Seeds of Industry - Lowell Handbook

The rise of Lowell in the second quarter of the 19th century prompted flights of rhetoric from poets and politicians. Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett wrote that the city's tremendous growth "seems more the work of enchantment than the regular process of human agency." John Greenleaf Whittier mirrored these sentiments. Lowell was "a city springing up," he said, "like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian Tales, as it were in a single night- stretching far and wide its chaos of brick masonry. . . . [The observer] feels himself ... thrust forward into a new century."

The city was an obligatory stop for Europeans touring the United States. To French political economist Michel Chevalier, sent to the United States in 1834 to study American industry, Lowell evoked memories of the Old World before the rise of its infamous industrial cities: "This then is not Manchester . . . Lowell, with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents, but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns in Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton." The city was sometimes described as one of the wonders of the world. "Niagara and Lowell are the two objects I will longest remember in my American journey," said a Scottish visitor, "the one the glory of American scenery, the other of American industry."

Most visitors were impressed by the sheer scale of mid-19th century Lowell, something best appreciated from across the Merrimack River. Massive five- and six-story brick mills lined the river for nearly a mile, standing out dramatically amid the area's scattered farms. The city itself was only a backdrop; the textile mills dominated the Lowell scene.

Next to the mills, it was the complex network of power canals that caught the eye of visitors to Lowell. By 1850 almost six miles of canals coursed through the city. Operating on two levels, they drove the waterwheels of 40 mill buildings, powering 320,000 spindles and almost 10,000 looms and giving employment to more than 10,000 workers.

Despite the European response to these marvels, we cannot easily contrast "new world" Lowell and "old world" industrial cities. Though Lowell was in many ways new compared to English manufacturing centers, the mills were the product of technological and economic developments rooted in 18th-century Europe. The quickening influence of the English Industrial Revolution and the disruption of trade during the Napoleonic Wars helped push America into its own industrial age.

The city's brick mills and canal network were, however, signs of a new human domination of nature in America. Urban Lowell contrasted starkly with the farms and villages in which the vast majority of Americans lived and worked in the early 19th century. Farming was largely a matter of accommodation to the natural world. Mill owners prospered by regimenting that world. They imposed a regularity on the workday radically different from the normal routine. Mills ran an average of 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for more than 300 days a year. Only when it suited them did the owners follow seasonal rhythms, operating the mills longer in summer but in winter extending the day with whale-oil lamps.

Lowell's canals depended on water drawn from a river, but to use the Merrimack as efficiently as possible, the mill owners dammed it, even ponding water overnight for use the next day. Anticipating seasonal dry spells, they turned the river's watershed into a giant millpond. They were aggressive in purchasing water rights in New Hampshire, storing water in lakes in the spring and releasing it into the Merrimack in the summer and fall.

Damming alone would not have created enough power to run the mills. Lowell's industrial life was sustained by naturally falling water. At Pawtucket Falls, just above the Merrimack's junction with the Concord, the river drops more than 30 feet in less than a mile-a continuous surge of kinetic energy from which the mills harnessed over 10,000 horsepower. Without the falls, there would have been no textile production, no Lowell.

Pawtucket Falls had long been the focus of human activity in the area. If the tumbling water meant power to European settlers, to the nearby Pennacook Indians it was a source of food. Neighboring tribes regularly met at the falls in the spring to reap the bounty of the annual runs of salmon and sturgeon. While Indians planted crops near their villages, they did not "possess" the land or own it individually as the English did. They moved about with the seasons leaving themselves open to encroachment by settler who coveted their land. With the incorporation of Chelmsford in 1655, a permanent English presence was established near the Pennacook villages. Conflict and displacement soon followed.

When King Philip's War broke out along the New England frontier in 1675, most Pennacooks followed their sachem Wannalancit north into the New Hampshire woods to avoid hostilities. After their victory, the colonists forced the Indians still living in eastern Massachusetts to move to a few permanent villages, including Wamesit in what is now downtown Lowell. Even so, settlers continued to encroach upon Pennacook lands, and in 1686, Wannalancit formally sold his tribe's rights to land along the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. The remaining Pennacooks moved on to New Hampshire or Canada, and their former lands were absorbed into Chelmsford.

