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Francis Cabot Lowell History and Pictures


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I had nothing to do this afternoon, so after the Cribs thread, I thought I'd take a walk and show off the thriving metropolis in which I live.

Lowell, MA is located 30 miles northwest of Boston at the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord rivers. Its namesake is Francis Cabot Lowell - a product of the Cabot and Lowell families, as blue-blooded as they came in 19th century Boston. Lowell went to England, stole some textile machinery plans, and came back to America. He prototyped his textile manufacturing machines in a few New England towns, and then died. His associates headed up to East Chelmsford, where the ridiculously fast-flowing Merrimack dropped 45 feet over the course of a mile. There was a canal here already to avoid the rapids, and another that linked the area with Boston. Realizing that much water falling that fast is exactly what they needed for their "experiment", they hired as many disposable Irishmen as possible and went to work in the 1820s.

This statue commemorates the Irishmen who built Lowell's 6 miles of power canals between 1820ish and 1850ish. The Lowell power canal system remains the largest in the world to this day.

Now, all they needed were people who would be willing to work the new factories. Wanting to be unlike England, where poor, uneducated types worked for starvation wages, they brought in Yankee mill girls and set them up in company housing. Of course, capitalism stepped in within a few years, and taking advantage of the Irish Potato famine, Irish men, women, and children were work insane hours at a dangerous job for starvation wages and receive no education.

Here's one of Lowell's few remaining blocks of boarding houses.

By 1850, Lowell was New England's 2nd largest city, and by 1950, it was in deep shit. Southerners and Mexicans are much cheaper than us New Englanders, and they took our jeerbs. By 1978, Lowell was a real mess, and the Federal Government picked up the Liberal program of making the "Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution" America's first National Historical Park.

Today, Lowell largely continues to crumble around us, but yuppies have found that it's a good place to live if you can't afford Boston, and is very close to the Silicon Valley of the East Coast 15 miles north and west of Boston. The city has seen massive improvement in some areas over the last 10 years. I'm actually fairly legit here - my family has lived in or around Lowell for the most part for the past 4 generations - as long as they've been in the US. Here's the factory I live in, and the ruins of another complex just across a vacant lot and a canal from me. It was partially torn down on purpose, since it's on a peninsula of canals that is more like a moat, making it inaccessable to fire trucks.

Today, I decided to go drop off some books at the library, walk along both banks of the river, and then buy some guitar strings.

The coal shed outside my front door.

We enjoy cobblestones, since not only are they historic, they ruin your car and jar out your teeth. The church at the end of this short street is about as old as Lowell.

However, it was not to be a Protestant city. Here is St. Patrick's, the oldest Catholic Church north of Boston, and a Greek Orthodox church, I think the oldest Byzentine-Style church in America. The neighborhood they both stand in is called The Acre, after the plot of land St. Patrick's is on. Fortunately for the Irish, the Acre is an island due to the canals, and they were able to keep the Protestants from burning down the original wooden church by defending the bridges. Today, Lowell is America's 2nd largest Cambodian city, but I don't know where their temples are.

The New England Quilt Museum and the "Artist" run Ayer Lofts.

City Hall. A massive structure made of local granite (New Hampshire is 5 miles away), the clock tower is said to have been built so tall so that workers at the mills wouldn't get screwed out of wages by wrong clocks in the mills.

The JFK Civic Center. It's in Mass, of course it's named after JFK. A fine example of 1960s-1970s thought processes, this disgustingly Brutalist structure took the place of the beginning of Moody Street, a major road through Little Canada, or the French end of the Acre. The end of Moody Street was replaced with a parking lot, leaving the road cut off at both ends. The classic New England triple decker housing that was in this neighborhood was replaced with suburban brick tenements. This is the story of many of Lowell's inner neighborhoods. In some cases, the city threatened homeowners with condemnation of the property, which would allow the city to take the property by emminent domain for $1.

I dropped off my books and walked down to the Merrimack river. These are the remnants of the Lawrence Mills. A massive fire destroyed much of this complex when I was very young - I made my mom drive me here to see the ruins. The remaining buildings are now becoming expensive condos. Note the smoke stack standing where no building is anymore. Really adds to the Ambiance of these condos. Mr Lawrence I'm assuming is the guy who went downriver 15 miles and founded the city of Lawrence, which is a real hole. People who have read history books probably know Lawrence as the place where the Bread and Roses Rebellion took place in the early 20th century, forcing New England factory owners to pay their workers and not have them work 20 hour days.


