Welcome to the Town of Sunderland - we hope you enjoy your visit and learn about the history of Sunderland!
TOWN OF SUNDERLAND - A BRIEF HISTORY
Sunderland, Massachusetts, is one of the southernmost towns in Franklin County. The community is situated in the eastern portion of the Connecticut River Valley in western Massachusetts.
Sunderland was incorporated as a town in 1718. Before being incorporated, Sunderland was known as Swampfield, so named by its first settlers because of the swampland within the town. Settlement of the town originated on what is now North and South Main Streets, with forty designed house lots. Settlers were also assigned an equal percentage of swampland, pasture land, and wood lots. North and South main Streets are scenic, broad avenues that appeal to our sensory of what a small New England town should be. In the late 1820’s, maple trees were planted on each side of the street, which has added to Sunderland’s beauty, especially as leaves change color, or after a snowfall. The houses are a pleasing mix of sizes and styles; in fact, Sunderland’s main street has examples of most of the architectural styles of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
Mount Toby range is another source of beauty and historic background. A watchtower is at the peak along with a commanding view of the river valley. The north part of Mt. Toby is the home of the “Sunderland Cave.” It is not technically a cave, but huge slabs of tipped conglomerate rock. Caves are rare in this part of New England, which has made this one more widely known. Sunderland’s first Irish immigrants located their homes on Mt. Toby in the mid-nineteenth century, which were known as “paddy farms.” Trails are still evident, along with old stone walls marking boundary lines.
Sunderland, still then known as Swampfield, was set off from neighboring Hadley in 1673, with the Connecticut River as the western boundary with Deerfield. Settlement was abandoned during King Philip’s War (1675) and re-established as the town of Swampfield in 1714, extending north to Hunting Hills (Montague), and east to Long Plain (Leverett). Montague was set off from Sunderland in 1754 and Leverett in 1774.
Farming developed as the primary industry, particularly crop production in the excellent soils of the river valley. Agriculture prospered, helping to add villages in North Sunderland and Plumtrees (the eastern side of Sunderland) in the early 19th century. Introduction of commercial tobacco expanded settlement to the Meadows (southern side of Sunderland) in the early 19th century. Although farming was the main occupation, there were supporting industries throughout Sunderland’s history, such as tobacco shops and farm machinery supplies, as well as sawmills, stores, gravel operations, and blacksmiths. Today there is a large gravel operation, a rest home, garages and convenience stores, insurance and real estate operations, as well as vegetable farming.
With the Connecticut River as one of Sunderland’s boundaries, ferries were used at the river for crossing until 1812, when the first bridge was constructed. Sunderland has had a total of 10 bridges. The main causes of our fallen bridges were high water, ice, and piers not high enough to clear rising water levels, especially in the spring. The tenth bridge is 47 feet above normal water level, and has stood since 1938.
Sunderland was also home to “The Amherst to Sunderland Street Railway.” Although the trolley car only lasted from 1890-1926, it marked progress for Sunderland. In that period, high school students from Sunderland could ride the trolley to school in Amherst.
Natural disasters are not unknown to Sunderland. Residents have endured floods (1927 and 1936) and a hurricane (1938). Damage had been great in some parts of town, but over time one would never know of the mishaps.
The small town of Sunderland has grown in population over the past 30 years, with a current population of about 3,400. More houses and apartment complexes have been built, and the town has gone from a farming community to a bedroom community, giving easy access to out-of-town jobs, especially at the nearby University of Massachusetts and other local colleges (Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mt. Holyoke College, and Smith College).
Compiled by Wendy Houle
Sunderland Historical Commission/Town Clerk
Sources: History of Sunderland, 1899; History of Sunderland, Vol. II., 1954; Beers Atlas of Franklin County, 1873-4; Massachusetts Historical Commission Reconnaissance Survey Report, 1982; Sunderland’s Main Street Walking Tour, 1993; My Sunderland – Quarter millennial souvenir of Sunderland, 1968; A Gazetteer of Massachusetts, p. 282; History of the Connecticut Valley, Vol. II; Centennial Gazette, 1792-1892, pp. 101-103.