An early planned industrial community that produced paper, silk and alpaca wool, Holyoke was laid out in the 1840s, and is a rare New England city to have a grid plan.
Something special about the industrial cityscape is a network of power canals. In the 1880s this system gave rise to innovations in the field of hydraulic engineering that are still applied to this day.
The canals also continue to be a carbon-neutral source of energy for the city, ensuring some of the lowest energy rates in Massachusetts.
Going back long before the industrial days, Holyoke has always had a strong Irish identity, which is manifested by the second-largest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the country.
Another Holyoke claim to fame is the sport of volleyball, which was invented by William G. Morgan (1870-1942) here in 1892 during his time as the Director of Physical Education at the city’s YMCA.
1. Mount Tom State Reservation
A basalt mountain range, 4.5 miles long and 1.5 miles, lurks above the northern end of Holyoke. There’s inspiring, rugged scenery in the Mount Tom Range, and from the high western cliffs you can gaze out for miles across the Pioneer Valley.
The range is part of the Metacomet Ridge, a fault-block running north for 100 miles from Branford, CT to northern Franklin County, MA.
Following the entire ridge is the Metacomet-Monadnock Trail, which passes through Holyoke. The unusual conditions created by the high and dry upper ridges give rise to plant communities seldom seen in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
An unforgettable time to be here is in fall, when multiple raptor species use the thermals on the western flank for their migrations. There’s an observation tower on Goat Peak, with sightings made from mid-August to mid-November.
2. Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade
Holyoke has always had a large Irish makeup, to the point that this place was known as “Ireland Parish” when it was incorporated in 1786.
The first post office in 1822 was simply “Ireland”, and the sudden industrialization in the mid-19th century brought a large wave of Catholic Irish immigrants to build the canals and work in the mills.
Even today a large percentage of Holyoke’s residents have Irish ancestry, and this is recognized by a St. Patrick’s Day Parade that often brings 400,000 people to the city.
Held on the Sunday after St. Patrick’s day, the parade was launched in 1952, and JFK was an early participant.
Among the many groups making their way along Beech Street, Appleton Street and High Street is the Holyoke Caledonian Pipe Band, established in 1910 and the oldest functioning pipe band in the United States.
3. Holyoke Canal System
Built between 1847 and 1882, Holyoke’s 4.5 miles of power canals kindle fascination as a working power source, visually impressive feature of the cityscape and as a site of important mechanical engineering history.
It was here that the hydraulic engineer Clemens Herschel (1842-1930) developed the first large-scale Venturi meters to measure different mills’ water power consumption.
Herschel’s work has had a lasting impact on carburetors, waterworks and aviation instruments.
There’s a 16-stop tour of the canal system online, taking in waterfront parks, the fish lift at the dam, mammoth old mills, the Holyoke Water Power Station (site of Herschel’s test flume), historic workers’ homes and a walkable stretch of the Second Level Canal.
The tour is filled with captivating info on the science, history, culture and ecology of this unique canal system.
4. Holyoke Heritage State Park
In 1980 the vast William Skinner Silk Mill was destroyed by fire, and in 1986 this park celebrating Holyoke’s industrial past opened on that canal-front plot.
The first thing to note about Holyoke Heritage State Park is its location, with dramatic views of the canal and its industrial cityscape.
The International Volleyball Hall of Fame and Holyoke Children’s Museum are set in the park in a warehouse that survived the blaze. There’s also a visitor center documenting Holyoke’s industrial past, and a delightful restored carousel in perfect condition.
Made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round opened in the now defunct Mountain Park on Mount Tom in 1929.
After that attraction’s closure the carousel was restored and was given a new home in the state park. The ride features 48 hand-carved horses and an Artizan C-2 pipe organ, made in North Tonawanda, New York.
5. Wistariahurst Museum
For background on the Skinner family, and Holyoke’s riveting history, you can head to the family estate, named for the profusion of wisteria vines on the eastern facade.
The main house here was actually built 20 miles away in Williamsburg, MA, in 1868, but was moved to its current plot in 1874 after floods.
In a near perfect state of preservation, that opulent mansion is replete with Skinner family collections of fine art, decorative art, textiles, furniture and more.
Exhibits in the carriage house meanwhile go into detail on the history of Holyoke, with a particular focus on immigration and industry in the early 20th century.
There’s a lot happening throughout the year at Wistariahurst, from special guided tours to workshops, lectures, concerts and historical demonstrations.
6. Dinosaur Footprints
In the early Jurassic period, around 200 million years ago, what is now the Connecticut River Valley was a subtropical region of swamps and lakes.
Here, a variety of dinosaurs up to 20 feet long left tracks in the mudflats, which eventually became sandstone. Preserved on an eight-acre plot off U.S. Route 5 are more than 800 such fossils.
First studied by Amherst College professor Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), these are the first dinosaur footprints to be scientifically recorded, before the word “dinosaur” was even coined.
There are over 20 trackways to follow, some left by a bipedal carnivore believed to have been a 15-foot-tall ancestor of the tyrannosaurus rex.
7. Ashley Reservoir
An easy way to immerse yourself in the natural beauty around Holyoke is on the trails surrounding the city’s water supply reservoirs, established in the late 19th century.
The first of these is the Ashley Reservoir, not far from the Holyoke Mall and made up of two ponds over more than 200 acres. On the water’s edge are stands of alder and red osier and button brush, while growing on the slopes are oak, maple and red and white pine.
The reservoir is a drinking water supply, so you can’t bring pets or do more than walk or bicycle here.