I'm assuming these blocked off tunnels used to channel water from the canals under the mills (which are gone) and drop the water down into the water wheels and turbines which powered these factories till someone found out about coal.

The canals are just about empty right now, since they were doing work on the supports for one of the mills the National Park owns. There's a massive system of locks that allows the water into different canals, or for some reason, the can let it go in the river. The company that maintains the canals refuses to clean the shit out of them, and promises to prosecute anyone who does it for free.

Like I said, with the canals empty, the river is really high right now. We're probably halfway down the rapids (there's an actual dammed up waterfall at the beginning that's probably only 10 feet high and I didn't want to walk that far).

It's hard to appreciate from these pictures how fast this water is going. Some of the rapids in the Concord River, a smaller river that hits this river after the canal system ends, are class 4 and 5 I believe. You can white-water them in May.


U-Mass Lowell, North Campus. This is the engineering college. That's a nuclear reactor.

Standing over the Northern Canal. Left to right.low income housing tower built on site of original mills, Wannalancit and Lawrence Mills, City Hall, Housing Projects in Little Canada, and the roof of a closed, beautiful French-Canadian Catholic church. Many of the bridges over the Northern Canal haven't been replaced since they were built in the 1850s. I think I'm standing on one here.

I'm standing on the University Ave Bridge. The tall thing is a Lowell dorm. Jack Kerouac, who was from Lowell (and they tell you that every time you come into the city) wrote about standing on this bridge and watching a guy go crazy and fling a watermelon off of it. Back then it was the Moody Street Bridge -we're at the other end of the cut off street from the Civic Center. There's a sign on the roof of a gatehouse off frame to the right saying "Save Kerouac's Bridge!" They want to realign this bridge with a street instead of the parking lot that they put there, tearing down another triple-decker and a 100+ year old social club or something. The concrete thing on the river I believe is Boot Hydroelectric that owns the canals. Signs in about 6 languages telling you not to go in the water here. You go out on a rock and they open the locks, you're going to die.

The VFW Highway - pretty quiet right now. They need to do something about this walkway, it's a mess.

After crossing over a dead beaver that's been there a few weeks, a dead something, and a dead rat, you can walk down the embankment to another somewhat-overgrown walkway. This might look better in the summer, I don't know. Those VFWs that the road is named after are living down here off to the left in a tent-city.


"Under the Bridge Downtowwwwwn" The brush clears up to get a good shot of the Lawrence Mills here. Back in Lowell's heyday in the 1880s, from here on was "The Mile of Mills." Many are now gone, but you can still get the idea of huge brick factories and smokestacks with black soot going on for ... a mile. There were 10 major companies in Lowell by 1880, about half had riverfront property.

The Boott Mills through the brush - named after Kirk Boott, and important early Lowellian. Kirk St is named after him, and not James T. as I thought when I was younger. You can barely see to the left the hole in the retaining wall, this is where the canal water would re-enter the river after powering the mills. Also of note here is the white and green bell tower, by which the factory workers lived their lives.

The Massachusetts Mills from under the creatively named Bridge Street Bridge (now officially the Cox Bridge, the naming jokes in this city never end!) These dilapidated mills next to the river are a source of debate. Zoning laws say that there isn't enough parking to turn them both into condos. Nobody wants to tear down one so the other can remain standing, so they're going to wait to see which one collapses and destroys the renovated $1000+ month apartments in the rest of the complex first.

The end of the Mile of Mills, the Concord River joins the Merrimack. That's 'Kahnkid' to those of you who don't live here. Across the river from the Mass Mills is Saints Memorial Medical Center.

Bridge St, looking to Kearney('Kahnee') Square. Lt. Kearney was a military guy. Probably not as famous (infamous) as Lowell's own Benjamin Butler from the Civil War. Mass Mills on the left, then Kerouac Park. Lowell Sun building (actual newspaper company is in the next building over, the tower has old people living in it) at the end of the square, and then some buildings, a diner, and the Boott mills on the far right. This square is the center of the city. Famous Lowell commercial inventions - CVS, Moxie soda. Much better known for its industrial inventions...

The Boott Mills, Lowell National Historical Park. These mills are very well maintained...except as I mentioned they almost fell into the canal in front of them a few weeks ago because supports eroded away. This is a well-known shot. The smoke stack, the stair tower, and the bell and clock. Inside this building, you can go into a weaving room and watched how the magic happened when your great-grandma worked here.

Goddamn it, get some water back in here!

