Lowell National Historical Park: Blueprint of the American Industrial Revolution

Above: The Pawtucket Canal and adjacent Hamilton Mills create an imposing and impressive scene when viewed from Central Street.The Pawtucket Canal and adjacent Hamilton Mills create an imposing and impressive scene when viewed from Central Street. Photo: Rowdy Geirsson

Lowell, Massachusetts is a medium-sized city of approximately 110,000 people located about 35 km northwest of Boston. It is located at a prominent bend in the Merrimack River where the flow of water drops 10 meters, the potential power of which attracted the attention of early industrialists in the 19th century. This group of investors, now known as “The Boston Associates,” purchased the land and water rights in this area and developed it for the manufacture of textiles. As a result, Lowell became the first planned industrial city in the United States, incorporated in 1826, and consequently served as the blueprint for the development of the numerous, subsequent planned mill communities throughout the northeastern U.S. that followed. Lowell’s mills have long since shuttered their operations, but most have been preserved and restored and now comprise the nucleus of the Lowell National Historical Park (NHP). https://www.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm

Established in 1978, the Lowell NHP is operated by the U.S. National Park Service. Because it is a heritage area that is integrated within the fabric of Lowell’s urban core, there are no fees to access the park itself. The Lowell NHP, however, also manages the Boott Cotton Mills Museum and offers boat tours along the city’s canals, which cost $6 and $12 for adults, respectively. And because Lowell NHP is part of the U.S. National Park Service, the various passes and programs associated with it (Annual Passes, Senior Lifetime Passes, Active Duty Military Passes, etc.) apply as well. 

The Visitor Center to the NHP is housed in the Market Mills complex, which features a shady, brick-paved courtyard and pleasant, pedestrian pathways.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

The Lowell NHP Visitor Center is located at 246 Market Street and is most easily accessed by car; a free parking lot exists beside the center. Train service to Lowell is also available on the MBTA Commuter Rail from Boston. The train station is located 1 km from the Visitor Center, so while it is not immediately adjacent to the Lowell NHP, it is within a walkable distance, and the local Lowell Regional Transit Authority provides connection between the train station and Lowell NHP as well.

The Visitor Center provides a good, brief, and basic overview into the history of Lowell. The information here primarily consists of illustrative placards and a short video. This is also where the park’s gift shop is located, and the park rangers can answer questions and arrange a canal boat tour (during the summer) if you so wish. They also provide free maps, which should be helpful to anyone visiting for the first time because the city streets do not follow a grid pattern; the various waterways that cut through the city’s urban core have complicated its layout and development from a wayfinding perspective, but they provide visual interest and contribute to the historic character, even if that was not their original purpose. https://www.nps.gov/lowe/planyourvisit/maps.htm

The gatehouse at the Lower Locks controlled the flow of water from the Pawtucket Canal to the Eastern Canal, which powered the Boott Mills.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

Beyond the Visitor Center, the Lowell NHP is a sprawling jumble of historic structures in which daily life proceeds unimpeded by the NHP’s presence. Market Street, the main shopping and dining thoroughfare in downtown Lowell, passes by in front of the Visitor Center. The mills and the manmade canals and locks that fed water to them lie in all directions, and the Merrimack River lies only several blocks beyond Market Street. Sidewalks and other pedestrian-only walking paths make the entire area fun to explore by foot. Ambling up and down the canals, hedged in by the behemoth brick mills creates for a highly atmospheric experience from a bygone era. Should you feel the need to take a break for a bite to eat or something to drink, the Coffee and Cotton cafe located in Mill No. 5 on Jackson Street provides an excellent option (and the possibility to peruse the various book, cheese, music, etc. shops located in the mill). https://millno5.com/

Some additional highlights of the area include:

The Boott Mills complex, one of the best preserved in the city and home to the NHP’s Boott Cotton Mills Museum.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson

Additional points of interest within or adjacent to the Lowell NHP include the Jack Kerouac Park (the famous ’50’s author was from Lowell), the NHP’s Railroad Exhibit (an old locomotive on display beside the Merrimack Canal), the New England Quilt Museum, the National Streetcar Museum, and the Whistler House Museum of Art. Lowell was also once home to the American Textile Museum, but it permanently closed in 2016.

This old Boston & Maine locomotive is one of the additional industrial heritage features found in the NHP.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Rowdy Geirsson





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Rowdy Geirsson

Rowdy Geirsson attempts to promote Leif Eriksson awareness but generally fails, and barely maintains Scandinavian Aggression, a mediocre blog about Vikings past and present. He is the editor of Norse Mythology for Bostonians, a humorous retelling of the trials and tribulations of Odin, Thor, and the other Norse gods as conveyed in the charmingly quaint dialect of a foul-mouthed Bostonian, and is a regular contributor of humor articles to McSweeney’s, Metal Sucks, Points in Case, and Slackjaw. He lived in Norrköping as a guest researcher of the local university in 2015. Follow him on Twitter @RGeirsson, or don’t.