Lowell National Historic Park

Audio Available:

Overview

This is the audio-only described version of the park’s brochure. The brochure includes text illustrations, historic and contemporary photographs and a map of the site. Side one features the history of the park. Side two focuses on highlights within the park and information to plan your visit.

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Lowell and the Industrial Revolution: Text

An illustration of Lowell mills and a painting underneath of the Merrimack River are described under their own section.

Text: Lowell was born as a grand experiment that changed how Americans lived and worked. Capitalists tapped the energy of Merrimack River falls to turn thousands of textile machines. Young New England women and immigrant families came here to turn out millions of yards of cloth. From their labors grew America’s first industrial city.

As the Industrial Revolution in the United States intensified in the first half of the 19th century, the young nation’s social and economic fabric changed dramatically. Though still primarily agricultural, America was transforming itself into a nation of urban manufacturing centers. Enterprising merchants and capitalists organized corporations to develop and control the productive forces of emerging industries, while growing numbers of working people found employment as wage laborers in factories. Cotton textiles, the foundation of America’s Industrial Revolution, fostered not only working-class wage labor in the mills, but also supported slave labor on the cotton plantations in the South.

No city offers as dramatic a view of the American Industrial Revolution as Lowell, Massachusetts. Founded by Boston merchants in 1821 to 1822, Lowell was built as a factory city along the Merrimack River to take advantage of the waterpower potential of the Pawtucket Falls; within one mile, the river plunged 32 feet. Francis Cabot Lowell, for whom the city was named, had observed British techniques for weaving textiles, and with the aid of mechanic Paul Moody produced a successful power loom. In 1814, Lowell and other investors erected a water-powered mill in Waltham, Massachusetts, which carried out all the steps of textile production, carding, spinning, and weaving. Despite Lowell’s death in 1817, the venture proved hugely profitable, and plans for a larger enterprise led to the establishment of Lowell. The rapid development of power canals, factories, and corporate-owned boarding houses paralleled the growth of the city’s commercial, religious, and civic institutions.

While visitors to Lowell commented on the city’s extraordinary growth, many were also interested in the moral and physical well-being of the carefully supervised, mostly female work force. Could Lowell avoid the horrific social effects of industrial capitalism afflicting Britain’s manufacturing cities? Lowell’s industrialists reassured them, maintaining moreover that the enterprise advanced the needs and aspirations of republican society. By 1850, Lowell had grown beyond all expectations. The city had a population of 33,000—the second largest in Massachusetts—and its ten mill complexes employed over 10,000 women and men.

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Lowell and the Industrial Revolution: Image Descriptions

The top one third of side one is a color line drawing illustration of Lowell mills. Below it and to the left is a smaller color painting of the Merrimack River before industrialization. Their captions and descriptions follow. 

  1. Illustration caption: View of Lowell mills from across the Merrimack River, 1839. Illustration description: The city of Lowell across but close to the river spans the entire illustration from left to right. In front of it and in the right foreground three brown-colored bulls graze on a rural, grassy farm plot. Behind them, is a line of green trees. Behind and below the treeline, the lightly shaded blue river flows. If it wasn’t for the background where the city resides, this foreground section of the illustration would resemble a rural farm landscape typical of the time and place. However, on the other side of the river, the city sprawls outward with many multi-story factory buildings painted in shades of yellows, whites, and red-orange brick. Church spires, chimneys, and mill towers puncture above the sight line of hills in the distance behind the city. Another space devoted to farm plots, the hills in the background almost blend into the blue sky. The city of Lowell appears to be a singular location of industry in an otherwise rural area. A dark cloud of smoke appears on the left edge of the illustration, punctuating the difference between the urban and rural components in the illustration as it billows upwards into the sky.
  2. Painting caption: As seen in Alvan Fisher’s 1833 painting, the Pawtucket Dam dramatically altered the Merrimack River’s flow over the falls. Painting description: Travelling from the right bottom corner at an angle into the distance toward the left top corner of the painting is the Merrimack River. The focal point of the painting is in the center where the dam is being built within the river with chunks of granite and plywood flashboards to keep the water from falling over the edge. The water splashes and swirls upwards as it rushes around the granite and flashboards. In the right foreground are several tall trees with green leaves. On the shoreline, in front of the trees are three dam-builder supervisors. To their left are two horses facing a steeper embankment. Trees are scattered close to the river's shoreline as the river fades into the background on either side, except for the higher embankment in the left foreground where the horses face. The land on this embankment is clear of trees and the ground is painted in hues of greens and medium brown colors. Several chunks of granite are scattered about. Two dogs are nearby one of the chunks of granite.
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Working in the Mills: Text

The “Working in the Mills” section spans the middle of side one. On either side of the text are images. On the left is a color illustration of women mill workers. On the right are two historic photographs, one of mill worker Eliza Adams, and the other of male mill workers. Underneath is a security tag used to identify the workers. These images and associated text are presented under their own section. Following is this section’s text.

