Series: Lowell, Story of an Industrial City

Lowell, Story of an Industrial City: Decline and Recovery

President Carter Signs the Creation of Lowell NHP. NPS Photo
U.S. President Carter signs creation of Lowell National Historical Park, June 1978.

National Park Service.

World War I gave a short-lived boost to Lowell's textile and munitions industries as both profited from large military contracts. As more jobs were created, few could see that the end of Lowell's prosperity was near, or that by 1930 the city's once vital economy would grind to a virtual halt.

There were early signs, but one had to look beyond the production numbers to see them. For several decades after the Civil War, Lowell's textile production had increased steadily, but after 1890 total employment slipped, declining from 17,000 in 1895 to less than 14,000 in 1918. Technological advances made possible gains in output even while mills trimmed their workforce.

Lowell mill owners knew as early as the 1890s that their mills were aging, becoming increasingly noncompetitive. Yet mill management chose not to modernize their Lowell operations. They either took their operations elsewhere or used the profits from their Lowell mills to finance modern textile plants in the South.

Southern community and business leaders eager for development actively promoted industrialization by emphasizing the region's advantages of abundant land, cheaper labor, energy sources, lower taxes, and transportation. Promoters also promised New England investors company towns free of union influences and restrictive laws concerning the health and safety of industrial workers. Lowell and other New England mill towns experienced an early version of the capital flight that plagued communities in the northeast and the Midwestern industrial heartland in the 1970s and 1980s.

As early as World War I, Lowell firms began to fail or leave town. The Bigelow Carpet Company (formerly Lowell Manufacturing Company, one of the first textile firms in the city) departed in 1914, and Middlesex Mills ceased production in 1918. Other companies took over their plants, but these closings were the first by firms that were part of Lowell's founding almost a century earlier. Then in 1926 came a wave of closings. The Hamilton Company went into receivership, followed by Suffolk, Tremont, and Massachusetts Mills. The Appleton Company moved production to the South, and operations at the Saco-Lowell Shop (formerly the Lowell Machine Shop) shifted north to Maine. By the mid-1930s, of Lowell's first large mills, only the Merrimack, Lawrence, and Boott were still in operation.

The Depression came early to Lowell and stayed. By 1936 total textile employment had dropped to 8,000, only slightly more than it had been a century earlier. Many mills stood empty; others housed a number of small manufacturing firms. Entire mill complexes were demolished, or sections lopped off, to reduce taxes. Parts of Lowell looked like a war ravaged city.

Families coped as best they could with unemployment during the Depression. One Polish-born worker described how her family survived: "during the summer, dandelion greens were our diet; during the winter we ate hard bread, sweetened with sugar if we were lucky. . . . On rare occasions we would sell something we owned to buy a little meat." Children quit school and took what work they could find. Jobs were scarce, though, and employers often took advantage and made increasing demands on those fortunate enough to be working. Even those with jobs had no assurance of regular work. One former mill worker recalled the Depression:

Many days I walk into the mill, and [the boss] puts his hands up, "No work today. " Home you go. They wouldn't tell you anything. You go back the next day, the same thing. The whole week. Wouldn't even tell you if there was no work tomorrow. They waited till you got there.

As the few remaining large mills increased production in the late 1930s, workers responded to the escalating demands made on them. The mills' "stretch-out"-the practice of increasing the workload for the same wage by assigning more machines to workers-recalled a similar demand made on female workers in the 1840s. It had helped drive the Yankee women out of the mills, and it was equally resented by workers a century later. They wanted paid vacations, denied even to those who had been with the company for decades. They asked for improved working conditions, which were hardly better than in the mid-19th century. Yvonne Hoar, who worked in Lowell in the twenties and thirties, recalled what it was like in the Merrimack Mills weave room:

It was the noisiest room you could ever be in. There’s machines going and shuttles going back and forth, and sometimes they'd fly off and they were pointed things and if they ever hit you, boy, you'd know it.... The whole place vibrates. When I come out of there at night I was shaking; I was still in the mill... then they put me up in the finishing room. . . . They were doubling up all the machines so it made that much more work.... There we got 13 dollars a week. No matter who you are or where you were in the mill, you got thirteen dollars a week. ... You really didn't need names, because everyone got thirteen dollars a week. Wouldn't do you any good to complain ... they were so petrified for their jobs in them days, it was pitiful.

