Athol, Massachusetts
—  Town  —
Millers River
Nickname(s): Tool Town
Location in Worcester County in Massachusetts
Coordinates: 42°35′45″N 72°13′38″W / 42.59583, -72.22722Coordinates: 42°35′45″N 72°13′38″W / 42.59583, -72.22722
Country United States
State Massachusetts
County Worcester
Settled 1735
Incorporated 1762
 • Type Open town meeting
 • Town Administrator David Ames
 • Total 33.4 sq mi (86.5 km2)
 • Land 32.6 sq mi (84.4 km2)
 • Water 0.8 sq mi (2.1 km2)
Elevation 546 ft (166 m)
Population (2000)
 • Total 11,299
 • Density 346.9/sq mi (133.9/km2)
Time zone Eastern (UTC-5)
 • Summer (DST) Eastern (UTC-4)
ZIP code 01331
Area code(s) 351 / 978
FIPS code 25-02480
GNIS feature ID 0619473

Athol (pronounced /ˈæθɒl/ (deprecated template)) is a town in Worcester County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 11,299 at the 2000 census.


Originally called Pequoiag, the area was first settled by five families in September of 1735. When the township was incorporated in 1762, the name was changed to Athol. John Murray, one of the proprietors of the land, chose the name because the hills reminded him of his ancestral home of Blair Atholl, Scotland. Athol means “pleasant place.”

Early residents subsisted on agriculture and hunting. By 1791, Athol had four gristmills, six sawmills, a fulling mill, and a shop with a trip hammer, all of which were operated by water power. The Athol Cotton Factory, built in 1811, was one of the first industries to serve a market beyond the local one. Through the 1800s, textile, leather, wood, and metal industries further expanded the market for goods produced in Athol. The construction of the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad in the 1840s fostered so much industrial growth that a second line connecting Athol and Springfield was constructed in 1870. Construction of the Fitchburg Railroad, an east-west line, came through Athol in 1879, on its way to the Hoosac Tunnel and the Berkshires.

The Athol Machine Company was established in 1868 in order to manufacture a chopping machine invented by Laroy S. Starrett. In 1881, Mr. Starrett established the L. S. Starrett Company, known for making quality precision tools. The company remains the town’s largest employer to this day, and thus does Athol live up to the nickname “Tool Town.”

As industries developed along the river valley, homes and stores grew up around the common located on the hill southeast of the factories. This area, today called Uptown, was the location of the first bank. The first trolley lines, established in 1894, ran from Athol to Orange, and additional lines soon provided efficient transportation to surrounding areas. Because of its development of industry, commerce, and transportation, Athol was the center of activity for the entire area at the turn of the century.

During the 1930s, the trolley lines closed due to the increased use of private automobiles, bus service, and the generally difficult economic times. When four Swift River Valley towns were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir, the Springfield railroad route had to be abandoned. Consequently, Athol’s growth leveled off as commerce became increasingly dependent on the Interstate Highway System. Population reached a peak of 12,186 in 1955.

The Route 2 bypass of Athol was constructed in the 1950s, further limiting direct access to the downtown business district. The following years showed population decline, falling to a low of 10,634 in 1980. However, Athol’s population has risen gradually since that time and shows every indication of growing.

Geography and transportation[]

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 33.4 square miles (86.5 km2), of which 32.6 square miles (84.4 km2) is land and 0.8 square miles (2.1 km2) (2.46%) is water. The town is drained mostly by the Millers River, which flows through the downtown area from northeast to west, towards the Connecticut River. The Tully River flows into the Millers within town, and many other streams cross the town. Parts of Tully Lake and Lake Rohunta lie within town, as does Lake Ellis and several other small ponds. The soil of Athol is rough and stony, and the terrain is wooded and hilly, with elevations ranging from 500 at the edge of Millers River to 1,282 feet (391 m) at the top of Pratt Hill near the Bearsden Forest. A large portion of the Millers River Wildlife Management Area lies within town, as does a small portion of Petersham State Forest.

