Revolution to Renaissance: The Continuing Industrial Experiment of Lowell, Massachusetts

The city of Lowell in Massachusetts along the Merrimack River was established in the early 19th century as an experimental money-making industrial venture and as the first planned industrial town in North America. It spearheaded the Industrial Revolution in New England, while encountering a dramatic decline in the 20th century. A new commitment to the preservation of its industrial heritage brought a Renaissance that again put Lowell in the foreground of international practice.

Lowell was founded in the 1820s at the site of the existing town of East Chelmsford, which had been settled by Europeans in the 17th century. Prior to the arrival of colonists in the area, it was a significant place of the Pennacook Indians.

Corporate Espionage and Power Looms

Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) was an American businessman and textile merchant, and one of the founders of the city that later would be named in his honour. He had seen the textile mills and machinery in Great Britain during a visit in 1810. It is said that he had memorised the designs of the power looms that he had seen in Great Britain, and managed to develop a replica when he was back in Massachusetts.

The British did not allow at that time the export of their textile looms to America, and by being able to copy the technology of the power loom, Francis Cabot Lowell succeeded in setting up a cotton mill in Waltham, Massachusetts in 1813. The Waltham mill was officially an enterprise of the Boston Manufacturing Company, which Lowell had established with several partners. The Waltham cotton mill made use of the power of the Charles River. It was the first of its kind in America and in achieving this Lowell would become a key figure in bringing the industrial revolution to the United States.

Lowell died from pneumonia in 1817, at the young age of 42, but the manufacturing methods he established were so successful that Patrick Tracy Jackson, his successor, and Lowell’s partners took up the initiative to found a larger new mill site. They did so under the name of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and decided on East Chelmsford as the ideal site for such undertaking, located along the Merrimack River at the Pawtucket Falls.

Transforming East Chelmsford

The textile mills that were used still had to be water-powered. When in the 1820s the partners were searching for a suitable site for their new venture, they set their sights on East Chelmford, along the Merrimack River. The river had tremendous water power capabilities, making it an ideal location to realize their ideas for a new planned industrial town for textile manufacturing,

The location already had a sawmill and gristmill that had been there since the early 18th century. In addition, the Pawtucket Canal had already been completed in 1796 to circumvent the Pawtucket Falls. Another already completed construction that greatly benefited their undertaking, was the Middlesex Canal which had opened in 1803 and now connected the Merrimack River to the Charles River, near Boston.

The Lowell Experiment

The founders envisioned the town of Lowell’s manufacturing facilities as a planned community with green spaces, corporate housing and dormitories. They referred to it as a social project, described as ‘The Lowell Experiment’. The philosophy behind the experiment was a reaction against the poor living and working conditions that were customary in Great Britain’s mill towns. At Lowell the employees could live and work in the town, and also young women, the ‘mill girls’ were being employed, and housed in company run boarding houses. Given the favorable reputation that Lowell soon gained in New England and abroad, it attracted many new workers.

To enable the creation of the new industrial city in Lowell, the company had set out to construct a system of 5.6-miles feeder canals. These feeder canals connected into the Pawtucket Canal, with the new textile mills being built along the banks of the canals and Merrimack River.

The first construction works in East Chelmsford started in 1822, and by 1823 already the first mill was operational. In 1826 East Chelmsford was renamed Lowell in honour of Francis Cabot Lowell. By 1826 Lowell had a population of 2,500 and by 1836 already 18,000.

In 1836 the town of Lowell officially became a city, the third in Massachusetts, after Boston and Salem. Lowell’s manufacturing continued to boom and by 1850 it was the largest industrial center in North America with a population of 33,000.

Greenways, Promenades and Canals

A remarkable feature and remnant of Lowell’s planned city approach, are the green promenades that still much exist on the banks of the many canals. Patrick M. Malone and Charles A. Parrott studied this heritage in their 1998 article on “Greenways in the Industrial City: Parks and Promenades along the Lowell Canals,” published in the The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology.

A historic postcard of “The Canal Walk Lowell, Mass.” from around 1905 with people promenading along the river wall (By G. Prince and Son: Lowell, Mass. Source: University of Massachusetts).

Malone and Parrott concluded about the significance of the promenades and greenways of Lowell that “…Although much of the historic context of the canalside greenways is gone, those that have been renewed are again attracting users who are focused toward the water – the resource that prompted the urban and industrial development of Lowell. The city’s greenways are survivals of the linear (and curvilinear) parks developed by industrialists and engineers long before Olmsted promoted the idea of urban park systems or created his own green corridors.” (Malone and Parrott 1998, 37).