When a union was formed in 1938 to bargain with the Merrimack Mills, women played a significant role in organizing the workers, as their forerunners had a century earlier. After their demands for better wages and working conditions were rejected, they went on strike. Confronted with strikebreakers and called Communists, they had to live on meager strike funds. But far-off events shifted the balance in their favor. War was approaching in Europe and the Federal government was pressuring the mills for cloth. The owners capitulated after seven weeks and the workers returned to the mills.

World War II quickened Lowell's economy. The remaining textile mills in the city-Merrimack, Boott, Ames (the old Lawrence Company), and several others-increased employment dramatically, while the departure of men for military service brought more women into the labor force. The workers could command better wages as other firms with military contracts-Remington, General Electric, and U.S. Rubber-competed with the mills for Lowell workers.

The wartime demand for labor seemed to bring an end to the depression in Lowell that had begun with the mill closings in 1926. Wages shot upward. A typical starting figure of $13 a week in the mills in 1938 rose to $29 by 1943. Earnings in munitions factories were greater still, reaching an average of $37 at Remington for a 48-hour week in 1943.

The boom proved only temporary for Lowell. When the war ended in 1945, orders for munitions and textiles fell off, and the city lapsed into its old economic doldrums. It was clear that the textile industry would not lead Lowell back to prosperity. The city's fortunes were at their lowest in the post-war years with the closing of the Boott and Merrimack mills in the 1950s. The latter's mills and boardinghouses soon fell victim to the urban renewal programs of the 1960s, along with the tenement neighborhood of Little Canada. Mill employment all but disappeared, and nothing had yet taken its place. The remaining mill buildings seemed to be bleak reminders of an era of hard work and meager reward. For many residents, remembering the past stirred up feelings of anger and abandonment.

In the 1960s a group of Lowell citizens devised a strategy to revitalize the community, transform the educational system, and stimulate the local economy. Working with urban planners and historians, they laid out a plan for redevelopment based on Lowell's architectural and cultural heritage. Among their proposals was one for a historical park that would present the city as a living museum.

Pragmatic alliances marked this movement from the beginning. Political and business leaders offered support. In 1972 the city council endorsed the idea. Out of this unprecedented cooperation emerged Lowell Heritage State Park in 1974, Lowell National Historical Park in 1978, and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission. The latter was created in 1978 to assist the park's development, stimulate historic preservation of Lowell's downtown buildings and canals, and develop cultural programs related to the park's themes. Here was a new kind of park, one that mustered the energies, funds, and talents of many groups and government agencies and directed them toward common goals.

Other factors in the 1970s contributed to Lowell's rebirth. The University of Lowell (now the University of Massachusetts Lowell) emerged from the union of Lowell Technological Institute and Lowell State College in 1975. Its mission included support for regional economic development. The arrival in the mid-1970s of Wang Laboratories, then a leader in computers, brought to the city an industry that many hoped would lead to another bright technological future.

The late 1970s and the early 1980s were years of prosperity in Massachusetts, with a soaring economy built around higher education, high technology, and an attractive cultural ambience. In Lowell employment rose as business expanded and over 100 old buildings were rehabilitated and put to new uses. Visitors again came to Lowell, a model of historic preservation and urban revival. But by the late 1980s the boom was over. The region's economy had cooled, the computer industry was tightening its belt, and many companies were closing their doors or relocating elsewhere. Wang found itself challenged by strong competition, requiring it to cut most of its workforce and dramatically restructure its operations.

Boom and bust, technological innovation and obsolescence-these are old themes in Lowell. Many observers see nothing surprising in the current cycle and believe a new mix of technology, improved education, and cultural vitality has positioned the city well for transition into the coming era of internationally interdependent economies.

The city's new pride recalls the spirit of the milltown's boom days. After decades of decline, the population is rising. The most recent immigrants-as essential to industry as their predecessors a century before-come from Cambodia, Laos, Latin America, and other parts of the world. A collection of public art lends interest to the urban scene. Visitors have a multitude of choices: tours of the park, exhibits, festivals, concerts, demonstrations of old skills, a chance to stroll along historic streets. In summer the Merrimack is crowded with boats. The Canalway pedestrian path links the city's waterways with its historic structures.

The citizens of Lowell have made the past a vigorous presence. Historic buildings house new enterprises. Old machinery finds use in new exhibits. Common threads run through the experiences of Lowell's earlier generations of immigrants and those still arriving. If there is any place to observe the beginnings and the development of American industrialization, it is here in Lowell.

From: Dublin, Thomas. 1992. Lowell: the story of an industrial city: a guide to Lowell National Historical Park and Lowell Heritage State Park, Lowell, Massachusetts. Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.