Lucy Larcom was a famous poet mill-girl in the early days of Lowell. I'm standing on the linear Lucy Larcom Park. In front of me, the empty Merrimack Canal (yummy). Across from that, the National Park trolley. Lowell banned at-grade train crossings years ago, but the city's history with street cars has been allowed to continue on this one trolley. Now, I'm all for using your car as little as possible, and the car becoming American life probably did as much damage to Lowell as the fleeing of industry to the South, but that thing clangs around all day, blocking major roads. The building behind that is the new part of Lowell High School. The old part is behind me, across the sky-way. Lowell High is the 2nd largest high school in Massachusetts, graduating 750ish students a year. Considering the dropout rate in this city, for grades 9-12, that makes it HUGE.

The Lower Locks. This is where the canal system rejoins the rivers. That yellow building is the gatehouse, and there's a few more like it around the city, controlling the flow of the water for power purposes and transportation purposes. Although a barge probably hasn't used this canal since before 1850. In the distance, you can see the roof of the coal shed I live by.

Sun Building's giant neon sign, Apartments at Mass Mills, Middlesex Community College, Lower Locks Gatehouse.

Industrial Canyon, Central St over the Pawtucket Canal. Lower Locks are behind me. This is the backside of my condo complex to the right. Until recently, that big factory on the left was a fabrics company still. Now, it's going to be more Yuppie Barracks. Yes, the closeup picture is older, there's not still snow or water in that one spot.


The stairs back into my place. That beam is huge - and probably worth a fortune. The motivation for tearing down many of these factories is to salvage the wood from when trees big enough for beams like that still existed.

Well, that was a nice walk - hope you learned something.

JAM is the name of a neighborhood just outside of the core downtown. The acronym stands for the three long parallel streets that traverse it: Jackson, Appleton, and Middlesex. The first two are mill company names, the third is the name of the county Lowell is in. Residential and Industrial throughout Lowell's earliest years, during the late 19th century downtown began to creep into Appleton and Middlesex streets. However, the 2nd half of the twentieth century was not kind to this part of town. Downtown contracted, leaving many buildings abandoned or demolished. As industry left, the same could be said for many of the factories. Today, JAM is considered a "gateway" into Lowell, being a major way into and across the downtown. Serious urban renewal dollars are planned for what can really only be called an eyesore. It's just across the Pawtucket canal from where I live, so I got up early this morning and went picture taking.

This building is your federal dollars at work: This was the Boston and Maine Railroad station on Central Street long ago. It has since been a telephone exchange, a movie theater, and a bowling alley. It got extremely run down over the years, its towers and roofline removed. The National Park bought it up and is rebuilding it. Across from it is Middlesex Street.

Middlesex Street. This must've been a movie theater at some point. There are no movie theaters in downtown Lowell today. This building houses a gym now.

Pretty standard JAM building. This building has been bought and will be renovated, but for now, it sits next to a halfway house in rough shape.

I love the nice "LOWELL!" banner next to this building less wall.

This wooden structure must be almost 200 years old. It's clearly condemned, I'm not sure what its fate is.

There's some nice architecture down here - seems this building has been at least sort of taken care of

Between Middlesex and Appleton Streets on Elliot Street, named for the preacher who was the first settler in this area (preaching to Indians) is the 80+ year old Lowell institution - Elliot's Hot Dogs. The counter is tile, and has the place misspelled "Elliott's"

Some buildings at the far end of Middlesex Street. After this, Middlesex and Appleton go into a rotary-like mess called the Lord Overpass. These buildings I believe are all being torn down.



Appleton Street is a different story than Middlesex - it's much more suburbanized (who knows what it was like before), so there's not much to take pictures of. However, it is home to the JAMs other culinary institution - The Owl Diner.

There is a few still-operating factories in JAM - this is Adden Furnature. They make stuff for dorms.

Whole slew of Jackson and Appleton mill pictures - Jackson Street. Notice how you can see clear through the boarded up factory. This is the front of the mill with no back in my first picture set. Notice how there's the canal in front of it and the one behind from the first pictures. One is about 10-15 feet higher than the other, and that's how they powered the early machines. Note that one of these buildings is marked 1825 above its door. There are either new things like a Cambodian day care and cultural center in these already (The better kept Jackson mills), or in the case of the Appletons, they're part of the JAM plan.







On the other side of JAM, there's a few more things to see.

This is Comfort Furniture, the "ugly building with the beautiful furniture". Very true on both counts. formerly the Hood Sasparilla Laboratory.