Athol lies along the western edge of Worcester County, with Franklin County to the west. It is bordered by Royalston to the north, Phillipston to the east, Petersham to the south, New Salem to the southeast, and Orange to the west. From its town center, Athol lies 23 miles (37 km) east of Greenfield, 25 miles (40 km) west of Fitchburg, 35 miles (56 km) northwest of Worcester, and 67 miles (108 km) west-northwest of Boston. The vast majority of population is settled around the downtown area, with the rest of the town being relatively sparsely populated.

Athol lies along Route 2, the major east-west route through Northern Massachusetts. It passes concurrently with U.S. Route 202 as a limited access highway through town, with its old route, now Route 2A, passing through downtown Athol. For 1.4 miles, Route 32 is concurrent with Route 2A, coming north from Petersham east of downtown before continuing north along the eastern edge of downtown towards Royalston.

The town still has its old train station downtown (the depot), along the Springfield Terminal rail line, formerly a part of the Vermont and Massachusetts Railroad. Before the filling of the Quabbin Reservoir, Athol was the end of the Springfield, Athol and North-eastern Railroad, a spur line off the Boston and Albany Railroad, a line which passed through the now-submerged town of Enfield towards the main line in Springfield. A line of the Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA) bus line provides access between the town and Greenfield. The nearest general aviation airport to Athol is the Orange Municipal Airport, with the nearest national air service airports being Bradley International Airport to the south and Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to the north, both of which are an hour's drive away.


Starrett Block

Since the Civil War, Athol's economy has been primarily industrial. In the early part of the 20th century, local water power and rail service attracted manufacturers such as Union Twist Drill and the L.S. Starrett Company to the area, leading to Athol's nickname "Tool Town." In the 1950s, when the Route 2 bypass and interstate highways I-495 and the Massachusetts Turnpike diverted traffic to other parts of Massachusetts, Athol and other towns in central Massachusetts began a long economic decline.

By 1998, the commercial vacancy rate in Athol had risen to 18 percent.[1] Despite downsizing, the L.S. Starrett Company continues to be the largest employer in town, followed by the Athol Memorial Hospital. Most of the remaining jobs in Athol are in the retail and food service industries.[2]

In the 1960s, Athol and Orange formed the Orange-Athol Industrial Development Commission to bring businesses to the area near the Orange Municipal Airport. The Millers River Community Development Corporation, North Quabbin Housing Partnership, and a banking alliance also grew out of collaborative efforts. These groups succeeded in financing housing to middle-income residents, natives and others who were not accepted by traditional lending programs.

In the early 1980s, the state targeted the North Quabbin region (and principal towns Athol and Orange) for funding to promote economic development as the area had the highest unemployment rate in the state. Small cities grants and other government funding provided a promising start of economic growth until a recession hit. At that time, several large and small Main Street businesses closed.

As of 2009, groups working on Athol's economy include the Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, a quasi-public entity[3] and the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce, located on Main Street in Athol.[4]


As of the census[5] of 2000, there were 11,299 people, 4,487 households, and 2,970 families residing in the town. The population density was 346.9 people per square mile (133.9/km²). There were 4,824 housing units at an average density of 148.1/sq mi (57.2/km²). The racial makeup of the town was 96.33% White, 0.65% Black or African American, 0.35% Native American, 0.42% Asian, 0.03% Pacific Islander, 0.73% from other races, and 1.48% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.96% of the population. 17.7% were of French, 14.1% French Canadian, 13.3% English, 10.9% Irish, 10.4% Italian and 5.3% American ancestry according to Census 2000.

There were 4,487 households out of which 31.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 49.1% were married couples living together, 12.1% had a female householder with no husband present, and 33.8% were non-families. 28.4% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.9% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.46 and the average family size was 3.00.

