An atmospheric old mill town on the Quinebaug River, Southbridge has an industrial history going back to the 18th century. Early sawmills and grist mills eventually gave way to large-scale textile and spectacle-making industries
The largest of these manufacturers was the American Optical Company, which set the tone in Southbridge for more than 100 years, giving the city the nickname “Eye of the Commonwealth”.
You can still see the huge American Optical building, presiding over the town common, and there’s a museum charting the company’s time in the town and the optical industry in a wider sense.
Southbridge’s 19th-century wealth led to waves of immigration from Ireland and Canada, and the stunning Notre Dame Parish Church (1916) testifies to the town’s French Canadian heritage.
1. Optical Heritage Museum
For more than a century up to 1984, Southbridge’s economy was powered by the American Optical Company, which was founded in the town by a merger in 1869.
The optical industry had been established here long before that time, and you can dip into this history at a museum that opened in 1983.
The Optical Heritage Museum looks at Southbridge’s history through the lens of optical technology, with abundant displays of antique spectacles, cases, protective eyewear and optical instruments manufactured in the town.
In the Back Hall is a series of original paintings by Herbert Morton Stoops (1888-1948), copies of which were mounted in hundreds of opticians’ offices around the country in the mid-20th century.
2. Old Sturbridge Village
New England’s largest living history museum is moments away in Sturbridge, recreating rural life in the region in the late 18th and early 19th century.
Founded by the Wells family, Old Sturbridge Village has more than 60 buildings and structures, over more than 200 acres, all populated with affable costumed interpreters acquainting you with traditional crafts, customs and skills.
Many of the buildings are original, and have been relocated to the village from around New England.
These include meetinghouses, numerous residences, a school, a bank, a working farm, shops for a range of trades, and three water-powered mills.
The village changes with the seasons, and has a calendar full of programs and events, from craft fairs to classes, dog days and annual celebrations like a candlelit Christmas village, starting in late November.
3. Westville Lake Recreation Area
A little way upriver from downtown Southbridge, the Westville Dam was built for flood control in the early 1960s by the US Army Corps of Engineers.
Part of a network in the Thames basin, the dam has prevented many millions of dollars worth of damage downstream over the last 60+ years. The USACE continues to manage the site, including a recreation area on the riverbend upstream.
The Westville Lake Recreation Area is a fine place to hike or picnic by the water, with charcoal grills, fishing areas, and a canoe/kayak launch. Come in winter and there’s ice skating on the pond here, as well as one of the best sledding hills in the area.
4. Downtown Southbridge
For several blocks on Main Street, Southbridge’s center has all of the grandeur of a prosperous Victorian-era manufacturing city.
There are fine brick commercial blocks along that main drag, while several Revivalist towers rise above the townscape.
Check out the Notre Dame Parish Church (1916), the Romanesque Revival Town Hall (1888), the old Universalist Church (1840), and the Renaissance Revival Elm Street Fire House (1899), all on the National Register of Historic Places.
In a town with a rebound population, Southbridge’s center has a real sense of bustle, and a roll call of highly-rated places to eat.
Within an easy walk you can choose from French bistro classics, seafood, Puerto Rican specialties, Chinese, American breakfast staples, pizza, Chinese, hot dogs, fried chicken and tacos.
5. Southbridge Town Common
Unusually for a town common, this green space is removed from the commercial heart of Southbridge, and instead is in the shadow of the grand old American Optical Company factory.
Now containing a hotel and conference center, this immense brick building with a Renaissance-style tower lines the entire eastern side of the common. As a tribute to what came before there’s a giant pair of eyeglasses on the grass, just in front of the entrance.
In typical New England style the common is dotted with mature hardwood trees, and has plenty of benches and picnic tables. At the south end there’s a bandstand hosting the Concerts on the Common series, late June through mid-August.
6. St. John Paul II Parish (Notre Dame Parish Church)
By the late 1860s, Southbridge had a sizable French Canadian population, which had grown steadily since the 1830s and accelerated after the Civil War.
The Notre Dame Parish was founded in 1869, and funds were raised to replace the temporary wooden church that was initially erected in the town.
This all came to fruition in 1916 with the marvelous building at 446 Main St, with a tower 210 feet high and a broad nave, almost 80 feet wide.
This was designed by Québecois architect Joseph Venne (1858-1925), responsible for 60+ buildings in the Montreal area, as well as three churches in Massachusetts.
With profuse stucco moldings, the church has a Rococo-style interior, also blending earlier Romanesque and Renaissance elements.
This work was carried out by Roman artist Gonippo Raggi (1875-1959), who also produced more than 30 oil paintings and six murals for the interior, while the Romanesque-style windows were imported from Germany.
7. Gateway Players
A cultural mainstay in Southbridge for half a century now, the Gateway Players is a community theater group staging a season of shows at the Elm Street Congregational Church (61 Elm St) downtown.
The group was founded in 1975 and soon moved into its headquarters, which were donated by Ruth Wells, a member of the family that owned the American Optical Company.
Showcasing the area’s creative and performing talent, a typical season runs from March to December, with up to five productions. As well as Broadway-style musicals you can check out original comedies and dramas written by local playwrights.
8. The Ruth Wells Center for the Arts
The elegant HQ of the Gateway Players is also a dynamic arts center, hosting exhibitions and classes all year.