Keith Academy. Now condos, this castle-like building began life as a jail, and then a boy's school. It faces South Common, where I'm standing

The houses on South Common are very nice. This one is a funeral home, I'm not sure what's in the rest. Rough part of town and has been for years - too bad.

Triple Decker's near South Common at Gorham Street. This is the beginning of the Back Central neighborhood.

Middlesex County Superior Courthouse - the court in the story.

Back downtown, the canals are refilled! It's amazing how much better this looks on a nice day with the water present.



Merrimack Street, Lowell's main drag. The Hildreth Building and Page's Clock.

The old Bon Marche building (a department store, now Barnes and Noble, a French Restaurant, and who knows what else.) and City Hall's tower.

Downtown busses look like Trolleys

Palmer St, there's some good food on this block.

An alley looking from Palmer to Central

And finally, back in my building, the construction next door.


Lowell, Massachusetts (Part 3)


Merrimack Flood, May 15, 2006

After unusual amounts of rain in the city and upriver in early May of 2006, Lowell suffered one of its worst floods in history. On the 15th, the Merrimack crested 8 feet above flood stage at Lowell, causing significant damage from Manchester, New Hampshire downriver to Haverhill, Massachusetts. However, an eight-foot flood is more of a spectacle than a real issue to most people, so my girlfriend and I took the afternoon off to go take some pictures.

These are before and after pictures of a park right on the bank of the Merrimack behind the Pawtucket Dam. This is very low-lying land, and is one of the places where the flood was the most dramatic. As you can tell, it wasn't that bad, but floods here virtually never happen. The pictures obviously don't capture the roar of the water falling over the edge of the falls, which are a good 1,000 feet away and only 10 feet high.


These are the falls, before and after. Somehow we failed to capture how many people were standing on the bridge here. There was Boston news crews and everything. Again, the sound of that much water going over the falls and the sight of how fast the Merrimack was moving was impressive. Remember that Lowell was built because of these falls and the fast-moving volume of water that goes over them. In a serious flood, it's really something else.

The "Pawtucket Falls" you see here are actually largely a man-made dam, made to channel the Merrimack into the two enterances to Lowell's canal system. The actual falls are more of a series of rapids a mile long that begins with this dam. You can see in the first picture that the dam is capped by metal poles holding back wooden planks. When there's too much water, the planks burst, as a safety mechanism to keep the canals from topping over. In that picture, they're almost completely gone after the winter. In the second picture, they must've all burst. What you don't see is between the two, the army corps of engineers had just about finished replacing them all. They also maintain dams upriver meant to hold back water to keep the Merrimack at an even level. Originally the upriver dams were to store up water to keep the mills running year round. After the 1936 flood - the worst in Lowell's history - more dams were built that would supposedly prevent a flood like this from happening again. I'm not sure if it was because this was brought on by rain and not a spring thaw, but I don't think they worked...

The white line in the third picture is on a gatehouse that controls the flow into one of the canals. That line was the water level in the flood of 1936 - it's 10 feet higher than the highest the river reached this year.

This is the Francis Gatehouse, which is a little behind the Pawtucket Dam. The first picture is from March, like many of the other before pictures.

In the second picture, you can see a large metal bulkhead has been put up against the gatehouse to block the canal. In the third picture, you can see the original wooden gate is up, and water is bursting around the seams of the bulkhead. In the 4th picture, you can get a sense of how big this gate is.

Around 1850, James Francis realized that the Merrimack did occasionally flood, and the canal system that went right through Lowell had no mechanism to keep the waters from topping the canals and flooding the city. People thought he was crazy, since the Merrimack had never flooded in the city's history. So, his gatehouse and huge wooden gate was dubbed "Francis' Folly." However, in 1852, there was a flood (crested 10 feet above flood stage) and the gate was dropped, saving the city from a flood. Nobody called it a folly ever again. In the 1936 flood, the gate was dropped again, but since the city no longer used the canals to power the mills, it was left down. It again prevented a flood in the 1938 hurricane (again 10 feet above flood stage). At some point, it was raised, and hasn't been dropped again - until it was sort of dropped this year by being replaced with the modern metal bulkhead. So, at 8 feet above flood stage, we just had Lowell's 4th worst flood in 150 years.

In the 5th picture, you can see that the 1936 flood was well over the top of the gate. Had the gate failed, a wall of water the height of the gate would've surged into the city.

These are the new Lawrence Mills condos. Bit wet now. I hope that the bottom floor people had flood insurance. The backside of this building is right on the river.