Title: “The Mill Girls.” Most of Lowell’s textile workers in the early to mid eighteen hundreds were young, single women from New England. Many hailed from farms or small rural villages, where economic opportunity was often limited to domestic service, family farm work, or poorly paid teaching jobs. Lowell’s mills prom­ised much more, monthly cash wages and comfortable room and board in corporation boarding houses. In addition to economic independence, the growing city offered young women an array of commercial and cultural activities few had ever experienced.

The corporations, however, sought to regulate the lives of their workers, exercising paternal control over the social behavior of the women. Boardinghouse keepers enforced curfews and strict codes of conduct, and the corporations required church attendance. Factory overseers maintained discipline on the work floor. The clanging factory bell summoned workers to and from 12- to 14-hour days.

Although the mills paid relatively high wages, the work was arduous and conditions unhealthy. De­spite threats of firing or blacklisting, female workers struck twice in the eighteen thirties to protest wage cuts and working conditions and again in the eighteen forties to demand a 10-hour day. Few strikes succeeded, and Lowell’s work force remained largely unorganized. Although Irish immigrants and a wide range of other groups settled in Lowell in the decades after the Civil War, women remained a large part of Lowell’s textile work force.

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Working in the Mills: Image Descriptions

From left to right, this middle section has four images. A color illustration is to the left. To the right are two black and white historic photos and a color photo of an artifact. Their captions and descriptions are ordered from left to right.

  1. Illustration caption: A quote from Amelia Sargent Factory Tract No. 1, October 1845. “We will soon show these driveling cotton lords . . .who so arrogantly aspire to lord it over God’s heritage, that our rights cannot be trampled upon with impunity.” Illustration description: Four Lowell “mill girls” are at work. The young woman in the left foreground, like her co-workers, wears a simple solid-colored long-sleeved dress with a button front and an apron on top of her skirt. She holds an oblong shuttle containing a bobbin of thread, which will eventually function as a thread carrier inside the looms her co-workers stand at. She looks back towards the three women in the center and background of the illustration, who tend to their looms and monitor the finished fabric each machine produces. The woman closest to her is in full view. The other two are behind her and only partially seen. The large tabletop-like loom the woman in full view stands at is made of heavy metal and moving parts. She leans slightly towards it with her right arm raised and hand resting on top of a bar. Hanging from the bar is a stretched rectangular piece of woven fabric partially woven. Illustration Caption: National Park Service / Richard Schlecht 
  2. Photo caption: Eliza Adams (1815 to 1881) left her New Hampshire farm home at 26 to work in the Lawrence Manufacturing Company in Lowell. Within a year of her arrival she was writing poetry calling for worker solidarity during a strike. After she had settled into her job, Adams wrote her mother a reassuring letter: ”I . . . have a good place and find the girls to be a very likely set. . . . My work is drawing in through the harness and reed, the room is very warm, I shall scarcely feel the cold weather at all this winter which you know I dread so much.” Photo description: In a wood oval frame is a black and white photo portrait of “mill girl” Eliza Adams, at age 26. She wears a collared dress, with her hair pulled back, while gazing directly ahead. Her signature appears to the right of her portrait. Photo credit: Courtesy of Jo Anne Preston 
  3. Photo caption: Men made up a quarter of the work force by 1860, working as mule spinners, machinists, and laborers. After the Civil War, both men and women were instrumental in labor actions. The 1912 strikers, aided by the Industrial Workers of the World, won raises for textile workers. Photo description: Outside and against a background of buildings a group of men in a staggered lines walk forward. They wear jackets of different lengths and caps or bollar-like hats. Some wear ties. Towards the center of the photo in a black bowler hat is union organizer Big Bill Haywood. To his right two men on either side of another man have their arms intertwined as they walk. 
  4. Artifact caption: Security tags identified mill workers by number only. This badge was issued by the Atlantic Parachute Corporation, a producer of rayon parachutes during World War II. Artifact description: In the center of this round metal pin is a headshot of a female worker. In the photo, below her neck, is a black board with the numbers 3589 in white. A light blue circle frames the photo around the perimeter of the pin. On the top portion of the blue circular border in black are the words “Atlantic Parachute Corp.” On the bottom portion of the circular border are the words “Lowell Mass.”  
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Immigrant Lowell: Text

Across the lower third of side one is text, a historic photo (left) and a map (right) on this subject. The text is presented below. The images and their associated text are presented under their own section.

