Francis Cabot Lowell got the wheels spinning on the American cotton manufacturing industry spinning after studying British looms and introduced the first practical power loom in America. Looking to expand his operations, Lowell became interested in the spot where the energetic Merrimack River joined the languid waters of the Concord River. By the time his associates Tracy Jackson, Nathan Appleton and Paul Moody founded the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in 1822, Lowell had suffered an untimely death.
Founded as a company town, Lowell became the largest and most significant company town in America. Both men and women, girls actually, slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining halls, shopped in company stores and when they died, were buried in company lots. In return, the workers were expected to report for work at five in the morning and work until seven at night. Women received from $2.25 to four dollars a week and the men about twice that. While the town boomed, working conditions were slow to keep up. The first “mill girls” strike took place in 1834.
As more and more industry established itself in Lowell through the 1800s the mills could no longer be staffed simply with girls from local farms and waves of immigrants descended on expanding factories dramatically changing the character of the city. First came the Irish and then the French-Canadians and eastern Europeans and workers from the Mediterranean countries. Each settled in enclaves around the city, enough Greeks moved here that Lowell was sometimes called “American Athens.”
Its more common nickname was “Spindle City” - the most important textile center in the world. By the 1850s Lowell was the largest industrial complex in the United States. By World War I the population was over 110,000 but the 100-year growth spurt was about to end with a thud. Textile manufacturing moved south so quickly that by 1931 only three major mills remained active and as many as one in three of Lowell workers was on relief or homeless.
Today the population is about the same as it was in Lowell’s heyday a century ago but the city is a vastly different place. Since 1975, over 350 historic structures have been rehabilitated downtown and in 1978 the Lowell National Historical Park was established to tell the story of the Industrial Revolution. We’ll see for ourselves what that make-over has wrought on a walking tour of the town that was built inside the bent elbow of the Merrimack River...
375 Merrimack Street
The brawny Richardsonian Romanesque style was widely embraced for public building after the death of its creator, Boston architect Henry Hobson Richardson, in 1886. The craze lasted little more than a decade and in 1893 it resulted in three important Lowell buildings - the post office on Appleton Street, Memorial Hall behind City Hall and City Hall itself. Executed in light gray granite, the building features a tower and corner turrets.
FACING CITY HALL, WALK PAST THE BUILDING TO YOUR LEFT TO THE NEXT BUILDING UP MEERIMACK STREET.
Pollard Memorial Library
401 Merrimack Street
The first public library in Lowell was established in 1844 in rooms in the City Hall on Merrimack Street. In 1893 this brawny Richardsonian Romanesque building was constructed as a functional memorial to the Lowell men who perished in the Civil War. Inside was a large public assembly hall and space for the library. The current building is actually a rebuild of the original after a vicious 1915 fire which claimed many of architect Frederick W. Stickney’s exquisite interior details. It didn’t become Pollard Memorial Library, named for a one-time mayor, until 1981 which is why you still enter through Memorial Hall.
TURN AND WALK BACK TOWARDS CITY HALL AND CONTINUE DOWN MERRIMACK STREET.
Merrimack Street and Dutton Street and Worthren Street and Arcand Drive
Monument Square features a granite obelisk dedicated to Luther Ladd, Addison Whitney, and Charles Taylor, members of the Mass 6th Regiment and among the first four fatalities of the Civil War when their regiment was mobbed in Baltimore on the 19th of April 1861 while marching to Washington. It also features a bronze statue of Winged Victory, a gift from James Cook Ayer. The memorial commemorated Union victory in the Civil War and was dedicated on July 4, 1867.
TURN RIGHT ON DUTTON STREET IN FRONT OF THE CANAL.
4. Boston and Maine Railroad Memorial
Dutton Street, south of Merrimack Street
The Boston and Lowell Railroad (B&L) was one of America’s first railroads and the first major line in Massachusetts. Chartered in 1830, the first trains were rolling in 1835. By the early 1840s the Boston and Maine (B&M) had arrived from Portland, Maine and tied into the B&L track. The railroad proved a great success and the B&M, as renters of the track, found its trains increasingly shunted to the side tracks in favor of the B&L trains. They started laying their own line to Boston and the B&L sued to hold their monopoly. They lost and in the process discovered that the B&M had actually been their best customers. The line slipped into decline and by 1887 it was the Boston and Maine that was the dominant line in Lowell with passenger service that continued until 1973. This is the site of the first depot of the Boston and Maine Railroad. Standing as a memorial to the venerable railroad is a steam switcher built in 1911 by the American Locomotive Company of Manchester, New Hampshire. For four decades it shuttled freight to and from Lowell textile mills and then spent another quarter-century hauling stone form a Westford quarry.
TURN LEFT IN FRONT OF THE STEAM ENGINE AND CROSS THE CANAL THROUGH THE PARK DOWN TO SHATTUCK STREET. CROSS OVER TO MIDDLE STREET.
The New England Quilt Museum
18 Shattuck Street at Middle Street
This building was originally constructed in 1845 by master craftsman Josiah Peabody built the Lowell Institute for Savings. The street level of the Greek Revival structure has been compromised over the years but look up to enjoy an ornate wrought-iron balcony that curves around the Shattuck Street elevation and a dentil-studdedcopper cornice.
