booming manufacturing industry founded on print clothe production. Construction of the Durfee Mill heralded the beginning of tremendous growth and prosperity. By 1850 the railroad connected Fall River to Boston and New York resulting in people seeking opportunity to pour into the area in vast numbers. Fall River’s population swelled to over 120000 by the end of the nineteenth century.
The manufacturing of cotton into print clothe was the leading industry in Fall River. By 1880, Fall River was the leading textile city in the United States, with over 500,000 spindles producing 1/6 of all New England’s cotton capacity. Fall River also produced one half of all print cloth production in the world, which is why it became known as the “Spindle City.” In 1911, the city hosted the "Cotton Centennial", which was a large week long celebration of the city's textile industry. A highlight of the Cotton Centennial was the attendance of President William Howard Taft. 1911 was also the organizational year of the Bristol County Chamber of Commerce.
The mills of Fall River had built their business largely around one product, which was print cloth. World War I sustained the print cloth industry a little longer. Many of the mills in New England benefited during this time, but the post-war economy quickly slowed. Also hurting the industry was that production had finally outpaced world demand. By 1920, Fall River’s mills were now facing serious competition from their southern counterparts as labor was cheaper in the resurgent South. The South also had the benefit of transportation and machinery investments from the North. As production moved to Tennessee and other southern states, the mills in Fall River began to consolidate, or close. Many low skill jobs were lost in the process.
The “Great Fire” of 1928 was an additional factor in the decline of Fall River’s mill industry. Whole sections of the once vibrant downtown area were wiped out. Not giving up on their city, the business community in Fall River pooled their resources in an effort to rebuild. “We’ll try” to rebuild become the city motto. They were successful. Today, many of the structures near the corner of North Main and Bedford Street date from the early 1930s, as they were rebuilt after the Great Fire.
The Great Depression also had a tremendous impact on Fall River’s economic evolution. By 1940, there were just 17 industrial companies still in operation, as compared to 49 in 1917. With the demise of the textile industry, many of the city's mills would become occupied by several smaller companies. Taking advantage of cheap mill space and an eager workforce was the garment industry of New York. The New York garment industry established itself into Fall River during the period immediately after World War II. An economic resurgence followed. By the mid 1940’s, nearly one-fifth of the city's workforce was employed within the garment industry.
In the 1960s the city's landscape was drastically transformed. After World War II, the federal government and Massachusetts began planning and constructing new highway networks to link major cities while easing urban congestion. Several highway infrastructure projects were erected, which included the Braga Bridge, the Route 79 Interchange system (originally referred to as the Fall River Expressway) and Interstate 195.
A casualty to progress was the Quequechan River. The historic waterfalls, which had given Fall River its name, was filled in, and diverted into underground culverts that unceremoniously discharged into the Taunton River. A series of elevated steel viaducts, known now as the “Spaghetti Ramps,” were then constructed to access the new Braga Bridge. An unintended consequence was that Fall River became a place for commuters to drive over and past without stopping. The viaducts also hindered local commerce by cutting off the business districts from the waterfront. Then the garment industry bottomed out and manufacturing during the 1980’s and 1990’s fell victim to the economics of globalism. Adding to local economic challenges were several devastating mill fires.
Ironically, it was from the ashes of the devastating fire at the former Kerr Mill Complex that Fall River’s economic resurgence as a modern “Spindle City” had its genesis. The Kerr Mill site has been redeveloped into the Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center (ATMC) of UMass-Dartmouth. The $14 million ATMC, financed by the Massachusetts Development Agency, marked Fall River’s entrance into a diversified economic strategy.
Having learned from the past, private, government and education partners are engaged in a collaborative effort underway since the 1990’s to diversify the economy, redesign and upgrade the 1960’s infrastructure and renovate area assets in order to cultivate existing and emerging industries. The goal is to build a robust diversified economy built on niche manufacturing, green technology, life sciences, transportation, distribution, professional services and a creative economy.
Replacement of the Route 79 spaghetti ramps with a waterfront boulevard that connects Route 79 to Route 24 has been a critical step toward Fall River’s economic resurgence. This $200 million project directs motorist through Fall River’s waterfront attractions while also opening up approximately nine acres of land for commercial development along the scenic Taunton River. The new boulevard also adds to the quality of life for area residents by providing an enhanced multipurpose waterfront walking and biking pathway which passes Commonwealth Landing, Battleship Cove and several marinas.
The $200 million Route 79 project is significant, but it is only one of several important infrastructure investments to Fall River. The Veterans Memorial Bridge project, which replaced the Brightman Street Bridge, was completed in 2011. It serves as the primary connection point for both Fall River and Somerset. The Veterans Memorial Bridge also directs commuter traffic northward to Boston as it interconnects with the northern section of Route 79.
The opening of the Veterans Memorial Bridge compliments the completed Route 24 exit 8B project. That $50 million infrastructure investment created direct highway access to the newly established SouthCoast Life Sciences and Technology Park in Fall River. Another important upgrade is that once dormant CSX railway lines running along the waterfront are now active as commercial freight moved by Mass Coastal Rail is transported daily to and from Fall River. The commercial rail infrastructure is currently being upgraded and expanded for higher speeds. These investments (made with both private and public funds) lay the foundation for tourism and commuter rail services to Fall River.
Over the past decade industry has also rediscovered the Taunton River for niche short sea shipping operations at the Stateline Pier facility. High speed ferry service from Fall River to Newport and Block Island is another new feature available at the Stateline Pier.
The bottom line is that Fall River is an economic hub in Bristol County.