River Powers Textile Industry
For many years the site of present-day Lowell was an annual meeting ground for the tribes of the Pennacook Confederacy, who fished for salmon and shad in the waters of the Merrimack River. In 1686 the Confederacy sold the land to English farmers migrating from Boston. The farmers' town, named East Chelmsford, grew slowly until the Pawtucket Canal was completed in 1796. The canal bypassed the Pawtucket Falls to carry New Hampshire lumber to Newburyport, where it was used in shipbuilding. The demand for ships declined by 1815, but by then the site of East Chelmsford had attracted the attention of the Boston Manufacturing Company. It was the height of England's Industrial Revolution and U.S. President Thomas Jefferson knew that America must build factories if the young country was ever to become economically independent of Europe. Jefferson sought to avoid the squalor of England's mill towns by designating specific manufacturing sites in the United States. Jefferson's plan coincided with the Boston Manufacturing Company's search for a site with abundant water for powering its textile mills.
In 1821 mill executives Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton arrived in East Chelmsford, attracted by the potential of the 34-foot drop of the Pawtucket Falls and the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Jackson and Tracy, with their agent Kirk Boott, established a mill for cotton production and calico printing and called the new enterprise the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. In 1826 the town was renamed in honor of Francis Cabott Lowell, whose genius had revolutionized the textile industry. Lowell's power loom made it possible to transform raw cotton into finished fabric within a single factory. Lowell's liberal operating philosophy also influenced Jackson and Appleton, who set out to build a model factory with good working conditions and cash wages. The mills grew up in a mile-long stretch on the banks of the Merrimack River, and a network of canals was dug to provide transportation and to divert water power to the factories.
In 1826 Lowell boasted 2,500 residents, a number that swelled to 17,000 by 1836 when Lowell also claimed 8 large textile mills and 7,500 textile workers. The Boston & Lowell Railroad arrived in 1835, furthering the city's expansion. Many of the workers, or "operatives," arriving in Lowell were Yankee farm girls attracted by the wages and the chance for independence. They lived in company boarding houses, their lives strictly regulated by bells. Their 12-hour day and 6-day week left little time for recreation, but the women found time to support churches, lyceums, schools, banks, concerts, and libraries. From 1840 to 1845, the operatives published The Lowell Offering, an early women's literary magazine. Under the editorship of Sarah Bagley, they also published The Voice of Industry, a paper calling attention to workers' grievances.
Reform, Immigration Precede High-Technology Growth
Technological innovations kept pace with the growth of the textile industry, but working conditions did not. By 1845, workers in the "city of spindles" were making less and working longer hours than when the mills opened. A series of strikes and walkouts finally led to the reduction of the workday from 13 to 11 hours in 1853. The first city-wide strike in 1903 was unsuccessful, but in 1912, workers did lobby successfully for a wage increase. Sarah Bagley, the Factory Girls Association, and the Lowell Female Reform Association are some of the names associated with the textile reform movement, a precursor of the major labor movements of the 1900s.
One reason early reform attempts met with little success was the influx of unskilled, uneducated immigrants eager to replace the Yankee farm girls at the looms. Irish arrived in the 1820s to help build the canals and mills. They were followed by Portuguese in the 1850s, French-Canadians in the 1860s and 1870s, southern African Americans in the 1870s, Greeks and European Jews in the 1880s, Poles in the 1890s, and Armenians in the first part of the twentieth century.
Around 1910 the South began to challenge the Northeast for the leadership of the textile industry. Lowell peaked in 1924 as a major textile center and began to investigate ways to diversify its economy. It sought new manufacturing firms and began to capitalize on its unique history as one of the American Industrial Revolution's first planned communities. In the latter half of the 20th century Lowell once again became known as a model city, this time for its economic and cultural revitalization. Wang Laboratories Inc. moved its corporate headquarters to Lowell in the early 1970s, spurring further growth of high-technology industries and, in 1978, Lowell National Historic Park was created to preserve the city's mills, canals, and workers' housing. Since 1975, more than 250 historic buildings have been restored, with 63 alone having generated $52 million in private investment.
By the early 1990s, Lowell had fallen on hard times. The Bank of New England failed (it has since been taken over by Fleet Bank), and Wang Laboratories filed for bankruptcy protection. The former Wang Laboratories building has since been transformed into a successful state-of-the-art office complex, while Wang has moved its headquarters to nearby Tewksbury. The Lowell National Historical Park has grown into a major tourist attraction. Lowell's ethnic diversity was augmented by a wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America; many of whom boosted the local economy with small business initiatives. Famous Lowellians include painter James McNeill Whistler, actor Bette Davis, and novelist Jack Kerouac.
The City of Lowell is currently implementing a master plan for the next two decades, a vision for the future aimed at improving quality of life and capitalizing on cultural, natural and historical resources. Endorsed in 2003, the master plan will serve as a framework for future development and investment in Lowell. Major components of the plan are aimed at making Lowell a "lifetime city" where residents can enjoy all stages of life at various income levels, and preserving Lowell's identity as unique from Greater Boston.
Historical Information: Lowell National Historical Park, 67 Kirk Street, Lowell, MA 01852; telephone (978)970-5000
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