WALK DOWN MIDDLE STREET THAT RETAINS THE GRAY COBBLESTONES THAT ONCE COVERED LOWELL. MANY OF THE COMMERCIAL BLOCKS BUILT IN THE 1880S AND 1890S HAVE BEEN REHABILITATED AND CONVERTED TO ARTIST LOFTS AND STUDIO SPACE. AT THE END OF TWO-BLOCK MIDDLE STREET, TURN RIGHT AND TURN LEFT ON PRESCOTT STREET.
Old Lowell National Bank
88 Prescott Street
The Old Lowell National Bank took its first deposits on May 19, 1828 in a building at 18 Shattuck Street. It also did a long stint on the second floor of the Wyman Exchange building on Central Street. In fact the bank had more locations than presidents since Charles M. Williams was at the head of the company for over 50 of its early years. Old Lowell moved into this Neoclassical vault in the early 1920s. The facade is dominated by a foursome of fluted Corinthian pilasters that frame the otherwise window-studded building.
82 Prescott Street
Royal Southwick was born in Uxbridge in 1785 and married Direxa Claflin in 1826. Southwick was an anti-slavery Quaker and state legislator but the bills were paid by his productive woolen mills. The Southwick family built his commercial block in the early 1880s and next door they also erected the Claflin Block. The brick buildings were constructed in a familiar Italianate style but also show some of the new Queen Anne decorative details that were just coming into vogue at that time.
ONE BLOCK LATER, AT THE END OF PRESCOTT STREET IS MERRIMACK STREET AND KEARNEY SQUARE.
11 Kearney Square at Merrimack Street and Bridge Street
The area around Merrimack Street was once a residential buffer zone between the mills to the north and the business district to the south but by the 1890s a booming Lowell began consuming the modest wooden homes and filling the area with large, multi-story commercial blocks. This one was built by John and Henry Howe in 1894 and the curved corner is a response to the non-square corners of Merrimack Street. The red bricks, granite trim and terra cotta panels all flow around the corner in a seamless presentation.
15 Kearney Square
8 Merrimack Street
Brothers John and Daniel Harrington ran a print shop in Lowell in the 1870s and decided to start a weekly newspaper in 1878 as an Irish Catholic counter-voice to the existing papers that favored the wealthy Protestant factory owners. The Sun became a daily in 1892 and eventually outlasted its competitors to become the city’s only major paper when it purchased the Courier-Citizen in 1941. The Sun would remain in the Harrington family until it was sold to corporate interests in 1997. A few years later a local writer named Jack Kerouac was hired to report on local sports. In 1951 Kerouac taped pages of semi-translucent paper together to create a scroll so he could write without interruption on his manual typewriter. After three weeks in a New York City loft he had written the generation-defining novel On The Road, single-spaced and without paragraphs. Kerouac’s association with The Sun helped spread its reputation well beyond its circulation area. As of 2007 The Sun has operated from the first floor of the American Textile History Museum over on Dutton Street but for most of its history its realm was around Kearny Square, including the four-story classically-inspired building and the ten-story, turn-of-the-20th century landmark, locally known as “the sunscraper.” The building is topped with the unmistakable neon “Sun” sign.
Runels Building/Fairburn Building
10 Kearney Square at Merrimack Street and Bridge Street
George Runels put together a resume that seems otherworldly today but not so unusual for a Massachusetts man of the 1800s. He put to sea in the China trade in the 1840s and then got into the granite cutting business. There were also stints as a farmer and a couple years in the California gold fields. After becoming established as a businessman he served in the town government and was elected Mayor in 1882. He built this four-story brick commercial block with a little Romanesque flair in 1892. The facade is broken up by recesses in the bricks and decorations of granite and ocher-colored terra cotta. What was Merrimack Square is now Kearney Square and the Runels Building is the Fairburn Building after a subsequent owner.
CROSS OVER ONTO BRIDGE STREET.
Bridge Street Boardinghouse
28-52 Bridge Street
During the 1800s there were some 60 large boardinghouses for mill girls around the city. Bridge Street was once lined with brick buildings like this built by Massachusetts Mills. Once their usefulness was exhausted these utilitarian structures were prime candidates for adaptive re-use or were simply torn down. This one did duty as commercial space for many years until it became completely worn out and largely vacant. Only three such boarding houses remain in Lowell. This one received a complete make-over in 1986 and the brick walls with granite trim were reconstructed. Doors, windows and roof details were restored nearly to its original appearance.
Jack Kerouac Park
Bridge Street and French Street
Lowell native Jack Kerouac is best known for his classic novel On The Road that gave the world the “Beat Generation” in 1957 but he wrote more than 30 books of prose and poetry, including five novels based on his time in Lowell. Inside the park Houston artist Ben Woltena createdthe Jack Kerouac Commemorative with eight triangular granite columns in 1988. The columns are set in the park in a symmetrical cross and diamond pattern representative of the complex Buddhist and Catholic faiths that were the foundation of much of Kerouac’s writing. Excerpts from his writings are inscribed on the columns.
