Written in 2000 for National Geographic Traveler magazine
I’ve always had trouble with New England mythologizing—the cookie-box history of tea overboard, revolutionary battles, moonlight rides. That frock-coat past usually seems as remote and romantic as a children’s storybook. Lowell, Massachusetts has another history entirely, of labor struggles amid the birth pangs of the industrial era. This was Jack Kerouac’s town, a riverside cluster of relentless textile mills “built in brick, primly towered, solid” that ate wave after wave of workers, prospered in the 19th century, and sank early in the 20th. Yet the city has recovered in the last twenty years, realizing its industrial role was something to be proud of, and facing its gritty labor history head-on.
Water helped make Lowell rich in the early 1800s. The original town was built on a crisscross of canals which—originally intended as a quicker route to the sea, and thence Boston—instead ended up harnessing vast water power.
Today’s Lowell didn’t at first strike me as particularly alluring, though I’ve never seen a city with so much preserved Americana in a compact space: luncheonettes with soda fountains straight out of my childhood, shoe-repair or optometrist shops that might as well have Eisenhower’s photo in the window. Then I began to notice how the downtown’s brick edifices have unexpectedly ornate flourishes, the detailed workmanship that comes from wealth building confidently in a boom time.
I didn’t have to walk far to find what had paid for it all: the long, red, many-windowed mills that straddle and overshadow the canals. Historic, industrial-era Lowell is a national park, and a park ranger named Alex Demas, in what was once the Boott Mill complex—now an extraordinary museum—taught me about a period I’d taken for granted.
Alex was in his fifties, a sturdy man with a gray beard and mustache, and a gentle sarcasm. He was also a natural explainer and performer. “I started as a countertenor in New York. I eventually became a bluegrass banjo picker, ended up in Boston’s coffeehouse scene, then moved to the Merrimack River Valley in 1974. I’ve been a ranger here since the park’s inception in ’78.” His performing life dovetailed nicely with his day job, since he could perform, say, a protest song composed by a Lowell “mill girl” in 1830 (I Am A Slave Girl) as part of a museum program. And he was a passionate explainer of that history.
According to Alex, “Lowell was the country’s first successful, planned industrial city.” In the early 19th century the American demand for British textiles was huge; one young Massachusetts gentleman managed a spying coup on England’s “dark satanic mills” and copied from memory their advanced machinery. He died before he saw Lowell (named for him) built as a factory metropolis by entrepreneurs who realized that its flowing canals could power thousands of looms.
The first workers were the so-called mill girls, age fifteen to thirty, off nearby New England farms, and as Alex pointed out, glad of the job. “They were away from their families, they were in an unimaginably big, clean city, they had hundreds of friends just like them, they were earning money. They would come work for a couple of years to earn their dowry, then go back to the farm and let their younger sister replace them.”
In 1826 Lowell had 2,500 inhabitants; by 1850 the number was up to 33,000. “The El Dorado on the Merrimack” seemed a bright vision of the country’s future, turning out two million yards of cloth each week in a fully integrated plan. Under one roof for the first time, raw cotton came in and eventually emerged as finished textiles—a brilliant, original American system. At first, Lowell appeared a model workers’ community, that didn’t resemble an England where enslaved children were sucked into machines. These mill girls (now seen as early feminists) even put out their own magazines, increasingly full of protest.
When competition arose elsewhere in the States, conditions here became hellish—lower pay and increased hours amid the din of crashing looms, in stifling rooms with windows nailed shut to keep the cotton from drying out—and major strikes as early as the 1830s. The mill girls were replaced with Greek, Italian, Polish, and French-Canadian immigrants, but the strikes continued. What eventually did Lowell in was radically cheaper competition that arose in the south, where the cotton was grown.
For much of the 20th century the city went downhill, but nearby biotech industries, as well as tourism, have saved it. As Bob Fish (a jazz guitarist who works in the computer industry nearby) put it, “What I love is how proud, global-minded, and artistic a place Lowell is. We have a huge folk music festival every summer when the city lets its hair down. That’s when you see why locals who never travel anywhere still feel worldly. If you’re living alongside a dozen other nationalities and languages, you don’t have to go anywhere to be cosmopolitan.”
You could stand, in fact, on a downtown corner in mid-afternoon and hear Khmer, Spanish, and Greek—today’s Lowell, with only 100,000 people, has fifty-seven ethnic communities. I saw this in the Latino what-not dollar shops, in the Italian grocery, in the Greek milkshake parlor. Schoolkids walking past, chatting in a heavy Massachusetts accent, were among the city’s 30,000 Cambodians, the second-largest such community in the country.
“And not only do they have what you’d expect,” Bob added, “like their own food stores, but they have their own lawyers and video stores and beauty parlors. So the Lowell immigrant community tradition is as vibrant as ever.”
Apart from Bette Davis, Ed McMahon, and Senator Paul Tsongas (much responsible for the federal millions that gave Lowell a new life), the city also produced the painter James McNeill Whistler. The house where Whistler first met his mother is a small museum with a revolving collection of his etchings and sketches and a large array of local seascapes. Other museums are devoted to quilts, textiles, and New England sports, but Lowell’s unity of focus made coming here feel like a frank dose of reality.
Jack Kerouac (1922-69), despite the deafening fame of On the Road, was foremost a novelist, and the Lowell of his upbringing recurs in his fiction. The Lowell he wrote about is architecturally everywhere, and still brings what locals call “Kerou-wackos” for an annual festival in his honor. (The city has wisely created a tiny memorial park, with excerpts from his books on stone slabs.) The Working People Museum, in a mill-girl boardinghouse, displays Kerouac’s portable Underwood typewriter, his backpack, and road gear from poncho to goggles to aspirin. “You’re the first person to ask to see it in ages,” said the woman who guided me to its glass case. “Funny thing. His typewriter’s the only obsolete item in there.”
One spot Kerouac often evoked is the Grotto, which should be seen by night. It has, I bet, the world’s only drive-through Stations of the Cross, its plaster statues alive under exotic yellow, blue, pink, and green spotlights, its rocky man-made grotto inset with a statue of the Virgin wearing a halo of blue neon.
It is all too easy to forget the industrial labor that enriched this country—seventy-hour work weeks in horrific conditions—but even a brief visit to Lowell is a sobering, illuminating reminder. And who knows? A century from now we may have our own version of Lowell—perhaps as distant, in every sense, as Silicon Valley.