Immigrants were part of Lowell’s story from the beginning. Before the New England female mill workers arrived, Irish laborers built the canals, mills, and boarding houses. A large number of Irish settled in a section of the city that became known as ”New Dublin” and later the ”Acre.” Many lived in poverty in ramshackle wooden cabins or primitive tents.

Beginning in the mid eighteen forties, Irish immigrants who were escaping poverty and famine in the homeland streamed into Lowell. They found work in the textile mills, where they toiled in unhealthy conditions in low-paying jobs. The establishment of Catholic churches and schools and the retention of traditional customs helped many Irish adjust to life in a predominantly Protestant, increasingly industrial society. Though conflicts between New England Protestants and Irish, Catholics occasionally flared into violence, Lowell’s Irish were eventually integrated into the city’s population.

After the Civil War, Lowell’s textile companies began hiring immigrants in greater numbers, starting with French-Canadians. They were followed by Greeks, Poles, Portu­guese, Russian Jews, Armenians, and many other ethnic groups. Newer immigrants, like the Irish before them, faced long hours in low-paying, unskilled occupations. Many of these immigrants lived away from the mills in tightly knit neighborhoods where Old World cultures came to terms with the demands of American urban industrial life. Working-class immigrants had to cope with poor housing and unsanitary living conditions. By nineteen hundred, Lowell was a microcosm of urban American society—an uneasy blend of many ethnic groups living in distinct neighborhoods.

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Immigrant Lowell: Historic Photo and Map

On either side of the Immigrant Lowell text is a black and white historic photo (left) and map (right). 

  1. Photo caption: A French-Canadian family in ”Little Canada,” around 1910. Photo description: Outside a French-Canadian family is grouped together. There are fourteen people in total. They are men and women of various ages and some young children. Most stand, but a few in the front sit, possibly on the curb. They are in a small lot between crowded tenement buildings that were common in Lowell’s immigrant neighborhoods at the turn of the century.
  2. Map Caption: Title: Ethnic Enclaves 1912. Densely populated ethnic neighborhoods like the Acre and Chapel Hill were homes to successive immigrant groups. Unhealthy living conditions, poor sanitation and sewerage and crowded tenements, confronted Lowell’s immigrants. But schools and churches, native language newspapers, and social clubs offered comfort and support to the newly arrived immigrants. Map description: The Merrimack River is shaped like a wide, upside down “V” across the upper half of the map. Street names are indistinguishable, but neighborhoods and their dominant ethnic population are labelled as follows. There are three French Canadian neighborhoods. Two are above the river on either side of the upside down “V”. The third is below the river, covering all of the the upper section of the upside down “V”. This is the largest of all of the neighborhoods identified on the map. It is labelled “Little Canada.” Below and to the right of Little Canada is an area identified as Portuguese. To the left of this area and also below Little Canada is the Acre neighborhood identified as Greek and also Irish (in 1840). There are three Polish areas in smaller blue bubbles clustered close to the river on the right. Below them in the the right lower side of the map is the Chapel Hill neighborhood identified as Portuguese and Irish (in 1840). In the mid-to lower left is an area identified as Jewish.  
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Prosperity and Decline: Text

At the bottom of side one, on either side of the Prosperity and Decline text are three black and white historic photos of the mills inside and out, one is left the other two are right. Their associated text and descriptions are presented in their own section. Following is this section’s text.

Henry David Thoreau called Lowell the ”Manchester of America, which sends its cotton cloth around the globe.” (Manchester, England was the British center of the textile revolution.) Lowell was also prospering beyond even the imagining of its founders. Ten mill complexes, with over 300,000 spindles and almost 10,000 looms, transformed cotton from the South into almost a million yards of cloth a week.

Lowell was in the forefront of mill technology, replacing water wheels with more efficient turbines and supplementing waterpower with steam. Yet by the late eighteen hundreds, the city’s industrial prominence was fading. Lowell faced growing competition from other northern textile producers who operated newer, state-of-the-art cotton mills. Working conditions in the aging factories declined as the corporations failed to reinvest in the mills.

Although the mills remained mostly profitable until the early nineteen twenties, corporations invested in other enterprises or in the emerging southern textile industry. A number of Lowell’s mills closed in the nineteen twenties and nineteen thirties, casting thousands of residents out of work. A brief resurgence during World War two led to renewed hiring and production. By the mid nineteen fifties, however, the last of the original mills shut down and only a few, smaller textile producers remained.

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Prosperity and Decline: Photo Descriptions

On either side of the Prosperity and Decline text are three black and white historic photos, one left, two right. Associated text and descriptions follow. 

