Reinventing A River


That changes as the river runs south, and as early as 1839 Thoreau could see the change coming. Camping outside Manchester on his own trip on the Merrimack, he could not be bothered to note the developing city, but he wrote of Lowell, 20 miles south, “Perchance, after a few thousands of years, if the fishes will be patient, and pass their summers elsewhere … nature will have leveled … the Lowell factories, and the Grass-ground River [will] run clear again.” The river is running pretty clear now, but the Lowell factories are unleveled. In fact, they are the centerpiece of a stunning transformation of a decayed New England mill town into something like a showcase. LowelPs modern history began in the 182Os. A hard-eyed business venture from the start, it was nevertheless informed with a visionary idea—that the miseries of industrialism in Europe need not be replicated in America. A group of merchants known as the Boston Associates set about using the Pawtucket Falls, where the Merrimack drops 32 feet, to power a factory complex that, although enormous, would create no permanent working class. The mill hands would be local farm girls who would return to their homes after a few years of wage earning and self-improvement. Good working conditions, albeit for 14 hours a day, a church, supervised boarding homes, a program of lectures and cultural enrichment —all would prove that America could have industrialization without the horrific social effects that came with it in England.

In 1826 Lowell had just 2,500 people and a few looms; by 1850 there were 35,000 residents, and 10,000 workers were producing almost two million square feet of cloth a week. Labor relations were not as smooth as the official story claimed. The “mill girls” struck three times between 1830 and 1840, protesting wages and working conditions and demanding a 10-hour workday, which finally came—for women and children—in 1874. After the Civil War, perhaps weary of dealing with these tiresomely independent Yankee females, the mills’ managers turned to immigrants, particularly to the Irish and French Canadians. These newcomers were willing to work longer hours for less money, and they neither required nor wanted paternalistic supervision. The transition to immigrant labor made economic sense, but it also spelled the end of the Boston Associates’ grand experiment and the beginning of the industrial working class they had been determined to never let form.

Lowell prospered through the First World War, its population peaking in 1920 at just under 113,000. But then, as in Manchester, the mills began to decline. By the mid-1950s the last of the original ones had closed. “The Boott Mills—the great silent light shrouded the redbrick in a maze of haze sorrow,” wrote the Lowell native Jack Kerouac in 1959 of what remained.

Much of the credit for the city’s turnaround goes to local leaders like the late Sen. Paul Tsongas, a native of the town, U.S. Rep. Brad Morse, and the educator Patrick Moogan, who imagined that the story of Lowell’s beginnings as the nation’s first planned industrial city could be the key to its renewal. In contrast to the individual entrepreneurship and locally funded efforts that returned Manchester to its feet, Lowell relied on massive federal and state investments. The big break came in 1978, when Congress designated it the nation’s first urban National Historical Park. If you’ve heard of an economic development strategy, chances are it has been tried in Lowell: downtown facade improvements, streetlamps, plantings, artists’ housing, historic districts, tax abatements, public art, a conference center, plus a rail link to Boston. “The city’s needs were such that it couldn’t rely on one thing,” said Brian Connors, of Lowell’s Division of Planning and Development.


Lowell’s tenacity and inventiveness is its hallmark. There are exceptional interpretive exhibits at the restored Market and Boott Mills, including a working weave room. There is the recreated boardinghouse for mill girls, the restored locks, the riverwalk that links downtown to the new baseball stadium that hosts the minor-league Lowell Spinners. The “Run of the Mill” canal tour, sponsored by the National Park Service, is a cruise through history along a portion of the 5.6 miles of canals that provided the water that powered the town’s mills. And all around there are signs that explain the city’s past with a lack of romanticism perfectly in keeping with the down-to-earth character of the place. One such marker, for example, quotes the remarks in 1907 of a factory inspector worried about the dangers of “working days in a room where others in incapacitative stages of consumption (tuberculosis) habitually spit on the floor.”

Lowell’s big break came in 1978, when Congress designated it the nation’s first urban National Historical Park.

If you can stand a little more history, check out the American Textile History Museum; the walking tour of the Acre, a neighborhood that began as a “Paddy camp,” a tent city for the Irish laborers who came on foot from Boston to dig the first canals; the memorial to Jack Kerouac; and the Whistler House, birthplace of the painter James McNeill Whistler, whose father was Lowell’s first rail engineer.