On spacious grounds at 111 Main St, this was the largest single residence in Southbridge when it was built in the mid-1820s for Ebenezer Ammidown, who spurred the town’s early industrial growth.
The house was in the Ammidown and Dresser families for much of its history, until it was purchased by Ruth Wells in the 1970s, and then donated to the Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities (QVCAH).
You can enter this stately building to enjoy exhibitions from a range of disciplines, from watercolors to photography.
There are open studio workshops on Saturday mornings, while the QVCAH has a shop if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind item of clothing, pottery, photography, jewelry, painting or home decoration.
9. Sturbridge Coffee Roasters
This expanding mini-chain of coffee houses is based in Southbridge, having started out next door in Sturbridge in 2004 and moved here soon after.
Located near the Optical Heritage Museum, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters has recently opened two more branches, in Dudley and Charlton, and established a dedicated roastery in Southbridge in 2019.
For many, this is the best coffee for miles around, even better with the knowledge that they roast their own beans close by.
You can visit for fresh brewed coffee, a roster of power brews, hot chocolates, frappes, teas, and a menu of light breakfast and lunch options. A variety of whole-bean or ground coffees are also available at the shop, in 12 oz or 16 oz packs.
10. Bigelow Hollow State Park and Nipmuck State Forest
Cross the border into Connecticut and there’s 9,000 acres of outdoor recreation opportunities at a state park ensconced in a state forest.
At Bigelow State Park you’ll enter one of the largest unbroken tracts of forest in Connecticut, all part of the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.
This federally designated site preserves a massive expanse of northeastern Connecticut and Central Massachusetts, noted for landscapes typical of rural New England, with a rare absence of light pollution amid the Northeast megalopolis.
You can embrace this seclusion on 35 miles of trails, journeying to far-flung places like the sublime finger-like Breakneck Pond, which can only be reached on foot.
Bigelow Pond and the larger Mashapaug Lake are magnificent locations for swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding and fishing in the summer.
11. Wells State Park
In the other direction, you can make the ten-minute drive to this rugged state park, on the western shore of the 104-acre Walker Pond.
Encompassing almost 1,500 acres, Wells State Park is made up of hardwood forest interspersed with stands of eastern white pine.
This all covers a rocky landscape, giving way to wetlands and the picturesque shore of the pond, ready for boating and fishing trips.
There are ten miles of trails in the park, and one trip to remember is the trail leading to the metamorphic outcropping at Carpenters Rocks, named after the owner of a sawmill nearby and giving you a wonderful view of the landscape. There’s a 60-site campground in the park, with an exclusive beach on Walker Pond.
12. Grand Trunk Trail
Starting at the Westville Lake Recreation Area you can embark on a walk or bike ride through four miles of the Quinebaug Valley west of Southbridge.
On the route of a proposed but never completed railroad, this trail is one component in a project that will soon link the towns of Brimfield, Sturbridge and Southbridge.
That trail will later connect with the 66-mile Titanic Rail Trail, across a large portion of Central Massachusetts, from Palmer in the west to Franklin.
When we put this list together you could hike or ride northeast to the Westville Dam, which is on a surprising scale, at 78 feet by 560 feet. You could also travel west for a mile or so, next to a very remote and densely wooded stretch of riverbank, deep in the valley.
13. New York, New Haven & Hartford Passenger Depot (Southbridge Station)
One curiosity at the north end of downtown Southbridge is a fragment of the town’s railroad heritage.
Now used by the Southbridge Registry of Motor Vehicles, there’s an old station built in 1910 in the Spanish Colonial style, with a wood frame structure, stucco walls, tile roof, overhanging eaves, dormers, and painted quoins and window-door arches.
Resembling few buildings in Central Massachusetts, this served as a passenger depot until 1930, and today is the only remaining railroad building in the town.
On the tracks around the back there’s an old caboose, thought to have been used on the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad.
14. Quinebaug Valley Rail Trail
Southbridge station was the terminus of the Southbridge and Blackstone Railroad from Webster, chartered in 1849 and soon absorbed into the Boston and New York Central Railroad.
Through much of the 20th century, this was used for freight by the Providence and Worcester Railroad before being abandoned. Now there’s a long-term project to turn the line into an 11-mile rail trail between Southbridge and Webster.
So far you can walk a section in Southbridge’s southeast corner, running for almost two miles through the scenic Quinebaug Valley into Dudley and connecting with the local trail network. You’ll find a trailhead and parking lot just off Route 131 by the Quinebaug River Reservoir.
15. Escape the Pike
This escape room attraction close by in Sturbridge is the brainchild of local owners David and Meghan Jaquith, who met in 2003 while in Afghanistan with the United States Army.
As enthusiasts, the couple have visited hundreds of escape rooms around the world, learning what works and what doesn’t, and filtering that experience into their own Escape the Pike, which opened in 2019.
Right away, something that stands out here is the variety in genre and tone, from the family-friendly Christmas fun of North Pole Meltdown, to the technothriller Spy2k, the fantasy Merlin’s Vision, the post-apocalyptic Podunk, and Son of the Zodiac, immersed in the lore of the notorious serial killer.
With satisfying puzzles, engaging environments, and friendly game masters, Escape the Pike’s games are for up to eight players, with a 60-minute countdown.