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Park History: Lowell National Historical Park
National parks that focus on America’s industrial beginnings might not be as exciting as nature-based jewels such as Yellowstone National Park and Grand Canyon National Park, but what they lack in eye-popping beauty they make up for in fascination.
Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts (about 26 miles north of Boston) offers a prime example. This remarkable park tells the story of the farm-to-factory transition, immigrant and labor history, and the emergence of America’s industrial technology.
Lowell is a logical place to commemorate the history of America’s Industrial Revolution. Southern New England was America’s first major manufacturing region and the city of Lowell was this country’s first great industrial city. To appreciate how young this country was at the time, consider that the people who launched Lowell’s industrial boom had some relatives and friends who fought in the Revolutionary War.
It is highly significant that Lowell is located on the Fall Line of the Merrimac River. This made it relatively easy to harness water power for industrial use. In the early 1800s, America’s first industrial tycoons built a canal system at Lowell to power cotton mills. Textile manufacturing then got underway in earnest, and by the mid-1800s Lowell had ten major textile mills
The roots of this remarkable boom were established in the 1700s when a series of English inventions revolutionized the production of textiles, shifting it from a slow-paced, labor-intensive cottage industry to a fast-paced, heavily mechanized manufacturing system using abundant low-cost water and steam power. In 1733 the invention of the flying shuttle promoted the mechanization of yarn spinning. By the end of the 1760s there were spinning jennies that simultaneously spun several yarns as well as a rudimentary water-powered spinning machine. Englishman Edmund Cartwright patented the first steam-powered loom in 1785, and power spinning frames were introduced just five years after that.
In 1793 the Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, became the first American mill that used water power to run cotton-spinning machinery. At this time, our American forbears were still blatantly stealing British textile manufacturing technology, but they were also making some important modifications and implementing some brand new ideas.
The city of Lowell didn’t even exist in 1794 when Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin, but this invention, coupled with other technological and institutional developments, had a tremendous impact on the city's future. The new technology made it possible to produce green upland cotton very profitably in the inland South (initially in the Carolinas), and New England entrepreneurs were quick to see that great fortunes could be made by turning southern cotton into Yankee textiles.
In 1813, Boston businessman Francis Cabot Lowell and his partners built the first American power loom. It was now feasible to combine inexpensive labor, efficient machinery, and cheap power to operate hugely profitable textile mills at Fall Line sites. And the place where Lowell now sits was one of the best Fall Line sites in all of New England.
A river dam and canal system was needed to transport bulky freight around rapids and falls, and especially to channel the river’s flow to mills and water power apparatus located well away from the river. This consideration proved to be a powerful reason for selecting this particular site on the Merrimac River. The Pawtucket Transportation Canal (skirting Pawtucket Falls) had been opened in 1796, so part of the necessary infrastructure was already in place. In 1821-1822 Boston merchants purchased the Pawtucket Transportation Canal, founded the city of Lowell (originally called East Chelmsford), and set about creating a manufacturing complex on a scale not yet seen on this side of the Atlantic.
Things moved awfully fast in the new city of Lowell, which was America’s first successful planned industrial city. The Merrimack Canal, which branched off the Pawtucket Canal, was opened in 1823. Before the engineers were finished, the city had a canal system nearly six miles long. By 1826 the Merrimack River was permanently dammed, the first production facility (Hamilton Mill) had been constructed, and Lowell’s population had surged to 2,500.
Just ten years later, the Appleton, Lowell, Middlesex, Suffolk & Tremont, Lawrence, and Boott Mills had all been added to the city’s industrial inventory and Lowell, with a population now exceeding 16,000, was the undisputed capital of the North American textile manufacturing industry. During its mid-1800s heyday, when the city’s population topped 33,000, Lowell’s mills employed over 10,000 workers, housed 320,000 spindles, and had looms producing over two million yards of cloth a week. By this time European immigrants had replaced the original labor force that had been dominated by “mill girls” (unmarried young women fresh off the farm).
Despite many cost-cutting measures, production in New England’s textiles mills became relatively costly. The Civil War marked the end of Lowell’s “Golden Age,” and by the late 1800s Lowell’s mills were in deep trouble. Attracted by cheaper labor and cotton, the textile industry had begun to shift to the South in the mid-1800s and was firmly established there by the 1880s and 1890s.
When Lowell’s major mills began closing in the mid-1920s, the city’s economy went into steep decline. By the mid-1930s, only three of Lowell's first large mills were still operating and total employment in the mills (about 8,000) was no greater than it had been a century ago. By the 1960s, Lowell’s industrial infrastructure lay in ruins, the city’s economy was a shambles, and many of the city’s residents had been forced to leave and seek work elsewhere.
It isn’t hard to understand why there are so many 19th-century commercial buildings still left in Lowell. Whereas the great majority of old mills and factories elsewhere in New England were demolished to make way for new businesses, Lowell was unable to attract enough new employers to fill the huge economic gap left by the collapse of its textile industry. The city’s economy remained in such terrible shape that the land and buildings simply were not needed.
Some buildings were demolished to reduce taxes and some were recycled to accommodate different economic activities (such as carpet making), but Lowell’s canal system and a large share of its early mills, factories, and related industrial structures remained basically intact. The fact that Lowell has the largest and best collection of early industrial buildings left in all of New England made the Lowell National Historical Park a very special addition to the National Park System when it was created 30 years ago as one of America’s first truly urban national parks.