In the town the population was spread out with 25.4% under the age of 18, 7.9% from 18 to 24, 27.9% from 25 to 44, 21.6% from 45 to 64, and 17.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39 years. For every 100 females there were 93.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 88.5 males.

The median income for a household in the town was $33,475, and the median income for a family was $41,061. Males had a median income of $34,414 versus $23,156 for females. The per capita income for the town was $16,845. About 8.3% of families and 9.4% of the population were below the poverty line, including 10.8% of those under age 18 and 8.4% of those age 65 or over.


County government: Worcester County
Clerk of Courts: Dennis P. McManus (D)
County Treasurer: Position Eliminated
District Attorney: Elizabeth D. Sheibel (R)
Registrar of Deeds: Anthony J. Vigliotti (D)
Registrar of Probate: Stephen Abraham (D)
County Sheriff: Guy W. Glodis (D)
State government
State Representative(s): Christopher J. Donelan (D)
State Senator(s): Stephen M. Brewer (D)
Governor's Councilor(s): Thomas J. Foley (D)
Federal government
U.S. Representative(s): John W. Olver (D-1st District),
U.S. Senators: Ted Kennedy (D), John Kerry (D)

Local government
  • Town Manager: David Ames
  • Selectboard: Anthony Brighenti, Susannah Lee, James Meehan, Dr. Wayne Miller, Steve Raymond

Municipal government is by open town meeting. Athol is divided into three precincts. The first Monday in April is the date for the annual town election. The annual town meeting is held in May, and a fall town meeting occurs in October. Additional town meetings are held as needed. Administration of the town’s business is carried out by a five-member elected board of selectmen and a town manager following the Town Charter, which was passed in 2000. Other important town boards are the Finance and Warrant Advisory Committee, Planning Board, Conservation Commission, Historical Commission, Capital Program Committee, Cable Advisory Board, Council on Aging, Economic Development and Industrial Corporation, Housing Authority, Open Space and Recreation Review Committee, Library Trustees, and Zoning Board of Appeals.

The Athol-Royalston Regional School Committee is jointly elected by the communities of Athol and Royalston. Ten members serve on this vital committee, seven from Athol and three from Royalston based upon the regional agreement.

The Athol Fire Department and Athol Police Department provide fire protection and public safety. In addition, a Massachusetts State Police barracks is located in Athol near the high school. The Department of Public Works takes care of roadways, water works, sewage treatment, parks, and cemeteries.

The towns of Athol and Orange cooperate with each other as neighbors, in spite of the county line that divides them. Some service providers for Athol are based in Franklin County, even though Athol sits in Worcester County.


Athol has a daily newspaper, The Athol Daily News. In addition, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, the Greenfield Recorder, and The Gardner News cover Athol events and news. Newspapers from Boston, Springfield, and Fitchburg are also sold in local stores.

Time Warner Cable provides service to 6,646 subscribers in the Athol-Orange area. 4,044 live in Athol. The two-town area also benefits from the work of the Athol-Orange Community Television, Inc. (AOTV), which is a nonprofit cable casting corporation. AOTV trains people to produce their own local TV programs, and it records and airs public meetings and events through the Time Warner system.

WJDF 97.3 FM, WXRG 99.9 FM, and WTUB 700 AM are the local radio stations in Athol and Orange. Additional broadcast stations from Gardner, Greenfield, Keene (NH), Springfield, Worcester, and Boston can be heard.

A number of Internet service providers have dial-up access numbers based in Petersham, which is a local telephone call from Athol. High speed Internet is available in selected areas of town through Road Runner (Time Warner), Verizon and other vendors.


Though residents can often walk to businesses in the downtown and uptown districts, Athol is primarily dependent on the automobile for out-of-town transportation. Route 2A runs through Athol’s business districts and provides access to Orange to the west and Gardner to the east. Route 2 provides access to Greenfield (30 miles to the west), Gardner (15 miles east), Fitchburg (25 miles east), and Boston (71 miles east). Worcester is 34 miles (55 km) from Athol via Routes 32 and 122 in Petersham. Keene, New Hampshire, is 25 miles (40 km) north via Route 32.