  1. Photo caption: Part of Lowell’s Mile of Mills in 1893. Photo description: From left to right across the middle section of the photograph a row of factory buildings line the bank of the river, which is in front of the buildings. The buildings range from about four to seven stories high. Many have a single cylindrical smokestack rising from their roofs. Some stacks are three times the height of the building. One stack in the center has smoke billowing into the sky.
  2. Photo caption: By the time of this photograph, around 1915, workers were responsible for more machines than ever, and conditions in the mills had deteriorated. Photo description: A female spinner is at work by herself. At the right foreground, she stands, leaning over one of many spinning frames that extend infinitely into the photo’s background. She looks down and is handling something towards the bottom of the machine, perhaps collecting one of the thread spools that this machine produced from the thicker rougher yarn on the top of the frames.
  3. Photo caption: Once alive with workers and clattering machines, a stripped and silent mill floor presents a haunting perspective on the past. Photo description: A cavernous empty room. Floor to ceiling round poles line either side of an empty area in the center. Lights hang from the ceiling. The walls behind the rows of poles are lined with windows from which natural light streams in. 
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Visiting Lowell National Historical Park: Description and Text

Side two focuses on planning your visit and the canal system around the park and rivers of Lowell. A map of the park and area takes up two thirds of the side. Three small maps and text explain the expanding canal system. Across the bottom third of this side are five color contemporary photos and text that highlight tours and places to stop while visiting the park. Introductory text is below. The map, canal information, photos and specific topics related to planning your visit are under their own headings.

Text: Visitors to Lowell in the eighteen hundreds were overwhelmed by the scale of the canal system and mills, and impressed by the female work force. One foreign traveler said: “Niagara and Lowell are the two objects I will longest remember in my American journey, the one the glory of American scenery, the other of American industry.” Poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote: “[The observer] feels himself thrust forward into a new century.” Experiencing the park’s sites today will help you understand the awe felt by these early visitors to Lowell.

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The Growing Canal System

In the upper left corner of side two is a small square map that repeats itself two more times, but with added blue lines that indicate the growth of the canal system. The map shows the shape of the Merrimack River, which is like a wide, upside down “V” that runs east-west with the high point in the upper center. The smaller Concord River flows north-south from the eastern down-turned slope of the Merrimack River in the far right side of the map. The canal system and its growth are explained below under the description and text for each of the three map variations. While labelled on the larger map and not these smaller maps, the names of the canals are included.

  1. Map caption: 1823: A work force of about 30 Irish laborers from Boston dug the first canal sections and built the first locks in about a year. Map description. The Pawtucket Canal is in the shape of an irregular “U.” On the left, it connects to the Pawtucket Dam on the upper west side of the Merrimack River, southwest of the Pawtucket Falls. On the eastern right side, the canal’s right arm of the “U” travels slightly south and eastward where it connects to the Concord River. 
  2. Map caption: 1836: In the next decade of rapid growth, most of the canal system was completed, powering seven new mill complexes. Map description: At the bottom right side of the “U” of the Pawtucket Canal, a series of connecting canals branch out at a diagonal. Most travel in a northeasterly direction from the Pawtucket Canal towards the Merrimack River. Canals in this area are labelled as the Western Canal, Merrimack Canal, Eastern Canal and Hamilton Canal. 
  3. Map caption: 1848: The last section was completed in 1848. Map description: This last section is the Northern Canal. It is parallel to the upper left arm of the Merrimack River on the west side close to the river’s center point. It is north of the Pawtucket Canal and parallels the Pawtucket Falls. It runs north and then turns southeast to connect with the Western Canal, which runs in a more northeasterly- southwesterly direction. 

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Park Map: Description

Map description: This map includes the downtown area and Acre neighborhood of Lowell. The map is oriented with North on the top. Downtown and the Acre neighborhood are bounded by a rough diamond shape of waterways, formed by the Merrimack River on top, the Pawtucket Dam, Pawtucket Falls, and merger of the river with Pawtucket Canal on the left, the Pawtucket Canal on the bottom, and the merger of the Pawtucket Canal, Concord River, and Merrimack River towards the right of the map. The Acre neighborhood takes up most of the left interior of the diamond bounded by waterways. The downtown area underneath the Merrimack River on the right side of the map is bounded by Father Morrisette Boulevard heading east and then south through Arcand Drive along the Merrimack Canal. The outlying neighborhoods of Pawtucketville and Centralville are located northwest and northeast of the Merrimack River, respectively.

