Massachusetts: Lowell National Historical Park

 three Portuguese "mill girls."
Lowell's mill workforce consisted largely of young immigrant women. Pictured here are three Portuguese "mill girls."

Courtesy of the Library of Congress through Flickr's Creative Commons

During the first half of the 19th century, Lowell, Massachusetts quickly transformed itself from a farm town to a bustling industrial city. In time, Lowell became a model of industry, gaining global recognition for its state of the art technology, innovative canal and dam system, mill architecture, boardinghouses, churches, and ethnic neighborhoods. Young Yankee women, immigrant families, and European tourists all flocked to Lowell to find work at one of the many textile mills, or visit the industrious city that was becoming a popular tourist destination. As one Scottish traveler observed during his visit to America, “Niagara and Lowell are the two objects I will longest remember in my American journey, the one the glory of American scenery, the other of American industry.” Today, Lowell National Historical Park welcomes visitors to enjoy the sights of Lowell and learn about the history of one of America’s most significant industrial cities.

The Boston merchants who founded Lowell in 1821 and named it after Francis Cabot Lowell chose to locate the town along Massachusetts’s Merrimack River to take advantage of the kinetic energy offered by the Pawtucket waterfalls. Over six miles of canals powered the waterwheels of Lowell’s mills, whose massive five and six story brick buildings dominated the city’s landscape.  All part of the Locks and Canal Historic District, the most recognized of these buildings are the Lowell Manufacturing Company chartered in 1821, the Suffolk or Wannalancit Mill completed around the 1880s, the Boott Mill Company established in 1835, and the Boott Mill Boardinghouse that opened in 1838. By the 1850s, 40 textile mills employing over 10,000 workers stretched for about a mile along the river.  

Beyond the Locks and Canals Historic District, the City Hall Historic District is also part of Lowell National Historical Park. The City Hall Historic District includes the Old City Hall, the Kirk Street Agent’s House, and the Moody Street Feeder Gatehouse or Merrimack Gatehouse. Erected in 1830, the Old City Hall is the first municipal building constructed in Lowell. It was the town’s principal meeting hall, where presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln delivered his stump speech during his 1848 campaign trip to Massachusetts. 

Built between 1845 and 1847, the Kirk Street Agent’s House, otherwise known as the Linus Child House, is a two and a half story brick duplex that once housed corporate agents of the Massachusetts and Boott Cotton Mills until 1901. Part of the City Hall Historic District and the Locks and Canals Historic District, the Moody Street Feeder Gatehouse or Merrimack Gatehouse is one of the finest canal structures in Lowell. Built in 1848 to improve the town’s canal system, the gatehouse helped increase and regulate the water supply for the Merrimack and Boott Mills. Today, it serves as the Lowell Bicentennial headquarters and visitor center.

The city’s female workforce was significant in the history of Lowell. From the early to mid-1800s, women left the constricted lifestyle of small rural towns and rural areas for independent industrial city life. Most were young single Yankee girls, who were tired of the limited opportunities offered by their domestic work. Women found that Lowell's mills offered monthly wages for their services and provided them room and board. Although these women gained economic independence in Lowell, the mill boardinghouse keepers constantly supervised their social activities, for which they hardly had any time, considering their daily 12 to 14 hour work schedules. At the end of the day, the factory bell signaled the “mill girls” to return to their boardinghouses. They were expected to adhere to the strict code of conduct respecting curfew and attending church.

Yankee “mill girls” continued to dominate the Lowell workforce until the 1840s, when the city began to find it difficult to compete with the growing industrial development in other New England communities. As profits fell, the mill industry cut wages. These wage cuts, deteriorating working conditions, and long workdays lead the “mill girls” to protest and organize strikes. When their demands went unheard, the women left Lowell, and immigrant groups replaced them in the workforce. Despite the low wages and unhealthy work conditions, immigrants were eager to find work.

The immigrants replacing the Yankee “mill girls” during the 1840s were predominantly Irish Catholics, who traveled to America during the Great Potato Famine. Although Lowell received an influx of Irish families during this time, the Irish were a part of the city’s history from its birth, and before the “mill girls” arrived, they built Lowell’s historic canals, mills, and boardinghouses. Initially, Lowell’s Protestant community was slow to welcome Irish immigrants, but the hostility between Yankee Protestants and Irish Catholics eventually disappeared. Irish immigrants dominated the industrial scene until the Civil War, when other immigrant groups began to work in the city mills.

Like the Irish, the French-Canadians, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese, Russian Jews, and Armenians who came to work in Lowell’s mills faced long work hours, low wages, and poor living conditions in the city’s crowded tenements. By the time Lowell’s industry declined, the city had become an ethnic melting pot, where each group claimed its own distinct neighborhood, like the Irish immigrants’ “New Dublin or Acre,” and the French-Canadians’ “Little Canada.” The city officially began to close down its mills in the 1920s and '30s after Lowell’s outdated mills could no longer compete against the state-of-the-art cotton mills in other communities and working conditions continued to decline as Lowell’s companies stopped reinvesting in their mills. Thousands of Lowell’s immigrant residents lost their jobs, and despite a brief resurgence during World War II, the city shut down its last surviving mill by the mid 1950s.

Today, at Lowell National Historical Park, visitors can experience the immigrant influence throughout the city’s ethnic neighborhoods; tour the Boott Cotton Mills Museum and Boardinghouse, the Suffolk Mill Turbine, and the Pawtucket Gatehouse; and enjoy boat tours through the historic industrial city’s locks and canals.

Lowell National Historical Park, a unit of the National Park System and a National Historic Landmark, is located at 304 Dutton St. in Lowell, MA. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center is located at 246 Market St., and both the Boott Cotton Mills Museum and Tsongas Industrial History Center are located at 115 John St. The Mogan Cultural Center, and the Mill Girls and Immigrant Exhibit are located at 40 French St. The River Transformed Exhibit is at 600 Suffolk St. The visitor center opens daily from 9:00 am to 4:30pm in the winter and from 9:00am to 5:00pm during the summer. All sites, except the Boott Cotton Mill Museum, offer free admission. For more information about the park and the hours of the museums, visit the National Park Service Lowell National Historical Parkwebsite or call 978-970-5000; Hearing Impaired (TDD) 978-970-5002.

The Boott Cotton Mills of the Lowell National Historical Park have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. Lowell National Historical Park is also featured in the National Park Service Places Where Women Made History Travel Itinerary.  The Boott Cotton Mills are the subject of the online lesson plan, Building America’s Industrial Revolution: The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places.


Last updated: June 10, 2024