The more than 600,000 people who visit the park each year – including an awful lot of Boston-area day-trippers – enjoy a wide range of activities. Among the key attractions at the park, which was established on this date in 1978, are the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, the boarding houses where the mill girls stayed, canal boat rides, and numerous exhibits and special programs. Not surprisingly, most visits occur in the summer months when the weather is warmest, the park offers extended hours, and canal boat tours are available. Touring Lowell’s 5.6 miles of historic canals is so popular that canal boat tours are offered seven days a week from late June to Labor Day, and then on a reduced schedule until Columbus Day in October.
The Boott Cotton Mills Museum is the centerpiece of the Lowell National Historical Park, so taking one of the 90-minute guided tours is a must for any first-time visitor. (Be sure to make your reservations early, as the summer tours fill up fast). The museum’s many interesting attractions include a 1920s-era Weave Room with 88 Draper “Model E” looms operated by trained volunteers. As anyone who’s ever been there can tell you, seeing the Weave Room’s looms in action -- and listening to the roar of the machinery -- is a highlight experience. The other museum attractions include interactive exhibits and video programs about the Industrial Revolution, labor history, and Lowell’s rise, fall, and rebirth. Other attractions at the Boott Mills complex include the Boott Gallery, the Boott Mill Boardinghouse, and the Tsongas Industrial History Center.
The Boott Gallery houses special exhibits related to the park unit’s main themes. Various topics are featured on a rotating basis. For example, one photo exhibit some years back vividly portrayed the history of child labor in America and throughout the world. Lowell’s mill workers played a key role in helping to get the labor protest movement on a more substantial footing. Although the mill girls made wages that were pretty decent by the standards of their era, they worked as long as 16 hours a day and endured loud, hot, dusty, fast-paced, and dangerous work conditions that modern workers will not tolerate.
The immigrant workers who replaced the mill girls also labored under conditions that were -- even by the minimal standards of the times -- considered deplorable. In 1833 the mill girls went on strike to protest declining wages and deteriorating working conditions. In 1836 they went out on strike again and demanded (unsuccessfully) a 10-hour workday. In the 1840s they established the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association, petitioned the state legislature for a 10-hour workday, and worked for other improvements. Eventually, labor unrest in Lowell and other industrial centers led to federal laws that restricted the use of child labor, guaranteed a minimum wage, instituted a standard work week (the 10-hour day became standard in 1874), and established workplace safety and health standards.
The Boott Mill boardinghouse offers visitors a chance to see where the mill girls lived. Girls who did not live in family homes were required to live in the company-run boarding houses, attend church, and comply with many other rules and restrictions, including a curfew. The company-owned boarding houses were located only a short walk from the mills. They provided the girls with meals as well as lodging and played a central role in the paternalistic, strictly regimented lifestyle that was meant to keep the girls out of trouble and subservient to the company.
Lowell NHP is a very kid-friendly park and goes out of its way to accommodate teachers. The Tsongas Industrial History Center is a collaborative educational enterprise of Lowell National Historical Park and the University of Massachusetts Lowell Graduate School of Education, which furnishes a portion of the Center’s funding and staff. The Tsongas Center offers industrial history experiences to students in grades 3-12 through hands-on activities, school field trips, after-school programs, and a summer camp. The Center also serves teachers by providing curriculum resources, conducting professional development workshops, and offering opportunities to participate in various primary-source-based teaching activities.
One popular kid-friendly attraction is the Boott Discovery Trail, which is offered free during regular hours at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. Children pick up work aprons and time cards at the museum entrance and then participate in hands-on activities that allow them explore textile production methods and machinery from the raw cotton stage to finished cloth. It includes a visit to the Weave Room. The Tsongas Industrial History Center offers school programs for students in grades 3-12. These popular programs feature interactive workshops focusing on the themes of labor, textile production, water power, immigration, and technological innovation. In addition to educational programs and summer camp programs for children, the park offers workshops for teachers.
Special events and programs are presented throughout the year at the park and nearby venues. By far the most elaborate special event is the Lowell Folk Festival, the largest free folk festival in America (attendance 200,000). The three-day event, which is held each year during the last full weekend in July, features street parades, traditional music and dance, craft demonstrations, hands-on activities, ethnic foods, and other family fun attractions. Activities and events are held along the canals and on city streets and six outdoor stages.
The city of Lowell offers many ancillary delights, and if you like to walk or bicycle, this is your chance. Visitors should wear comfortable shoes and take advantage of the fact that Lowell National Historical Park is a pedestrian-friendly park ensconced in a very “walkable” city. While some people prefer the optional ranger-led walks and tours of the downtown, many find the self-guided walking tours at Lowell to be very interesting and educational. Visitors can take a meandering path if they like, but several walkways are recommended. One is the footpath along the Merrimack Canal from the Visitor Center. This walkway is lined with plaques that describe the significance of various existing and former sites and structures in the canal vicinity. Another recommended walkway lies along the Merrimack River. This one leads to some additional mill sites (unrestored) and offers views of canal raceways (some restored) that were once used by the mills.
Are you into bicycling? If so, you can plan to participate in the “Spindle City Bike Series” tours to various Lowell neighborhoods. One of these neighborhoods is the birthplace of influential author Jack Kerouac. Though best-known as the beat generation guru who wrote “On the Road,” Kerouac also wrote “The Town and the City,” which is set in Lowell.