Decline and Demolition

While the 19th century and early 20th century were favourable to Lowell, the textile industry declined rapidly in New England after World War II. By the 1960s Lowell’s textile mills had become ghostly remnants and ruins of a once thriving manufacturing era. Most of the textile mill buildings were abandoned, and many got demolished.

Renaissance and Revitalization

By the 1970s the vision to set up a historical urban park, following the principles of historic preservation, were being explored. This did ultimately lead towards the creation of the Lowell National Historical Park.

The idea of creating such an industrial heritage site was at that time still a new approach in the United States. Until the 1970s little attention had been paid to the value and significance of the industrial heritage of such mill towns. In Lowell a strong belief gained momentum, that recognizing the value of its industrial heritage could be a most welcome tool to spearhead the much needed social and economic revitalization of the city.

In 1976 the Lowell Historical Society succeeded in opening the Lowell Museum. Soon after, by 1978, the Lowell National Historical Park, the Lowell Historic Preservation District, and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission were established by the United States Congress. Lowell was formally designated as an urban National Park Service site. The Lowell National Historical Park, managed by The National Park Service, now contains various historical sites throughout the city, with the Visitor Centre in the renovated Market Mills functioning as a visitor gateway to the Historical Park.

Paul Tsongas, a native of Lowell and a United States Senator in the 1970s, was instrumental in getting the approval by Congress for the designation of Lowell. His contribution has been recognized through the naming of the Tsongas Industrial History Center at the Boott Cotton Mills. The Centre is a partnership between the Lowell National Historical Park and the University of Massachusetts Lowell and continues to support site-based teaching of industrial history to school children.

On the Road with the Beat Generation

One of Lowell’s most famous sons is the Beat Generation pioneer Jack Kerouac (1922-1969). He was born in Lowell on March 12, 1922 “…at five o’clock in the afternoon of a red-all-over supper time…”, as he himself described in his book Doctor Sax. Even though Kerouac spent most of his time away from Lowell while completing his most famous books, including On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Town and the City, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, and Big Sur, he frequently uses the city as a backdrop to his stories.

Jack Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1969, at the age of 47, after years of alcohol abuse. While living a life on the road and away from Lowell, he was buried in the city at the Sampas family plot at Edson Cemetery on Gorham Street. The National Park Service Visitor Center also commemorates this with a display about Kerouac, and a memorial featuring some of his quotes was erected in 1988 in the city.

Again… Setting Trends

Within the context of the Industrial Revolution in North America, Lowell now appears to receive deserved credit. Lowell now also is recognized internationally within the historic preservation discipline as a milestone in the development of preservation of industrial heritage. The preservation processes at Lowell have inspired many lessons and projects nationally and globally. Lowell continues to be an inspiration for many research projects, with frequent expert lectures and presentations being given on related topics.

For anyone with a deeper interest in the preservation of Lowell, Robert Weible reflects on the successes and challenges of Lowell as an urban National Park in his 2011 paper on “Visions and Reality: Reconsidering the Creation and Development of Lowell’s National Park, 1966–1992,” published in The Public Historian. Much has been achieved in Lowell since those ‘depressing’ 1960s, but clearly there is much more progress to be made. Step by step preservation and urban revitalization projects continue to be taken forward.

The distinctive character that Lowell’s industrial heritage has added to this Merrimack River landscape provide the area now with a great mix of cultural and natural heritage. By continuing its long tradition of ‘daring to be experimental’ Lowell surely can further its ongoing transformation in a positive manner, and continue to explore best practices for urban ecologies, sustainable and livability.

Text and photography by Jan Haenraets

 Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada, and a Professor in the Preservation Studies Program, at Boston University

References and Information:

Lowell National Historical Park, National Park Service

Lowell Historical Society

Jack Kerouac and Lowell, National Park Service

Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell

The City of Lowell, Massachusetts

Lowell Historic Board, The City of Lowell, Massachusetts

Tsongas Industrial History Center, University of Massachusetts Lowell and Lowell National Historical Park

Visions and Reality: Reconsidering the Creation and Development of Lowell’s National Park, 1966–1992“, by Robert Weible, published 2011 in The Public Historian in 2011 (Available via Jstor)

Greenways in the Industrial City: Parks and Promenades along the Lowell Canals“, by Patrick M. Malone and Charles A. Parrott, published in 1998 in IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology (Available via Jstor)

Visitor Map of the Lowell National Historical Park (Source: National Park Service). 

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