TURN LEFT ONTO FRENCH STREET.
Boott Cotton Mills
141 John Street at French Street
The Boott Cotton Mills, located in Lowell, Massachusetts, was incorporated in 1835 by Abbott Lawrence, John Amory Lowell and Nathan Appleton for the purpose of producing “drillings, sheetings, shirtings, linens, fancy dress goods, and yarns.” Between 1836 and 1839, four mill buildings were built along the Merrimack River, each operating independently from the other. Development of the millyard continued until 1900 when the last major mill additions were made. The mills remained in operation until the 1950s. The Boott millyard is one of the most historic and architecturally significant millyards in the United States. All four of the original 1830s mills survive as part of an interconnected series of buildings. The 1835 company office and counting house also survive in their original exterior form. The mills have been redeveloped as residential space, save for Mill No. 6 which serves as the Boot Cotton Mills Museum.
TURN RIGHT ON FRENCH STREET.
Lowell High School
Kirk Street and French Street
Lowell High School opened in 1831 as one of the first schools in the United States with both boys and girls in the same classrooms. That first year there were 47 students; today the student body is more than 4,000. The beginnings of today’s sprawling complex of buildings began in 1840. Notable alumni include writer Jack Kerouac, Hollywood legend Ed McMahon and United States Senator Paul Tsongas.
TURN LEFT ON LEE STREET.
St. Joseph the Worker Shrine
37 Lee Street
A large section of the present building housing St. Joseph the Worker Shrine was used by a Protestant group, the Unitarian Society, beginning in 1850. In 1868, this former Protestant church was purchased by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to establish a parish, St. Joseph Parish. The first Mass was celebrated here on May 3, 1868. St. Joseph was consecrated as St. Joseph the Worker Shrine by the then Archbishop Richard Cushing on May 10, 1956.
TURN RIGHT ON JOHN STREET. TURN LEFT ON MERRIMACK STREET.
33-53 Merrimack Street
The first structure built on this site was a church in 1837. It was occupied in 1846 by the Lowell Museum that displayed a penchant for staging plays of questionable taste and got their license revoked. The building was ravaged by fires in 1850, 1853 and 1855. A final fiery blow was struck in 1865 and the five-story structure was razed. The Hildreth Building that replaced it was considered among the grandest of Lowell’s 19th century commercial blocks. The architects Henry Van Brunt and Frank M. howe designed the five-story brick building in the early 1880s before they departed for Kansas City to build palatial passenger depots for the Union Pacific Railroad. Fisher Ames Hildreth was a newspaper publisher and postmaster in Lowell; his namesake building has been heavily altered at street level but the upper floors retain much of their original character. The first CVS pharmacy opened in Lowell in 1963 (not this one though); the chain now boasts more than 7,000 stores.
TURN AND WALK BACK UP MERRIMACK STREET, AWAY FROM KEARNEY SQUARE.
Bon Marche Building
143-153 Merrimack Street
This is actually three separate facades that were unified when the Jordan Marsh department store was a tenant in the 1970s. The central section was built in 1887 by Frederick and Charles Mitchell to house the Bon Marche Dry Goods Company.
St. Anne’s Episcopal Church
8 Kirk Street at Merrimack Street
When the Boston Manufacturing Company formed the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in 1822, Kirk Boott was sent from Waltham to Lowell to be the first agent and treasurer. Boot quickly made the enterprise a money-maker as he immersed himself in all aspects of the operation, including the Episcopal denomination of the first church for the mill workers. He even had the meetinghouse for St. Anne’s designed to resemble St. Michael’s Church in Derby, England, where he had been married while studying at the prestigious Rugby School. The cornerstone was laid on May 20, 1824 and the church consecrated March 16, 1825. Boott died in his carriage at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets in downtown Lowell on April 11, 1837. Some reports say the carriage tipped, other say a back ailment stemming from his time in the military killed him.
Moody Street Feeder Gate House
Merrimack Canal at Merrimack Street
The Merrimack Canal, dug in the 1820s, was the first major canal to be dug at Lowell exclusively for power purposes, and delivered 32 feet of hydraulic head to the mills of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company. The Moody Street Feeder Gate House was built in 1848 and is named for another canal, the Moody Street Feeder, that connected the canal to the newer, more powerful Northern Canal. Three immense gates inside the building allow water to flow from the Feeder into the canal.
TURN RIGHT ON DUTTON STREET.
79 Dutton Street, north of Merrimack Street
This Neoclassical building, fronted by a parade of massive fluted Doric columns, is the meeting place of several lodges and fraternal organizations. The oldest is the Pentucket Lodge that was chartered with 15 Masons in 1807. Legend has it that the name of the Lodge was supposed to be Pawtucket and it was poor penmanship that earned it the title Pentucket. The lodge had seven previous lodges before this building was constructed in 1928.
RETURN TO MERRIMACK STREET AND TURN RIGHT. WALK OVER TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT CITY HALL BEYOND MONUMENT SQUARE.