The Downtown area is the more detailed portion of the map. The park and it sites are essentially within the 2nd phase of the canal growth and are enclosed within the Merrimack, Eastern, Hamilton and a portion of the Pawtucket canals. The park exhibits and buildings are highlighted on the map in green, while other remaining historic structures and points of visitor interest are gray. Solid brown lines indicate canal way walking routes, while a dotted brown line is a suggested walking route between the Visitor Center and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. From the Visitor Center, the walking route goes right on Market Street, turns left onto Palmer Street, right turn onto Merrimack Street, and then a final left turn onto John Street, which passes along Boarding House Park and the Mill Girls and Immigrants exhibit on the left. John Street ends in the Boott Mill courtyard, with an accessible Museum entrance on the right. Trolley tracks are indicated by a thin black line with hash marks, and stops are represented by green dots.

The variations in blue for the waterways corresponds to four different water levels engineered into the canal system. In general the waterways, canals, as well as the natural course of the river, decrease in water level from west to east, left to right on the map. In the upper river, the guard locks drop 2 feet. The upper canal swamp locks have a 13-foot drop. For the lower canal, the lower locks have a 17-foot drop. There is a 32-foot vertical drop from the upper to lower river.

Other blue structures on the map include gatehouse and lock structures, which can be experienced through a guided canal boat tour. 

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Exhibits, Tours and Sightseeing: Text

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Exhibits, Tours and Sightseeing: Photos

The five color photos across the lower third section of side two are described from left to right. All photos are credited to National Park Service / James Higgins

  1. Photo caption: Massachusetts mills, in the foreground, and Boott Mills, beyond the bridge over the Merrimack. Photo description: On the left side of the photo and travelling backwards toward to top right corner, a large red brick mill complex on the banks of the Merrimack River shows the ending point of Lowell's famous "Mile of Mills." The Massachusetts Mills brick building with abandoned windows sits at the juncture of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. As the Mile of Mills expands into the background, a collection of red brick smokestacks punctuates the skyline. On the right in the distance, is the green Bridge Street bridge, which crosses the river. Behind it, are the red brick Boott Cotton Mills complex and the River Place Towers apartments in tan concrete. The Towers apartments are located on the site of the Merrimack Mills, the first mills to be built in Lowell. 
  2. Photo caption: Suffolk Mill Turbine Exhibit. Photo description: In the background, two visitors face forward behind a railing. They look down at a large mill turbine which takes up most of the photo. It has a large round wheel that looks like an enclosed fan. On its top and attached to another piece of equipment is a belt. When the wheel turns, it moves the belt. The turbine is partially emerged in water. 
  3. Photo caption: Canal boat in the lock at Francis Gate. Photo description: Visitors sit within a National Park Service canal boat in the canal. They are entering the lock chamber at Francis Gate. The walls of the canal on either side of them are taller than the boat. They are behind a solid gate that crosses the canal to keep the water in. On the other side the water level is lower.  
  4. Photo caption: Weave Room in Boott Cotton Mills Museum. Photo description: Two rangers in costume tend to historic looms from 1910, so that visitors can see fabric being made, experience the roar of the machines, and feel the floor vibrating beneath the operating looms. Like the historic photo of the spinner tending to multiple machines, the two rangers are each tending to a machine, but there are dozens of rows of looms stretching into infinity. 
  5. Photo caption: Lower Locks. Photo description: From above a canal and lock cut through the urban landscape with many buildings of different sizes, shapes and materials (though a number are brick), are on the edge of each side of the canal. 

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Lowell Today: Text

Revival of a City Lowell’s restored industrial and labor history sites are here today because of a group of citizens determined to help a city fallen on hard times. Beginning in the nineteen sixties they began to envision a new kind of historical park, a living museum based on the city’s distinctive industrial, ethnic, and architectural heritage. In the early nineteen seventies educator Patrick J. Mogan and others brought together community organizations, urban planners, historians, political leaders, and business and banking groups to revitalize the city and breath new life into its educational system. Lowell native Paul Tsongas, then a congressman, led the effort in 1978 to pass legislation creating Lowell National Historical Park. Lowell’s ongoing economic and cultural development is guided by a coalition of groups, including the park, the City of Lowell, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Lowell Heritage State Park. Together they are preserving the past and nurturing a vigorous heritage that will continue to define the city. 

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More Information

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Getting to the Park

Take the Lowell Connector from either I-495 (Exit 35C) or Route 3 (Exit 30A) to Thorndike Street (Exit 5B). Follow brown and white ”Lowell National and State Park” signs. Free parking in the lot next to the visitor center at 304 Dutton Street. 

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For Your Safety and Comfort

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Accessibility

We strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all. For information go to the visitor center, ask a ranger, call, or check the park website.

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