Skip to main content

Lowell, Massachusetts

June 2024
1min read

Lowell was America’s first planned industrial city, founded in 1825 on a site along the Merrimack River that afforded abundant waterpower. For several decades farmers’ daughters flocked to the textile mills of Lowell and other factory towns throughout New England; then, starting in the 185Os, the work force shifted increasingly to immigrants. Lowell’s cheap power and labor have long since been eclipsed by other regions, domestic and foreign, but today the city has a new selling point: its rich working-class history. The Lowell National Historical Park (246 Market Street, Lowell, MA 01852, Tel: 508-970-5000) gives ample evidence of how clean and pleasant an industrial town can be when there’s no industry left to mess things up. Streets along which mill girls once hurried to start their fourteen-hour days are lined with Cambodian and Greek restaurants, and the canals, now mostly scenic, glisten smartly in the morning sun. Museum exhibits detail the crowded, steamy, cacophonous conditions millworkers had to endure, while a restored boardinghouse shows how the energetic Yankee women of Lowell’s early years devoted their scarce free time to self-improvement. A pair of native sons, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (who denied his Lowell roots) and Jack Kerouac (who celebrated his), are commemorated—Whistler with an art gallery in the house where he was born, Kerouac with a garden of modernistic sculptures etched with excerpts from his works. There’s even the New England Quilt Museum. Together these sites show how Lowell’s mills and its generations of workers have combined to weave the fabric of American life.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.