Even so, the marvelous scenery makes it all worth your time, and there’s a 4.5-mile loop road that can feel very remote.
Go slow and you can spot turtles, beavers, milfoil and sunfish, as well as plentiful waterfowl and the occasional black bear.
8. International Volleyball Hall of Fame
As the birthplace of volleyball in 1895, Holyoke is the logical place for the International Volleyball Hall of Fame, found at the north end of the Holyoke Heritage State Park.
Appropriately for Holyoke, the venue is an industrial warehouse built in 1949 to store silk fabric made at the destroyed Skinner Mill.
When we made this list there were 146 inductees, counting 57 male players, 40 women players, 26 coaches and 23 officials.
Fans of the sport can relive the achievements of hall-of-famers, while the newly improved museum exhibits chronicle the sport from its origins to the present day.
The annual induction event takes place in October, and there’s a packed calendar of tournaments on the court here.
9. Holyoke Children’s Museum
In the same building as the International Volleyball Hall of Fame there’s a children’s museum that first opened in 1981 and moved to its current location in 1985.
The Holyoke Children’s Museum is a top-notch resource for parents, featuring more than 20 permanent exhibits to engage children in open-ended play.
What will catch their eye straight away is the signature Curvy Climber, with its crazy tangle of suspended platforms.
Elsewhere there’s a Dinosaur Dig, Puppet Theater, Mail Room, Art Studio, Shop & Scan Grocery Store, Kitchen and Diner, and Wiggle and Wash Grooming & Vet Clinic, for a small taste of what to expect.
The World of Motion Room is a state-of-the-art STEM-oriented room, while the youngest visitors can explore the quiet and carpeted environment of the Tot Lot.
10. Whiting Street Reservoir
At the eastern foot of Mount Tom there’s a 114-acre reservoir that was built in the 1880s by damming Raging Brook.
The packed dirt road arrived later, in 1897, for maintenance access, and is open to hikers, offering a light 3.7-mile walk with exhilarating mountain views and a lot of opportunities for spotting wildlife.
As this is an auxiliary water supply for Holyoke, certain activities are prohibited, including fishing, dog-walking, watersports, camping, horseback riding and motorcycle riding.
As with the Ashley Reservoir, this only adds to the sense of peace, and increases your chances of an encounter with local fauna, be it a great blue heron, or black bear (from a distance).
11. Holyoke Mall
A major shopping destination for the Pioneer Valley, the Holyoke Mall is the second-largest in New England by retail space. The mall opened in 1979 and was given an interior makeover just a few years ago.
For a quick rundown of the stores, there are branches for Target, JCPenney, Macy’s, Burlington, Best Buy, Hobby Lobby, Foot Locker, Gap, H&M, Hollister, Loft, Old Navy, Sephora, Victoria’s Secret and Yankee Candle, to name a small few.
In recent years, entertainment attractions have also moved in, like escape rooms, a trampoline park, indoor children’s playground and a bowling alley/arcade.
For dining you’ve got food court favorites like Sbarro and Charleys Philly Steaks, with plenty more chain restaurants at the nearby Holyoke Shopping Center.
12. High Street
Between Essex Street in the south and Lyman Street in the north, downtown Holyoke’s principal street is full of locally-owned businesses.
Among them are numerous eateries, whether you’re up for pizza, Mexican food, Colombian, Mediterranean, fried chicken or classic American comfort food.
Take a moment to check out Holyoke City Hall, built in the Gothic Revival style in 1871, and crowned with a solemn clock tower.
The blocks between Dwight Street and Lyman Street belong to the North High Street Historic District, preserving rows of grand commercial buildings, built between 1850 and 1885 when Holyoke was at the height of its powers.
13. Valley Blue Sox
A couple of blocks along Beech St from Wistariahurst is Mackenzie Stadium, a 4,100-capacity baseball stadium built in 1933 and named for a local Medal of Honor recipient.
Since the 1970s, this has been home field for a few different teams, and the main tenants at the time of writing were the Valley Blue Sox, a collegiate summer baseball team, founded in 2001 and relocated to Holyoke in 2007.
The Blue Sox play in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), and you can catch regular season games in June and July, with playoffs beginning at the start of August.
The team has a good recent record, claiming league championships in 2017 and 2018, and games are family-friendly events with inexpensive tickets and classic ballpark treats.
14. Pulaski Park
On what was once a riverside shantytown for the immigrant workers who built Holyoke’s canals, Pulaski Park was laid out in the 1880s and 1890s to a design by the Olmsted Brothers, and retains their basic layout.
Later, in 1901, John Olmsted recommended the construction of the retaining wall, which today affords a satisfying view over the Connecticut River, the Holyoke Canal Gatehouse, Hadley Falls Power Station and the First Level Canal from the parapet.
There are lots of mature trees for shade, and amenities include a children’s playground and skateboard park.
Pulaski Park was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004, and gets its name from the Revolutionary War figure Casimir Pulaski (1745-1779), remembered as the “father of the American Cavalry.”
15. Victory Theatre
At 81-89 Suffolk Street there’s a magnificent Art Deco theater that had been in stasis for more than four decades when we wrote this article, but is expected to reopen in the coming years.
Initially built for vaudeville and silent movies, the Victory Theatre became a full-time movie house from 1931 until its closure in 1979.
The marquee and blade sign were removed after the closure, but the building has real scale, with a capacity of 1,680, and many historic details survive in the auditorium.
The theater has been owned by the non-profit Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts since 2009, and, after years of fundraising, renovation work began in earnest in 2021.