The Port of Fall River is on the east shore of Mount Hope Bay on the Taunton River in Massachusetts. About 18 miles southeast of Providence, Rhode Island, it was part of Freeman’s Purchase when Plymouth colonists bought a tract of land from the indigenous people there in 1659. Its most dubious claim to fame may be that it was the site of the trial of Lizzie Borden who was acquitted of the ax-murder of her father and stepmother.
The Port of Fall River was first settled by Plymouth colonists in 1686 when it was part of Freetown. Incorporated as Fallriver in 1803, the Port of Fall River is blessed with a fine harbor, plentiful waterpower, and a moist climate. These factors led to the development of Fall River as a textile milling town in the early 1800s. By 1871, the Port of Fall River was an important cotton-textile center. Its millworkers played an important role in the American labor movement, and it has been the site of many labor strikes.
Fall River derived its name from the indigenous Wampanoag name for what is now the Quequechan (meaning “Falling River”) that flows through underground tubes beneath the town today. Many falls were once visible on the river, but they were blasted away in 1962 to build a highway. Today, the waters come out at Battleship Cove, where you’ll find the world’s largest collection of World War II vessels like the USS Massachusetts (battleship), USS Joseph P. Kennedy (destroyer), USS Lionfish (submarine), and the Russian Missile Corvette Hiddensee.
In 1690, a saw mill was built near the falls by Benjamin Church, and settlement soon followed. Powered by water and up-river commerce, the site became important to the American Revolution when the town rose against the British in the 1778 Battle of Freetown. Until the 1900s, the Port of Fall River continued to be a farming village because it lacked natural anchorage for large sailing ships. But the rapidly-descending river could provide power for factories near the ocean. Colonel Joseph Durfee opened the first cotton mill in 1811, and eight other millseats followed. By 1830, the Port of Fall River had seven textile mills and a steamboat to Providence and Newport.
Iron and steam made the Port of Fall River a manufacturing center. Industrialist Samuel Slater purchased a mill seat near tidewater, making it possible to bring coal and iron directly to the docks, and opened a foundry in 1821. In 1845, the Port of Fall River’s first railroad was opened, making transportation of goods inland possible. When steam power was introduced in the 1850s, the Port of Fall River became attractive to cotton mill owners because it became easier to import baled cotton and export finished goods.
In 1854, Fall River was incorporated as a city, and growth continued. By 1872, 18 more mills and 15 new corporations had selected the Port of Fall River, and it became an important textile center for the United States. Until the 1920s, the Port of Fall River was second only to Manchester, New Hampshire, as a center for cotton textile manufacturing.
From 1847 to 1937, America’s most luxurious steamship line connected railroads between Boston and New York. The Fall River Line’s Pier stands today beside the Fall River Marine Museum. In 1920, the Port of Fall River’s population peaked at over 120 thousand.
Depending largely on the cotton mills and cotton textiles, the Port of Fall River economy was vulnerable as the 20th Century approached. While World War I brought a general increase in the demand for their products, the post-war economy brought widespread slow-down in demand. Further, northern mills were hard put to compete with southern mills that had the luxury of low labor rates and transportation costs.
The first wave of mill closures hit the Port of Fall River in 1923. By the Great Depression, most of the city’s mills were out of business. The City was largely bankrupt. A few mills survived into the 1950s.
Smaller companies occupied the abandoned mills, including the garment industry. For a while, the garment industry thrived on the affordable factory space and available workforce. But globalization again brought decline to the Port of Fall River, as the local garment industry fell prey to foreign competition in the 1990s.