Athol is served by several bus lines. The Franklin Regional Transit Authority (FRTA), based in Greenfield, has daily runs from Athol to points west. The Montachusett Area Regional Transit (MART), based in Fitchburg, can take residents to points east of town. Community Transit Service buses provide dial-a-ride service for those people in Athol, Orange, and Winchendon, who are in need of transportation to work, medical appointments, shopping, or other errands. Greyhound bus terminals are located in Amherst, Greenfield, Leominster, Northampton, Springfield, Worcester, and Keene, N.H.

An active freight rail line runs through Athol. The Pan Am railroad (formerly Guilford, Boston & Maine, née Fitchburg) main line follows the east-west course of the Millers River through the center of town. To connect with a passenger rail system, Athol residents can go travel to Fitchburg to catch the trains of the MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves the Boston metropolitan area. Amtrak stations are located in Amherst, Springfield, Worcester, and Brattleboro, Vermont.

Pilots and passengers of private planes can access the nearby Orange Municipal Airport. Athol residents who intend to fly long distances generally commute to Logan International Airport in Boston, Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, which is south of Springfield, T.F.Green Airport in Providence, R.I. or Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester, N.H.


The Athol-Royalston Regional School District educates young people from grades pre-K to 12. Four elementary schools serve students at: the Pleasant Street School (Pre K-5), the Riverbend School (K-5), the Sanders Street School (K-3), and the Royalston Community School (K-6). The Athol-Royalston Middle School consists of grades 5 to 8, and Athol High School is made up of students in grades 9 through 12. District enrollment for the 2004-05 school year was 2,140 students. Interested individuals may attend the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg on a tuition basis, subject to the approval of school authorities.

Athol High School had been threatened with loss of accreditation; the school district and community members rallied around initiatives to restore a full accreditation for the school..[1]

The closest community colleges are Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner and Greenfield Community College in Greenfield. Programs leading to bachelors degrees and higher courses of study can be found in Amherst, Fitchburg, Worcester, and Keene, N.H. A few students choose to further their education at institutions elsewhere in New England, around the country, or online.

Private day care centers and nursery schools provide stimulation and social learning opportunities for the young child. Each week, the Athol Public Library holds several preschool activities which invite caretakers and small children to visit the library, play with educational toys, read or hear stories, do crafts, and interact with others. The Athol Area YMCA also schedules activities appropriate for children ages 6 months through kindergarten, and has a preschool and nursery school, as well as after-school daycare.


Athol is geographically isolated from the major cultural centers of Massachusetts; consequently, its residents tend to create their own entertainment. The town is known for producing many skilled musicians of all genres. Productions and programs are initiated by such organizations as the Athol Area YMCA, the Athol Historical Society, the Athol-Orange Rotary, the schools, and the Athol Public Library. The Athol Cultural Council provides funds for some of these programs.

Since the Athol Public Library has inadequate facilities for large group seating, its largest annual program is presented in conjunction with and at the home of the Athol Historical Society. The Friends of the Athol Public Library also provide funds for smaller programs held at the library, like young adult craft workshops and author visits and book-signings. The Library has a Teen Advisory Council called ATAC who work with the young adult librarian to provide weekly programs for young adults. The Children's library provides several programs a week for preschool, toddler and preteens.

Several community groups such as the Athol Lions Club provide annual entertainment for the community such as the Summerfest and River Rat Race. On the second week of April each year, the town's largest event is a local canoe race named "The River Rat Race". Thousands of spectators line the banks of the Millers River to watch 300 plus canoes race from Athol to Orange. A parade is held in the morning the day of the race and a carnival is held at the Lord Pond Plaza. Local musician Ethan Stone arranges numerous events in a Tool Town Live series at the Town Hall, uptown common and Fish Park which provide both venues for area musicians to showcase their talents and family concerts for the community. Joshua Lamarche, director of Osprey Entertainment, also manages concerts called Rockathons for the Metal/Death Metal crowd, which are well received. Other popular town activities are listed below in the Culture section and are available through the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce.

