I recently took a day trip in my RV and visited the Lowell National Historic Park. This historic park is located in downtown Lowell, MA. As a national site, this place it’s not a scenic wonder. It’s not a historic event landmark or a famous building. The Historic Park in Lowell showcases how water powered textile mills came into being and helped create several of the larger cities in New England. It uses what began in Lowell to tell the story of how our country transformed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy.
I had a personal interest in learning about this story. My mother’s family emigrated from northern Quebec in the early 1900’s to work in the textile mills in New Hampshire. Her mother, who was born in 1893 went to work in the textile mills when she was 9 yrs old. She worked as a weaver for most of her working life. My grandfather also worked in a cotton mill and his brother worked in the textile mills in Lowell. So, I was curious to see and learn what the environment and work life was like back then.
Before I write about the National Historic Park, I’ll start with the some brief history about Lowell, the fellow who gave his name to the city, and the mill system he created. All of this info helps to understand what the National Historic Park is all about
Lowell the City
Originally settled in the 1700’s, the city of Lowell started out as a small farming town called East Chelmsford. The feature that made Lowell attractive for a community and mill location was the Merrimack River that runs through the city. The city is located along a large bend in this powerful river. Some business entrepreneurs saw the potential for diverting part of the river flow into canals that could be use to power water turbines. A design was made for the canals and Lowell to become a manufacturing center.
During the early 1800’s, Lowell would become the home for 10 large textile mills. It was one of America’s first large factory towns and It would grow into the second largest city in New England. It was incorporated as a city in 1836 and named for a man who perfected a textile mill design and system that would be used throughout New England
Lowell the Man
Francis Cabot Lowell was one of the men who saw the potential at East Chelmsford. Lowell had studied the textile equipment and mill designs that were used in England. He built his first water powered textile mill (the Boston Manufacturing Company) in Waltham, MA along the Charles River. His mill used water powered turbines to turn long shafts. These long shafts would run the length of a building. Large leather belts would run off the shafts and power large spinning jennys (used to make thread). They also powered looms (that Lowell designed) which wove the thread into cloth.
His mill was a vertically integrated model where all aspects of production occurred in one building. The raw cotton was delivered and processed at one level. It was then turned into thread, then the thread woven into cloth. The cloth was dyed and then cut into the finished product. Lowell’s mill design set a standard for other textile mills throughout New England..
Lowell and his business partners quickly found that the Charles River did not have sufficient flow to fully power his mill design and began looking for a new site. Lowell died unexpectedly in 1817 at the age of 42. In 1823, his business partners built the first textile mill in Lowell – the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. Others quickly followed using Lowell’s mill design.
Lowell the System
Lowell’s mill design required large amounts of labor to process the cotton, weave the cloth, and to maintain the machines. The workforce needs for the mill were more than the local community could provide. To meet this need, Lowell and his partners designed an innovative labor program. He wanted to avoid the child labor system that he saw in England.
Instead, Lowell recruited farm girls and young woman from rural New England to perform the spinning and weaving tasks. They were housed in supervised boarding houses which were located adjacent to the mills and provided their meals. They were also provided educational, religious, and cultural opportunities. Lowell believed that by providing a safe workplace, comfortable living conditions, and a socially positive living environment he could ensure a steady supply of labor.
This system of labor and production became known as the Waltham-Lowell System. The woman (called Mill Girls) worked 6 days per week and put in 80 hrs per week. The work day started at 5 am and ended at 7 pm.. They were paid in cash each day for their work. The jobs were mostly repetitive hard work. Sometimes the work was dangerous. But it provided an opportunity for woman to get off the farm and earn a wage.
In Lowell, this labor and production system worked well for numerous years. To minimize turnover and labor competition, all the mill owners agreed to pay the same wage rates. At times, there were work strikes to improve wages and work conditions.
During the Civil War, the labor system began to fail as women returned to their families and homes to take the place of the men who left to fight in the war. In their place, cheaper immigrant labor from Ireland, eastern Canada, and Easter Europe began to arrive and take the place of the mill girls. These new immigrants took over the textile jobs. Many had families so workers no longer lived in the boarding houses. They formed their own neighborhoods and forever changed the demographic and cultural fabric of the mill towns and all of New England.
By the late 1800’s, the New England textile business began to decline. Steam engines were used to power the looms and spinning equipment. Mills began to relocate to the southern states to take advantage of cheaper labor and to avoid cotton shipping costs. As the mills shut down in the early 1900’s, the mill towns of New England began a long economic decline.
Lowell National Historic Park
The Lowell National Historic Park is located in some of the original textile mill buildings in downtown Lowell. There’s a Visitor Center which is housed in the Market Mills building. The Visitor Center has some historical displays, maps of the park, tour information, and a theater that shows an introductory film about Lowell and the textile industry. There’s plenty of parking at the Visitor Center and it has spots for RV’s.
About 1/4 mile away are two other mill buildings that make up the historical park. The Mill Girls & Immigrants Exhibit is housed in the one the few remaining mill boarding houses. This building shows what a mill boarding house was like for the mill girls. The boarding houses typical held 20-40 girls
Just a short walk from the boarding house is the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. The museum is housed in the original Boott Cotton Mills building. The first floor has 90 powered looms set up just as they would have been in the 1800’s. Several of the looms were running producing cloth while I was there. It’s a noisy environment. I can’t image the sound if all 90 were running. The second floor has a nice museum of the mill production process and mill life.
The area of Lowell were the historic park has been renovated and is quite nice. Many of the old mill buildings have been turned into housing units and retail stores. The canals are still there and several areas have been turned into nice parks. It’s a nice environment for walking and exploring downtown Lowell and the historic park. It’s also nice to see how Lowell revitalized itself yet preserved several parts of its historic past.
I really enjoyed my visit to the Lowell National Historic Park. I grew up in New England and have seen the big mill towns such as Dover, Manchester, Lewiston, Lowell, and Springfield. All are located along the large rivers. The textile mills are all gone but the downtown areas of these cities are still dominated by huge red brick buildings that once housed the mills.
After my visit to Lowell, I know more about what went on in those large brick buildings. I also have a better appreciation for the type of work that my grandmother and thousands of others did over 100 years ago.
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