Visit Lowell, Massachusetts National Historical Park

The Industrial Revolution in America really began in Lowell, Massachusetts.This was where the familiar patterns of work and society were replaced with new patterns of stunning strangeness: thousands of women found a place to live and earn money outside of family ties and control; people previously used to working independently or in very small groups were now harnessed to the task of a great commercial enterprise the likes of which America had never before seen; and the bell and the clock regulated working days in a world that previously found the movement of the sun sufficient to mark time by.

While the old mills of Lowell look quaintly anachronistic to us today, they were radically novel when built, creating a futuristic world from an agrarian society. What keeps it from being just a footnote in today's history books is the fact that the U.S. National Park Service created a National Historic Park that encompasses many of the original buildings, systems, and infrastructure that fueled the great change-so that downtown Lowell has become a living museum unconfined by walls. Best of all, it's yours to tour and explore all year long!

It all began when people learned how to make machinery to accomplish more efficiently work that was done by hand. Power looms enabled entrepreneurs to begin manufacturing cloth on a larger scale than ever before dreamed possible. In the pre-electricity, pre-internal combustion engine days of over a century and a half ago, the only obvious source of power was to harness the force of falling water. To build mills the investors had to find a location where flowing water dropped a sufficient distance to drive their looms.

At the site of what was to become Lowell the Merrimac River dropped 32 feet on its way to the sea. The 1 3/4 mile Pawtucket Canal, dug to bypass the falls that had previously prevented navigation, provided the perfect beginning for a system to feed moving water to the machinery. The textile mills that were built here were a great success, prompting expansion and attracting competition. By 1848 there were 5 1/2 miles of canal serving the new industrial town, and over 10,000 people were employed here.

The mills solicited farm girls to work the looms, providing boardinghouses where they lived far from their families.The mill owners were strict, parsimonious, and paternalistic, with rigid and narrow rules; but this was freedom of a sort that women hadn't experienced before, and thousands flocked to the mills. Lowell grew into a city of industrious complexity. The city hummed like a complex living organism, and the machines and humans that composed that organism turned out enough cloth each year to wrap around the planet Earth twice!

Those were the golden days. Eventually, though, mill owners turned to cheaper labor in the southern U.S., and to new power sources like steam and electricity. Freed from the need to remain by the falls of the Merrimac, they took their business elsewhere, and Lowell gradually became a depressed shadow of its former self, with empty mill buildings standing like forlorn monuments of red brick to a prosperity that was gone forever.

What saved Lowell from the fate of many of the other early industrial cities was the decision of the federal government to recognize the significance of what had occurred here by designating the area a National Historic Park. The infusion of federal money and organization halted downtown Lowell's slide into decay, and has brought countless visitors to the city. The National Historic Park has become both a showpiece and an educational window into the past.

Sign up at the park visitor center at Market Mills for guided tours and to get an initial overview of Lowell and the Industrial Revolution. Outside, from March through Thanksgiving, a free replica trolley runs from site to site, but it's easy to cover it all on foot, too. These two methods of transportation-trolley and shoe leather-were the only ones available to mill workers in the pre-automobile era. (During warmer weather the N.P.S. also offers boat tours of the canal network). You can see the complex of canals and locks, learn about the lives of the mills' working people, including a visit to an original women's boardinghouse at the Boott Cotton Mills, and see the Suffolk Mill Turbine exhibit for an understanding of how a river's 32-foot drop could be harnessed efficiently enough to change a civilization.

The water running through this turbine, and others like it, ran thousands of clacking, thumping, clattering looms powered by belts running off overhead axles driven by the turbines. Each mill girl would be assigned to tend a number of these looms, standing ready to replace bobbins of thread as they ran out, or to retrieve shuttles that occasionally shot out of the loom with the force of a bullet. It was a marvel of complexity, loud, and with plenty of opportunity of maiming or otherwise injuring a mill worker whose attention lagged.But then, there were many working conditions that would be considered intolerable today: dust-filled air, poor lighting, long hours, payment by piecework-and yet it was such an advance over what had gone before!

There's a lot to be seen here; this is a deep well to drink from, with many interesting facets to explore. For more information on Lowell National Historic Park's programs, and to plan your own trip to this time capsule of America's Industrial Revolution, contact the park's Visitor Center at (978) 970-5000 or visit nps.gov/lowe .

Article provided by Homesteader

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