In the summer and early fall, “Tool Town Live!” weekend concerts are held in the Uptown Common and at Fish Park in the western part of town. Begun in 2004, this popular series features talented groups from around New England who represent a variety of musical genres. The concerts are offered free of charge, supported by car washes and other fund-raisers held earlier in the year. Osprey Entertainment Director Joshua Lamarche runs another series called "Rockathon" for Metal bands.

The Athol Historical Society, a group of private citizens, occupies the old town hall in the uptown area. The building houses a museum exhibiting articles from Athol’s storied past. Additionally, the society sponsors talks about local history, provides guided tours of historic sites, and holds special events. The L.S. Starrett Tool Museum, located at the company office, has on display machine tools of the past. Visitors are admitted by appointment only, made with the personnel department of the company. Impressive restoration was done recently utilizing grant funding with private donations.

The Millers River Environmental Center on Main Street, housed in the old Main Street School, provides many programs to the public and is home to the Athol Bird and Nature Club.

Recreation and entertainment[]

Athol and its surroundings offer unlimited opportunities for enjoying the outdoors. Clubs like the Woodsman Rifle and Pistol Club and the Athol Bird and Nature Club focus on specific outdoor interests.

Some of those activities center around the Millers River. The River Rat Race, an annual canoe race held each spring, draws participants from all parts of New England. The six-mile (10 km) race begins at Cass Meadow in Athol and ends at Hachey’s Landing in Orange. This event attracts a large crowd of observers and usually features a parade and a carnival.

Athol’s location on the Millers River enabled it to qualify in 2002 for the UrbanRiver Visions project, an initiative designed to capitalize on the potential of the river as a focal point for revitalization of downtowns in Massachusetts. As part of that project, local authorities plan to create a riverwalk that connects the downtown area and the river.

Six historic public nature areas are administered by the Athol Conservation Commission. The largest of these is Bearsden Forest in the northeastern part of Athol. It contains hiking trails, camping areas, bridges, paths, old quarries, ponds and brooks.

Plans are also underway to create a greenspace / biking trail between Athol and Orange.

Eco-tourism and supporting environmental interests are popular throughout the North Quabbin region. The Millers River Environmental Center is located in a former elementary school building on Main Street. It offers exhibits and events and is also the home of the Athol Bird and Nature Club. The Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, based in Athol, protects significant natural, agricultural, and scenic areas and encourages land stewardship in North Central and Western Massachusetts for the benefit of the environment, the economy and future generations. Organizations such as these help to preserve the beauty and natural resources that bring people to the Athol area. The Alan E. Rich Environmental Park, dedicated to a beloved deceased Selectman, sits proudly near the Millers River bridge on Main Street and provides habitat for native plants. It provides parking along with canoe, kayak and small boat access to the Millers River. It is adjacent to Cass Meadow which has 14 acres (57,000 m2) of trails featuring opportunities to view birds, butterflies and dragonflies.

The southern part of Athol, bordered by the Harvard Forest and the Quabbin Reservoir, offers some of the most beautiful hiking trails in the area. The town owns Fish Park, Silver Lake, and Lake Ellis, where people can swim, skate, play tennis, or play ball.

Athol has additional recreational facilities. The Ellinwood Country Club offers an 18-hole golf course, banquet facilities, and a clubhouse for its members. The downtown Athol Area YMCA includes an Olympic-size pool, racquetball courts, gyms and workout equipment. Courses are offered in sports skills and practical arts. A Y-sponsored camp for local children, Camp Wiyaka, is located just across the border in New Hampshire. Fresh Air Camps, organized by Boston's Goodwill Industries, operate a multi-acre facility south of the town, in South Athol.