This is the flooding downtown. Most of the downtown is well above the river, and the canals were held at level by the mechanisms mentioned above. However, there is this small part that is at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack Rivers that is very low-lying. Fortunately, the Concord flows into the Merrimack from the south, and the rain was mostly to the North (upriver on the Merrimack). However, the Merrimack was so badly flooded that it backed into the Concord, this being the result.

The rest of these are pictures of things I have photographed on the previous pages, during the flood. The canal water was brown and smelled awful. Fortunately, it didn't take long for the water to go back to normal levels, and my building didn't really get much damage, although it is right on the canal.

Millyards and Canals (Mostly) October, 2006

Here's a few more pictures of Lowell's millyards. Some are no longer anything but a brick wall or two, and some are now office complexes and condominiums. Most of them I've talked about in more detail on earlier pages, so I'll try to go light on the text.

The first group of pictures is the Appleton Mills between Jackson and Dutton street. They're doing some sort of clean-out here, and there's a fence up. As I mentioned before on pages 1 and 2, these were apparently purposely partially demolished, but I don't know what exactly they're going to do with what's left. The brick building in the fourth picture is the Cottonhouse Lofts, which has been rennovated relatively recently into living space. However, I've heard that the two large large storage buildings next door are going to be torn down at some point.

This is the backside of the Boott Mills, which contains a major exhibit of the National Park (The weaving room is here). These rear buildings are still being converted into offices and apartments, and it was in the past few years that the Riverwalk was extended out here. It looks like it's going to be continued even further to the Concord River. There's a greenway planned for the banks of the Concord River itself that's just getting off the ground.

A view of the Massachusetts and Boott Mills from the Hunts Falls Bridge. You can see a lot of the Mile of Mills from this bridge, when you're not trying to get a picture out of a moving car.

These ducks were living in this little pond separated off of the Merrimack. I think that the sand that closed this water off was probably moved by the flood... along with all kinds of other things.

This is the Eastern canal just off Merrimack St - these buildings front Prescott St. A few of these buildings belong to the Lowell Sun, which is the local paper. However, they're supposedly moving out of downtown and over to the American Textile Museum Building on Dutton Street. More condos? Will the market support it?


The Lawrence Mills. You can see how some buildings are built directly over canals, and how empty this yard looks ever since much of it burnt down 20 years ago. There are still some massive boarded-up buildings on this site that are looking for new uses.

The Western Canal, which runs past the Lawrence Mills and the Tsongas Arena. There clearly used to be some structures here, I'm not sure if they belonged to the Merrimack or the Tremont mills. This site is very close to the riverwalk, and has landscaped overlooks. It's probably the most "returned to nature" site in the city and it is fairly relaxing to just come here on a nice day and watch the little waterfalls and the willow trees.

When Lowell held the World Curling Championships at the Tsongas Arena, this thing was out in front.


These five pictures show that this parking lot for the Wannalancit Mills is in what looks like a basement for the old Tremont Mills. The first picture is the outside, the next four are on the inside. I like the ivy. I couldn't get a very good picture, but the fifth picture shows tunnels running under the lot. Are these the remnants of waterwheel raceways?

Honestly not sure what's going on here. In front of the Tremont Mills.

These are the Wannalancit mills. Until the 1980s, this was a textile plant still - and used weaving machines that were from the 1920s or so. Workers from Columbia were brought in, since they still knew how to operate the machines, and would stand the awful conditions. The National Park has the Suffolk Turbine Exhibit here, which is a pretty cool little tour.

The Lawrence Mills smokestacks.

The Northern Canal in front of the Wannalancit Mills - The largest and last built (around 1850) canal in town.

And someone cleaning it! The complexities of the ownership of the canals is a well-known issue in the city. For example, the Suffolk Turbine Exhibit doesn't fully run because of a leak in the canal walls may have damaged some equipment. I believe the description was that Boott Hydroelectric owned water was leaching through National Park owned walls, through city owned land, and into the walls of a private building...


The Lowell Cemetery dates to the 1840s, making it the fourth oldest garden cemetery in the United States. Older than any public park in the city, this landscaped cemetery on the banks of the Concord River is as much a walking park as a burial ground. Some of Lowell's wealthiest and most famous names are buried here, often under huge and elaborate monuments. The cemetery originally had lakes and everything, which are now gone. However, the hilly and landscaped environment is still quite unlike the huge flat plots of land the middle class of the city gets buried in off of Gorham St.

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