America’s Company Towns, Then and Now

A look at these small towns across the United States shows the good, the bad and the ugly of the industrial boom

Mills and smokestacks in Lowell, Massachusetts, considered by some historians to be the first real company town in the U.S. CORBIS

During the Industrial Revolution, company towns—communities built by businesses—sprouted up across the country. For anyone who wants to tour what remains of them today, it’s helpful to remember two things. First, as Hardy Green, author of The Company Town: The Industrial Edens and Satanic Mills That Shaped the American Economy, says, these places ranged from the awful to the enviable. Towns built by coal companies, for example, were often more on the prison camp end of the spectrum in terms of poverty and abuse. Meanwhile, settlements like Hershey, Pennsylvania, built by the Hershey chocolate company, were meant to be closer to paradise—to woo workers with fancy amenities rather than mistreat them.

Second, as Green explains, to speak about company towns in the past tense is to overlook that they still exist. The original coal and textile towns in America are now largely ghostly, but places like Hershey and Corning, New York, which was invigorated by the Corning glass company, are still going strong. Plus, as the LA Times writes, businesses such as Google and Facebook today are providing housing, amenities and transportation for their workers—meaning that while we think of company towns in sepia tones, they’re also in digital blue.

Historically, textile towns popped up in the early 19th century in New England, then migrated to the Carolinas after the Civil War. The post-Civil-War era also saw coal towns spread out by way of the railroad boom, and towns founded by steel companies followed a similar route.

Although some businesses offered idyllic-looking settings, a bevy of companies once made more money from swindling their workers than from what they mined or produced. During the boom in textile, coal, steel and other industries, workers often earned what’s called scrip instead of real money: a kind of credit they couldn’t spend anywhere but the company store, where prices were often higher than elsewhere. Companies in these places often required that workers live in barebones company housing and send their kids to company-built schools, where the boss’s perspective was king.

In all, there have been about 2,000 company towns across the U.S., from harsh places of abuse to picturesque communities. Read on for a visit to five iconic locations:

Lowell, Massachusetts

The first truly planned company town was Lowell, Massachusetts. In the early 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell, a merchant from Boston, visited factories in England to try to memorize and (illegally) bring back to the United States the technology he saw there. His pilfered ideas helped lay the groundwork for new textile production in Massachusetts, where, in the 1820s, a few years after Lowell’s death, a small group of capitalists founded Lowell—what Green calls “America’s first large-scale planned industrial community.”

As with many of the business-built towns that would come later, Lowell’s location is based largely on its proximity to natural resources: in this case, a waterfall to power the looms. When it came to that other necessary resources—workers—Lowell’s founders recruited young, single women from rural areas. Once at Lowell, they lived in boardinghouses and were required to attend church and lead a “moral” life. Factory bells woke the women up at 4:30 in the morning—and within 20 minutes, they had to be at the mill. In the mid-1830s, protests began, echoed later by several other company towns across the country.

Today, visitors can explore the Lowell National Historical Park. At the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, looms run “at top speed, allowing visitors to feel the buzz of a working mill.” The museum, whose weave room is pictured above, calls itself one of the largest industrial history exhibits in the nation. The historical boardinghouse for Lowell’s first workers stands nearby, also part of the park.

Hershey, Pennsylvania

The Hershey chocolate company needed milk, and so, Green explains, it gravitated toward an area with dairy farms. In 1903, Milton Hershey, who founded the company, began to build what would become the world’s largest chocolate manufacturing plant. Historically, workers in the town Hershey built around the factory were mostly former farmers—and the living conditions they found there in the first decades of the 20th century were considered enticing for the time period. The company provided housing with indoor plumbing, central heating, lawns maintained by Hershey itself and other amenities.

As Green explains, from the start the company wanted tourists to visit and find a kind of Willy Wonka paradise—to see that the workers who made their chocolate treats led happy, prosperous lives. So, in 1903, Hershey also began to survey the land for a park he would then build four years later. After offering an athletic field and boating in 1907, Hershey continued to expand the amusement park with a merry-go-round in 1908 and “two bowling alleys, a tennis court, a large band shell and a photography gallery” in 1909. Today, the roller-coaster-filled park still welcomes visitors, and Hershey continues to be a booming company town. 

Pullman, Illinois

(Andrew Nelles)

In 1880, George Pullman, head of Pullman’s Palace Car Company, began to develop a company town in what was then open prairie and marsh land in Illinois. While building a town for his railroad car business, location mattered. The Illinois Central Railroad connected the area to other states, while Lake Calumet and its connections to Lake Michigan and the St. Lawrence River linked the new town to the rest of the world. After the first residents arrived in 1881, Pullman began to draw black Americans north and out of the Jim Crow South—but conditions led to one of the most famous organized labor strikes in U.S. history. 

Pullman lowered wages in 1894 in the wake of an economic depression, but refused  to lower rents and other charges at the same time. Workers rose up, leading to a strike and boycott that eventually involved as many as 250,000 workers in 27 states, resulting in up to 30 deaths, millions of dollars lost and months of disrupted rail traffic. The government eventually broke the strike with a controversial injunction, which they enforced by sending in federal troops. Congress created Labor Day as a national holiday in the middle of the strike, in part as a gesture of appeasement. The strike also helped lead to the creation of the first African American labor union in 1925, called the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

The former company town, now a neighborhood of Chicago, has had its ups and downs over the years, Green says. But as reported earlier this year, the historic neighborhood is now a national monument. Visitors can see Hotel Florence, built by Pullman and named after his oldest daughter, as well as the clocktower and administrative building, among other sights.

Lynch, Kentucky

The Kentucky town of Lynch was once a booming coal-mining site. Built in 1917 by U.S. Coal and Coke, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, it had a commissary, theater, hotel and hospital and a population of 10,000. But, as Green puts it, coal mining towns, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia, were the pits: barebone settlements, harsh conditions, poverty.

According to the U.S. Census, by 2012 there were only an estimated 726 residents in Lynch. Today, visitors can see rusted equipment in the now-abandoned coal plant. The old mines, meanwhile, are now a museum. The Portal 31 Underground Mine Tour, pictured above, offers tours of one of the mines by rail car. As the website describes it, visitors don traditional protective gear that coal miners would wear, travel through the mine, and see a “1920s lamphouse, bathhouse, L&N train depot and loadout system.” There’s also a memorial to those who died in mining accidents in U.S. Steel’s District #1.

Corning, New York

Like Hershey, Pennsylvania, Corning is both a historic company town and one that’s still very much alive. Although the company, once called Corning Glass Works and now called simply Corning, didn’t found the town, Green writes that it “emerged as the town’s benefactor—and savior” in the mid-20th century. The business poured millions of dollars into housing, recreational facilities and a new library. And in 1951, the Corning Glass Center opened—today called the Corning Museum of Glass.

Now, Corning continues production in the area. As of 2009 almost 5,000 employees lived in the town, and Corning Inc. takes an active role in the town's revitalization. Meanwhile, at the continually expanding museum, visitors can explore glass items both ancient and cutting-edge. As the New York Times writes, the museum “began as what the company called a gift to the community for its 100th anniversary,” and has since become famous for its “nearly 50,000 pieces of glass art, some dating from 1500 B.C.” And the building itself dazzles too. The Times notes that a “100,000-square-foot addition, which cost $64 million, is almost certain to be globally recognized as a light-gathering glass masterpiece itself.”

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.