In Lowell, Massachusetts, scattered on sites throughout the city's center, there's an opportunity to trace the origin, success and later decline of one of America's first big industries, the making and marketing of textiles. The Lowell National Historical Park preserves many of the key sites in the story.
In the earliest years of American industry, after the Revolution, water power was seen as the key to development a home-grown counterpart to the factories of England.
Relandscaped, many old mill buildings have become offices and homes scattered through the area
Where large waterfalls were found, so were the developers. George Washington headed the company formed to exploit the Great Falls of the Potomac; Alexander Hamilton promoted the Great Falls of the Passaic in New Jersey, and a company of Boston investors chose a site near the Pawtucket Falls to build their factories and a planned city to house its workers.
One of the mill-owned boarding houses where young female workers lived, and where rent was deducted from their pay. Company 'keepers' ran them.
In the briefest form, they succeeded almost beyond their dreams, played a key role in immigration and internal migration, and eventually declined and moved away in the mid 20th century when labor was cheaper elsewhere and the advantage of water power had been overcome by steam and electricity.
But the role of the park and its museums is to cut deeper than that short story, and to show the mechanics both of clothmaking and a glimpse into the changes industry brought to working Americans and immigrants.
The Lowell National Historical Park, to be clear, isn't a single place; it's a small constellation of buildings, exhibits, waterways and even an operating trolley to connect them. Local officials started in the 1970s to envision a way to highlight the area's history and saved a number from demolition. The Park was created by act of Congress in 1978, and continues to develop.
Jack Kerouac's graduating class was one of the donors of the high school clock, a block away from the Boott Mill
My most recent visit couldn't begin to cover the whole project; it's probably best to plan for an entire day, or if you're in the area, parts of two or more days. There are boat rides and walks along the canal system and river. There are guided tours and exhibits at several places. Not to mention an active trolley museum, a railroad exhibit, and a tribute to Jack Kerouac, the Beat poet and novelist who grew up in Lowell.
Middle picture is a cut-away schematic of the Boott Mill; the bottom picture shows a group of company workers in the late 19th century
And, there's one of the key pieces, the Boott Cotton Mill, once one of the largest producers. The main weave room on the ground floor has over a hundred operating looms; they make so much noise that headphones are required... now. Not in the heyday of the mills.
Stairs that once led to more weave rooms and other areas are now used as access to more museum exhibits on the upper floor, showing different periods of the mill city's development, starting when the labor force was mainly recruited from young New England farm women, who lived in the company boarding houses and were, despite living under strict company rules, some of the earliest independent wage-earning women workers.
By the 1830s, many of the young women came to see their lives less as freeing them from traditional roles and more as being exploited for small pay by rich mill owners; a series of strikes took place in the 1830s and on, and the companies began to encourage immigrant workers from Ireland and elsewhere to come to Lowell. Eventually the workforce became more diverse...and more divided.
In one of the boarding houses, an exhibit highlighting the lives and words of the 'mill girls,' some of whom became quite well known for their writings.
Also in Lowell: a 'public art walk' with sculptures connected to Lowell's history (including the giant bobbin above) and the New England Quilt Museum, located steps from the Historic Park's visitor center.