Chelmsford grew steadily throughout the 18th century. At first, ample land and opportunity allowed most sons and daughters to marry and settle within the community. After 1725, however, when the last communal land was distributed, growing numbers of young people seeking farmland had to leave town. The press of population on resources encouraged the remaining villagers to look for work other than farming.

The obvious alternatives, aside from going to sea, were industry and trade. But opportunities there were hardly better. England's mercantile policies generally limited her colonies to such local industries as sawmills and grist mills or crafts like harness making or coppersmithing. There were more people than jobs in these trades. Things were no better after independence. Although the restrictions were gone, American manufacturers found it difficult to compete with the cheap, well-made British goods flooding the market.

It was shipbuilding and its need for timber that transformed this farm community at the end of the 18th century. As a neutral power during the Napoleonic wars, the United States dominated the Atlantic trade for a few years. The demand for new American ships spurred merchants and shipbuilders in Newburyport, a seaport north of Boston, to tap the inland forests for wood. The port was at the mouth of the Merrimack, and timber could be floated downriver. There was but one major obstacle, Pawtucket Falls at East Chelmsford, as the section of Chelmsford at the junction of the Merrimack and Concord Rivers was called.

So it was in 1796 that Newburyport merchants built the Pawtucket Canal - 11/2 miles long with four sets of locks-to circumvent the falls. Eight years later, a much more ambitious project, the Middlesex Canal, opened a direct water route to the port of Boston. This canal began at Middlesex Village, just upstream from East Chelmsford. Horse-drawn barges moved cargo through a system of locks and aqueducts between the Merrimack and Mystic Rivers, a distance of 27 miles.

After the opening of the Pawtucket and Middlesex canals, manufacturing took root in East Chelmsford. Sawmills and a glassworks were built near the canals. In 1801, one Moses Hale added picking and carding machines to his "fulling" mill (where woolen cloth underwent the final steps of shrinking and thickening). His new operations prepared raw wool for spinning and weaving by local farm families. Since his mill was already finishing the woven cloth, Hale's operation was well integrated into the surrounding economy.

These domestic developments were reinforced by the frequent interruptions in trade caused by the Napoleonic Wars and the Embargo of 1807, which cut off American trade with Europe. Unable to import manufactured goods, Americans soon began to supply their own needs, cloth foremost. Moses Hale used this opportunity to expand his business, while two other locals-John Goulding and Jonathan Knowles -built a cotton mill on the Concord River.

The boom in American manufacturing lasted until the end of the War of 1812, when the return of British textiles to the American market drove small manufacturers like Goulding and Knowles out of business. Others, though, saw prospects for profit. Thomas Hurd bought the old Goulding and Knowles mill in 1818, installed power looms, and converted it to woolen manufacture. Moses Hale and Oliver Whipple began to manufacture gunpowder, driving their machinery with water from a new canal fed by the Concord River.

East Chelmsford's shift from agriculture to industry was typical of many New England towns. The transformation began several decades earlier, the nation's first permanent water-powered textile spinning factory was founded in 1790 along the banks of the Blackstone River in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There the English immigrant Samuel Slater reproduced an Arkwright spinning frame, the first fully power-driven machine for spinning yarn. The partnership of Almy, Brown, and Slater pioneered in carding and spinning cotton by power machinery. Others followed their lead and by 1810 dozens of water-powered spinning mills dotted riverbanks in southern New England.

The spinning mills were small rural affairs and employed few workers. Far more workers earned a living in their own homes by weaving machine-spun cotton yarn on handlooms. If they lived nearby, they picked up yarn at the mills and returned with woven cloth. Those farther away got their yarn from storekeepers who took it on consignment from the mills. This system of outwork helped stabilize the region's economy but was nevertheless an inefficient way of working. Farmers' wives and daughters took their time at weaving, fitting the new work into the routines of farm life. This system was too relaxed for mill owners, who had schedules to meet and orders to fill. Thomas Hurd's decision to install power looms in his mills on the Concord River was typical of the trend of manufacturers to bring all textile operations under their direct control.

Late in 1821 new actors entered the East Chelmsford scene. The small group of men seen looking over the area became the principals in East Chelmsford's transformation from farm village to industrial city. In the next few years they would complete the revolution in American textile production begun by Samuel Slater. They had already taken a bold step in Waltham, on the Charles River to the south. Their achievements foreshadowed what would happen in Lowell on a grander scale, raising it from obscurity to prominence in the industrial history of the nation.


Last updated: February 26, 2015

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