The city of Lowell rose to fame as the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution. Its earliest history and development are anchored on the Pawtucket Falls, just above the junction between the Merrimack River and the Concord River.
The lives of the Pennacook Indians, the native dwellers in the area, centered on the Pawtucket Falls where they lived off the land for many generations. Various tribes met regularly at the Falls to fish, enjoying the abundance of salmon and sturgeon that were commonly found in the area. The tribes made use of the fertile land and planted crops near their villages. However, the arrival of the European settlers permanently changed the natives’ idyllic lifestyle. In 1655, the English settlement of Chelmsford was chartered, leading to the establishment of permanent communities and subsequent encroachment of the Pennacook lands, forever changing this history of New England and the United States.
The English population grew steadily in the 1700s until farming alone was not enough to support the community. The opening of the Pawtucket and Middlesex canals served as a catalyst for the early development of the manufacturing sector in East Chelmsford. Some of the industries were sawmills, glassworks, and spinning mills.
The spinning mills started out as small rural industries employing few workers. The standard practice was for weavers to pick up yarn at the mills and bring their work home. The textile industry was revolutionized when a wealthy Boston merchant named Francis Cabot Lowell, together with two other entrepreneurs, established the Boston Manufacturing Company along the Charles River in 1814. The company used the newly developed power loom, which was run by harnessing the power of local waterways. As the company grew, they began to expand their facilities.
The Merrimack Manufacturing Company, an offshoot of the Boston Manufacturing Company run by Warren Dutton, Ezra Worthen, and Kirk Boott, among others, opened its first textile mill in 1823. The Boott Mill as it became known, was Lowell’s first textile mill. A year after the mill was built, the first school and church were founded in Lowell, and in 1831, St. Patrick’s Church was built as one of the first Catholic churches in the area north of Boston, in a neighborhood known as the Acre. A tremendous canal system was developed in Lowell, which helped foster the growth of the textil mill in the city.
Lowell was one of the first true American factory towns. Due to the booming textile business in the early 19th century, the area began welcoming immigrants from Canada, Germany, Ireland and several other European countries. These immigrants flocked to Lowell to secure one of the many jobs available within the mills. In addition to the many immigrants flooding the area, Francis Cabot Lowell and the Boston Manufacturing Company begin recruiting young girls from all over New England, setting up boarding homes in which to house them, and promising them decent wages paid in cash daily. These women, who became known as the Lowell Mill Girls, were the heart and soul of Lowell’s mills.
Lowell was rapidly growing, and the town was incorporated as a city on April 1, 1836. By 1850, having witnessed tremendous population growth, Lowell became the second largest city in Massachusetts. This continued until the early 1900’s, when areas in the southern US began to utilize steam-powered factories, offering cheaper labor, and providing lower transportation costs, causing many of Lowell’s mills to become obsolete. Lowell’s economy saw a brief recovery during World War I due to increasing demands in textiles and munitions. However, in 1926, the city plunged into a severe economic slump several years before the rest of the United States suffered through the Great Depression.
Modern History of Lowell
Through the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s, many of the textile mills and boarding houses were bulldozed to make room for public housing projects and smaller local businesses. The population continued to decline, and the city was hampered by high unemployment rates in the 1970’s. By the early 1990’s, the city began to rebuild itself and its image with projects like the Tsongas Arena and the advent of local sports franchises, which now include the Lowell Spinners (baseball) and Lowell Devils (hockey).
Recent revitalization efforts include the conversion of many of the existing mill buildings into upscale loft apartments, condominiums,and office space. As a result, the area is attracting wealthier residents, artists, boutiques, and art galleries. Lowell was recently named one of the safest cities of its size in the United States. There are ongoing projects to continue revitalizing the city, and a great deal of civic pride is felt be residents who are proud of Lowell’s place in history and are determined to see to it that Lowell is once again a great place to live and visit.
Helping to preserve Lowell’s rich history is UMass Lowell’s Center for Lowell History, which was established to preserve and protect important historic materials.