10 Jul Before, After, and After That: The Lowell Edition
Picture this- Pennacook Indians and neighboring tribes meeting at the near mile drop of the Pawtucket Falls, fishing for salmon and sturgeon in the bountiful Merrimack river. Fast forward to 1655, fifteen European families settle in their new agricultural home, Chelmsford, specifically East Chelmsford. Now, add one factory complex in 1823- the Merrimack Manufacturing Company- and rename the whole region Lowell in 1826. Add 39 more mill buildings running from 5 a.m to 7 p.m and 33,000 more people by 1850. Notice anything different? Skip ahead one hundred years, triple the population and shut everything down, all the mills. Completely. Abandon them for decades; let them rot and decay until you’ve got yourself one depressed,beat-down ghost town. Then, and only then, try putting it back together. This is the evolution, the continuum of Lowell. Lowell was an experiment, a innovative attempt to foster a sort of utopian working society that could be both desirable to Yankee laborers and fruitful to management. Mill girls, young women from the ages of 15 to 35, were drawn to Lowell by the promise of economic growth, independence, and fine city living. For a while, Lowell shined as the prime example of an ideal factory town with fair pay, housing, and good moral backing; however, this harmonious balance between worker and the mill was short lived as competition from neighboring cities rose and wages dropped. The first strikes began occurring in the 1830s, the immediate solution: immigrants. Immigrants would work longer, harder, and for less. Why? Well just like the mills had their competition so did these workers. There was always someone new and eager for their shot at the American dream. So, as the population kept rising, the city got bigger, but conditions got worse. Boardinghouses that once were established for the comfortable and moral living of mill employees were re-purposed as tenement housing. The river that supplied both water and food for many Lowellians was poisoned by up to 12 million gallons of sewage per day.The Merrimack was so contaminated that it was considered one of the nation’s most polluted rivers and, in addition to that, it was no longer needed to power the mills. Before, the force of the river and falls would be used to turn water wheels and later on turbines that were connected through a system of gears and leather belts to a shaft that would in turn power each machine. This technology soon became dated and instead of modernizing Lowell’s mills, investors took their profits and moved South- where labor was even cheaper. By the 1930s, Lowell’s top textile corporations were either gone or relocated and economic depression sank the city into utter disrepair. New immigrants kept coming, but industry was just a fading ember left in what was this industrial hot spot. In the late 1970s, members of the Lowell community decided enough was enough and dedicated their efforts into revitalizing the historic city and its environment. About 95% of the remaining mill buildings in the 1970s have been refurbished as apartments, offices, studios, shops, and even a movie theater. The Merrimack River has recovered and can now be fished in and swum in. The past is never too far in Lowell; actually, we like to keep it pretty close- it shows us how far we’ve come and where we’re going.