Before the Park

A group of workers outside Boott Mill, both men and women. Some holding loom shuttles and bobbins.
Workers outside the Boott Mill, circa 1900-1910.


In 1821, a group of merchants, known later as the Boston Associates, began an ambitious industrial experiment. Harnessing the power of the Merrimack River and the labor of young New England farm women, they planned and built an industrial city that almost immediately became an economic powerhouse.

In a few decades the population exploded from 300 to 30,000 residents. Newcomers, many of them immigrants, began to arrive in great numbers looking for work. For more than a century the identity and fortunes of the city that became Lowell were tied to the textile mills. Other industries, most notably patent medicine, came and went. All the while the textile mills dominated Lowell’s landscape and economy.

The textile mills ebbed and flowed with the national economy. By the 1920s the mill economy was beginning to grind to a halt. A short-lived upswing during World War II was swiftly followed by a downturn for Lowell’s mills, and all of the original mills were out of business by 1958. Outdated technology, labor strife, and competition from other regions all led to the downward spiral of the mill corporations, and with them the economy, infrastructure, and morale of Lowell and its citizens.

The 1960s brought urban renewal efforts to the struggling city. The sight of historic buildings being razed for new construction jarred many in Lowell. Forward-looking activists and city leaders fought to preserve Lowell’s heritage. The creation of Lowell National Historical Park in 1978 was a historic event in itself, showcasing the city’s industrial history and cultural heritage while spurring on the City of Lowell’s revitalization.
A postcard of a boarding house and workers.
A stereographic view postcard of mill workers in front of a boardinghouse.


Destination Lowell

Within a decade of its founding, Lowell grew into a cosmopolitan city with a reputation and connections that reached around the world. Lowell was a destination for travelers interested in the novelty of the “mill girl” workforce; the visually arresting “Mile of Mills” along the Merrimack River; engineering marvels like the river wall and walkway. Visitors saw in Lowell a portent of the future of industry in America.
Cotton towels, napkins and sack cloth.
Cotton towels, napkins and sack cloth.
Made at Boott Cotton Mill.


Material Changes

At first Lowell’s mills produced coarse cotton cloth. Marketplace competition pushed Lowell mills to produce finer and more specialized textiles. Towels were one of the Boott Mills most popular products. The handbill encourages customers to buy toweling by the bolt, with suggestions for how to make towels, aprons, and other items for the home.
Workers lock arms in solidarity, marching down the street.
William Dudley (Big Bill) Haywood, a prominent American labor movement leader and founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, marched with striking Lowell workers in 1912.

Bain News Service

Labor Disputes

Lowell had seen “turn outs,” or strikes, since the 1830s. As corporations struggled to stay competitive, the divide between labor and management grew. Management used newer immigrants to fill lower-level jobs, intensifying labor tensions.
Poster of servicemen saluting and hoisting a flag which displays "ARMY E NAVY" while the poster reads "FOR EXCELLENCE IN PRODUCTION" and "LET'S KEEP IT FLYING."
Poster for the Army-Navy “E” Award for Excellence in
production of war equipment. Manufactured in New York, 1941-1945.


The E Award

Throughout World War II, the Boott Mills consistently won the Army-Navy E Award, for "Excellence in Production" in the war effort. The corporation’s program booklet for the E Award ceremony in 1942 anticipated post-war demand:

“We have dedicated this mill to Victory, and have converted it over to the manufacture of war material. … After victory comes we shall then fight for our ideals on towels, curtains, and corduroy, so as to again serve our loyal customers.”
A 'for sale' sign is posted on a mill.
'For Sale' sign on Pepperell Power Ho. / North Side Mill in 1930.

Proprietors of Locks & Canals Collection.

Industrial Decline

By 1950, only 7,578 mill jobs remained in Lowell, less than 1/3 the number of jobs in 1920.
The last of the original mill companies, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, shut its doors in 1958 and laid off its workers. Note the E Award logo on the Boott company letterhead on one release letter.
A mill girl is winding shuttle bobbins, a boxful of which appears in the lower left-hand corner. There are other workers in the background of this weave room factory. The mill girl is operating the power loom.
Winslow Homer, “The Bobbin Girl ,” Mill Girls in Nineteenth-Century Print. Thread is wrapped around an empty bobbin, or “pirn.” The bobbins were then loaded into shuttles for installation on the looms.


Building an Idea

The debate over urban renewal crystallized the question of Lowell’s future. Renewal efforts targeted the historic immigrant neighborhood of Little Canada in the 1960s. The original Merrimack Mills boarding houses were demolished soon after, in 1966.

Both had deteriorated, but the losses were a wake-up call to many in Lowell, and advocates for preservation began to emerge. The arguments played out publicly in local newspapers and on radio stations.

Support at the state level began with efforts to promote heritage in Lowell, with the 1975 establishment of Lowell Heritage State Park.

By 1978, with the park getting support at the federal level, advocates for preservation had already done a great deal of detailed planning. They sought to add to those plans by encouraging local citizens to participate in the process.

As late as a year after Congress approved the park, officials still were soliciting suggestions and reactions from the public.

Last updated: August 16, 2019

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