Recreational activities for children and young adults are provided by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls. The Athol Recreation Department sponsors summer programs for youths at local school playgrounds. Social and fraternal organizations such as the Athol Women’s Club, the Elks, Lions and Rotary Clubs, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Masonic Lodge, offer a wide range of activities for families and individuals. Chuck Stone Little League one of the oldest Little League programs in the state offers both baseball and softball programs for Athol and Royalston youth.

The Silver Lake Wiffleball League plays on Tuesday and Thursday nights between April and September at Silver Lake Park. The league is open to all adults and is free of charge.

Social services[]

In the past, Athol has had many publicized social problems, and several local organizations are still on hand to remedy these situations. Chief among the problems are high rates of unemployment, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, and alcoholism. These have declined in recent years.

The Athol Memorial Hospital provides hospital care, screening clinics, educational classes, home nursing care, out-patient counseling and a sleep clinic. A medical arts facility is located directly behind the hospital.

The North Quabbin Community Coalition operates from a storefront on School Street and is funded by state and federal dollars. Its membership is derived from local agencies, churches and organizations and is committed to providing a forum for sharing, advocacy, legislative lobbying efforts and to avoid a duplication of services. This coalition has been a model for the development of other similar initiatives around New England. Its task forces focus on such issues as child abuse, teen pregnancy and lack of affordable housing to come up with some real solutions. One of its groups sponsor the Literacy Volunteers of Orange / Athol, who provide free, confidential and private one-to-one tutoring for improving reading, writing, and math skills.

Millers River Information and Referral provides counseling services, mediation, and some medical services from its location on Main Street. It also operates the Quabbin House, a facility which provides social and vocational opportunities for adult persons with physical or mental problems.

The ACT Volunteer Center provides a resource for community members who would like to volunteer their time, skills, or services in Athol and the surrounding areas. While actually located in Greenfield, Ma, the ACT Volunteer Center serves community members and organizations in Athol.

Children and families are served by additional agencies with Main Street offices. Athol-Royalston Community Partnerships for Children maintains an informational resource center for parents and a link to the Title I program in the schools. The Greater Athol Area Advocates for Families with Special Needs administers family support services for those who have a family member with a developmental disability.

The Athol Council on Aging, in conjunction with Franklin County Home Care Corporation, provides hot meals, clinics, transportation, and recreational programs for the elderly. Three local housing complexes provide apartments specifically for senior citizens. Athol citizens supported at proposal to purchase a building in the Lord Pond Plaza recently and work to provide an Athol Senior Center hopefully will be completed within the next two years.

The Catholic Social Services trains and employs homemakers to assist in homes where care is needed. An interfaith council made up of ministers, priests and other religious leaders provides spiritual counseling and advocacy. It currently runs a Food Bank.

Families or individuals in a temporary housing crisis can find assistance at the Family Inn located in Orange.

Notable residents[]

  • Dave Bargeron, musician
  • Jimmy Barrett, baseball center fielder
  • Philip Bezanson, composer and educator
  • Daniel Francis Feehan, bishop
  • Gregory Gibson, author
  • Cailte Kelley, rock musician and singer-songwriter
  • Lysander Spooner, libertarian, abolitionist, writer and anarchist
  • Charles Starrett, actor
  • Laroy S. Starrett, industrialist
  • Charles H. Sweetser, author, journalist and editor
  • Ginery Twichell, railroad president and congressman

Further reading[]

  • Athol 1919: a portrait of a Massachusetts town
  • Athol Massachusetts, past and present by Lilley B. Caswell
  • Athol's historic buildings and places: a partial inventory by Kathryn A. Chaisson
  • History of Athol Massachusetts by William G. Lord
  • Hometown chronicles by Richard Chaisson
  • The L.S. Starrett Company: tracing its buildings and development by Richard Chaisson
  • North of Quabbin: a guide to nine Massachusetts towns, Athol, Orange, Royalston, Erving, Petersham, Warwick, New Salem, Phillipston, Wendell by Allen Young


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