Transportation and Travel: Northfield’s location in the heart of New England made it a hub for the new railroads crisscrossing the region. Sitting at the confluence of the Connecticut and Millers rivers, one rail line connected Northfield to Millers Falls on the eastern side of the Connecticut River and the other primary route connected Northfield to Vernon, Vermont on the western side. This fueled the trade of farm crops and the growth of commercial farming. It also encouraged the development of food processing facilities for canning and pickling, as well as the creation of the Northfield Cooperative Creamery (on the Northfield campus).
Beginning in the 1840’s, passenger trains ran from New London, Connecticut to White River Junction, Vermont, via several Western Massachusetts towns including Palmer, Amherst, Millers Falls, and Northfield. By the late 1800’s, Northfield boasted four railway stations. Until passenger rail service ceased in 1959, if you were going anywhere in New England by train, you went through Northfield.
Education and Religion: Due to the educational and religious fervor of the times, the town became home to several academies. Impressed by the sophisticated rail access and the availability of land, native son D.L. Moody and his famiy founded the Northfield Seminary for Young Women in 1879 and two years later, the Mount Hermon Boys School across the river in Gill. Through their efforts, Northfield became an internationally-known center for missionary training and Protestant thought and influenced the character of Northfield. The Town of Northfield enjoyed a reputation as "school town".
Recreation and Tourism: Northfield's picturesque hills, clean air, ponds and streams, and rail service made it a popular destination for those city dwellers seeking a summer retreat from heavily industrialized urban centers like New York City. A grand hotel -- The Northfield Inn -- with an array of amenities and sports like golf, tennis, swimming and ice skating, drew wealthy tourists, celebrities and politicians to town, including President Theodore Roosevelt. Small scale retail and service businesses sprang up in response to the influx of tourists.
While building his grand summer home, the Chateau, Moody devotee Robert Francis Schell, donated $60,000 to the Town for the building of a pedestrian and vehicular bridge connecting passengers from the East Northfield railroad station (on the west side) to East Northfield. Completed in 1904, the Schell Memorial Bridge connected thousands of tourists to Northfield, as well as students between the two campuses of the girls and boys schools. In 1939, the American Youth Hostel movement was founded in Northfield, bringing hundreds of youth outfitted with backpacks and bicycles by rail to begin their tours of upper New England.
The development of the automobile brought a new industry to town where auto repair and even manufacturing shops and service stations dotted the landscape and touring became a popular pastime and source of visitors.
Eventually, the Town of Northfield saw the loss of most of its mills and shops to the more urban towns of Greenfield, Brattleboro, and Keene. Adding to the erosion of the town's commercial and industrial base, farming also began a serious decline. Small dairy farms were consolidated into larger commercial ones. Throughout the twentieth century, education remained the town's principal industry and employer.
Northfield was tested during the twentieth century, when the town experienced two punishing floods and the 1938 hurricane. The river, always a source of sustenance, took a huge toll on the town. The devastating effects on the community from fires and natural disasters were evident in the photographic record, reminding us how the work of generations can be destroyed in a few hours. After the disasters, however, Northfield's people responded by forming clubs, building new public schools, and coming together to celebrate important historical milestones with parades, festivals and pageants.
Northfield Open Space and Recreation Plan 2021-2028