Thoreau’s Vacation


As they passed under the last bridge before reaching the Merrimack on that peaceful Sunday in 1839, the Thoreaus were peered down upon by a group of churchgoers who, Henry suspected, were indulging in “some heathenish comparisons.” This experience provoked twenty pages of reflections on the foibles of the faithful in his book. It probably diverted him from an even more unsettling sight, the city of Lowell, newly risen at the Pawtucket Falls, just below the point where the Thoreaus were let down by a kindly lockkeeper from the canal to the river.

The Merrimack is all that the Concord is not, a river of speed and power, cascading over falls and rapids, carrying the waters of the White Mountains down through New Hampshire and Massachusetts to the sea at Newbury-port. Ever since the glaciers of the Ice Age melted back, leaving this new river, the sharp drops in its bed have governed the human economy on its banks. To the Pawtucket Falls the Indians came each spring to spear the salmon as they swam upriver to spawn, and there they planted their gardens of beans and squash and corn for the summer. There the first white colonists came to trade with the Indians for furs and later to convert them to Christianity, and later still to take their lands. There, finally, a party of Boston businessmen came in 1821 to build a textile mill that would get its power from the falls. The Indians’ campground of Wamesit, beside the falls, became Lowell, the first great factory city in the United States.

The father of this enterprise was Francis Cabot Lowell, the son of a Boston merchant family, who had visited the spinning and weaving mills in England, where the Industrial Revolution had begun. Lowell studied the machinery, particularly the new power looms, and decided to go the British one better by putting all the operations, from raw cotton to finished cloth, under one roof. With money raised from his family and others in Boston, who had made it, for the most part, in ocean commerce and privateering, his plan was first put into operation on the Charles River at Waltham. But the Charles was almost as placid a stream as the Concord, and the search for a better site led to the Pawtucket Falls. Lowell, dead at forty-two, did not live to see the mills of the city that bears his name, but his partners carried out his plan.

FACTORIES AT Lowell were quite unlike the “dark Satanic mills” of the English Midlands. The buildings were light and comparatively clean, and the young women who made up most of the labor force were neatly dressed. The owners took pride in the mills but they also had a sound business reason. New England, unlike old England, had no surplus of impoverished labor to draw upon. Francis Lowell’s plan was to attract the daughters of New England farmers by making the mills attractive and by building company boardinghouses where the young women would live safely and respectably under the care of matrons. It was no Utopia. A typical workday was twelve hours, six days a week, and the pay was something like $3.50 a week, of which $1.25 went for board and lodging. But these mills were sufficiently different from the English models to win the admiration of English visitors, such as Harriet Martineau and Anthony Trollope. Even that dyspeptic tourist Charles Dickens, who disliked the United States with almost as much fervor as he abhorred the bleak house of English industrialism, could find no fault when he visited Lowell in 1841. He wrote: “I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.”

The American writers and intellectuals of Thoreau’s circle were no less caught up by the vision of clean and wholesome factories set in a sunny green landscape. They wanted to believe in a Utopian dream that a modern writer, Leo Marx, has summed up in the phrase “the machine in the garden.” Thoreau himself was something of a mechanic and tinkerer who could not escape the fascination of the swiftly spinning machinery when he visited a textile factory. Even while living in his cabin at Waiden Pond, he felt excitement when the rattle and whistle of the railroad locomotive broke his solitude, and he mused upon the “iron horse”: “It seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.” But he hated the ugly cut the roadbed made across the fields, as he hated dams that blocked the natural flow of rivers. And he felt that man had made a poor choice when he gave up farming for factory work—almost as poor a choice as when he gave up hunting and fishing for farming.