Lowell National Historical Park

Location: Lowell, Massachusetts

Webpage: National Park

General Description: In the first half of the 19th century the United States was primarily agriculture, however, the Industrial Revolution in Europe would soon transform the young nation’s social and economic systems.  When Francis Lowell visited England in 1810 to investigate the textile mills he found well designed machines to automate the production, but each step of the process was done in separate mills.  Since England prohibited the export of machines, he memorized them and brought the technology to America.  In 1813 he organized the Boston Manufacturing Company and created a cotton mill in Waltham, Massachusetts that used power looms and combined all the operations of turning raw cotton to cloth in a single mill.  The enterprise was so successful that the company sought to expand the operation.  However, the Charles River could not supply sufficient power so they searched for a new location.  At the time East Chelmsford with a 32 foot drop over Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack River had a gristmill and sawmill powered by the river and a canal to bypass the falls had been dug in 1797.  Patrick Jackson, Lowell’s successor, founded the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in 1822 with plans to dig additional canals and construct a planned industrial city.  Jackson also envisioned a working environment drastically different from the horrible conditions of workers in the textile mills in England.  His plan was to attract young, single, Yankee women from farms and small rural villages in New England where economic opportunities were becoming very limited to work at the new mills where they could earn a steady wage for the first time in their lives.  Boarding houses were built for the women along with churches and social organizations to provide a wholesome environment.  The system was so successful that other companies soon copied it and Lowell grew tremendously to be the second largest city in Massachusetts with 33,000 citizens in 1850.  The corporations sought to regulate the lives of their workers, exercising paternal control over the social behavior of the women with enforced curfews, strict codes of conduct, and required church attendance.  Work hours were 12 to 14 hours long in conditions which were noisy, hot, and full of cotton dust, although still a big improvement over the conditions in England.  Even with these problems, the system worked well as young women would generally work for only 3-5 years earning enough money to launch their own careers, pay off the family debt, and even send their brothers to college (at one time approximately 1/3 of the students at Harvard were funded by their sisters working in Lowell).  Despite threats of firing and blacklisting, the female workers struck twice in the 1830s to protest wage cuts and working conditions and in the 1840s demanded a 10 hour work day.  While Lowell continued to be the center for industrial innovations, competition, especially from the South, continued to put pressure on profits.  By 1850, Lowell had 10 corporations with a total of 40 mills employing 10,000 workers producing 50,000 miles of cloth annually.  In the decades after the Civil War the work force remained mostly women, although this was changing.  Irish immigrants were brought in early to construct and maintain the canals, which eventually consisted of 5.6 miles of canals, but were not allowed to work in the mills until the 1840s and then only in the worst conditions.  They settled in an area known as “The Acre” which became an Irish-American enclave.  With the advent of steam power it was no longer necessary to locate mills along rivers and textile mills could be built anywhere, especially in the rural South.  This increasing competition began to change the business model at Lowell, where the work force changed over from female workers living in boarding houses to low-wage and unskilled immigrant labor that came to America in waves.  Following the Irish immigrants in the 1850s were the French-Canadians in the 1870s and 1880s, Greeks in the 1890s, to be followed by Polish, Portuguese, Lithuanians, and Swedes, as well as Jews.  The introduction of the electric streetcar in the early 20th century allowed expansion of the city into suburbs further away from the mills.  By the 1920s the New England textile industry shifted South and many of Lowell’s mills moved or closed.  To keep costs down, owners choose not to install new technology, instead letting the equipment and conditions deteriorate until finally closing the doors.  The Great Depression closed nearly all the mills and unemployment was higher than most of the country.  World War II did revitalize Lowell with the increased demand for cloth and conversion of some of the old mills into munition factories, but after the war the conditions worsened again.  In 1956, Boott Mills closed after over 130 years and the Merrimack Manufacturing Company limped along until 1958.  By the mid-1970s Lowell’s population had dropped to 91,000 and 12% were unemployed.  The mills were mostly abandoned and falling apart and the river was a cesspool.  Urban renewal projects in the 1940s through the 1960s demolished many of the historical enclaves beginning with the Acre in 1939 and Little Canada in the late 1950s.  In 1960, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company factories were bulldozed to build warehouses and public housing projects.  From a grand beginning, Lowell had hit rock bottom, especially the downtown area.  However, some city residents, most notably Patrick Morgan, saw a need to preserve the history of the once great city and in 1974 the Lowell Heritage State Park was formed in the center of Lowell and in 1978 the Lowell Historical Park was formed as the first urban national park.  The canal system, many mills, and some commercial structures were saved and today the center of town attracts many tourists.  Many of the old mills have been converted into apartments causing a revitalization of the downtown area.  It should also be noted that Lowell has continued to attract immigrants over the years including Southeast Asia immigrants after the Vietnam War, Puerto Ricans, and most recently immigrants from Burma.



1) The Visitor Center is located in the old Lowell Mills factory with free parking so long as you get your ticket validated.  From there you can explore all that downtown Lowell has to offer.  From here you are surrounded by the old factories, many of which are now apartments.  They have a very good movie about the history of Lowell and some very good exhibits highlighting the history as well.


2) They have done a very good job creating public parks along the Merrimack Canal that connects the Visitor Center to other locations in the Park.


3) Along the Eastern Canal, a short walking distance from the Visitor Center, is the Boarding House Park where they have rennovated one of the few remaining boarding houses that used to fill this part of downtown.  This is a self guided tour that begins with reconstructed parlor/dinning room for up to 12 women living in this house (which is one of four along the same building), the small quarters for the manager of the boarding house, and one bedroom for up to four women.  Since we were the first visitors on a rainy day during the week, the Park Ranger was excited to give us a personal tour of the museum, which was great. The rest of the boarding house has been turned into very interesting displays about each of the waves of immigrants.


4) Across the canal from the boarding house is the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.  For anyone interested in the history of the textile industry, this is must see.  On the first floor they have working looms filling the floor.  From these looms they produce cloth that is sold in the museum and Visitor Center.  While we were there they were running 16 looms.  Once you enter through the glass panels you get a small sense of the noise generated in the room.  Just multiply it by 10 and it was already deafening.  The second floor of the museum is a set of great displays giving the history of Lowell and examples of each of the machines used to turn raw cotton into cloth, as well as, a model of the layout of a typical mill, and examples of the cloth fabrics that were produced in each time period.  A very fascinating place.


5) At the Visitor Center you can either purchase tickets for one of the canal tours or get your name added to the list for the free trolley tours.  Of course, you can also walk along the canals or ride the electric trolleys without being on a tour.  Since it was raining most of the day that we were there we decided against a canal tour, but did take the trolley tour.  During the early 20th century these electric trolleys spanned the entire downtown area and reached into the suburbs.  They even created amusements parks to entice passengers during the weekend when the mills were closed.  You can still see tracks all over the downtown area.


6) The trolley tour takes passengers over to the Suffolk Mill, which has a turbine exhibit.  By being on the tour, they opened up the gates so we actually got to see the turbine in operation.  They have cut away part of the floor so you can see down into the turbine and have taken one apart so you can see the inside.  Instead of the inefficient water wheels which transferred less than 10% of the water power, these turbines could capture over 90% of the energy in the water.  The tour also went down below the turbine so you can see the huge belt on the flywheel, the operation of the governor that automatically adjusted the speed of the turbines, and a working loom that produced over 10″ of cloth in 30 seconds.  I recommend the tour since you get to see all the parts in operation instead of just reading about it.


7) Due to the weather we did not walk along the canals to view the locks used to control the water flow in the canals, but I understand on a clear day they are worth seeing as well.

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