Welcome to Lowell
The Lowell story is as much about transformation as it is about beginnings. Its past was a shift from a rural society to an industrial society. Today, it is a story of new beginnings and fresh starts as arts, culture and tourism remake the city that developed at the junction of the Merrimac and Concord Rivers over 190 years ago.
Originally comprised of farmland known as East Chelmsford, Lowell was a planned manufacturing town focused on the production of textiles. Founded in 1822 by the “Boston Associates,” including Patrick Tracy Jackson and Nathan Appleton, the city was named for their partner Francis Cabot Lowell, an industrial visionary who was a pioneer in mill management and design.
This included the Waltham-Lowell system, which rather than employing entire families as a labor force, hired young women from the surrounding countryside. These “Mill Girls” were required to live in supervised boarding houses and attend church on Sundays. They also had the means to attend lectures, theater and other cultural activities with the wages they earned. Some of the women also sent money home to their families in need.
For a time, this utopian system and industrial community drew praises from many visitors. Writer John Greenleaf Whittier, described it as a “city springing up like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian Tales as it were in a single night stretching far and wide its chaos of brick masonry.” Foreign visitors praised Lowell, including Charles Dickens who sang its praises in his 1842 American Notes.
By 1850, Lowell had become the largest industrial city in the nation. There were nearly six miles of canals, powering the water wheels of 40 mills, 320,000 spindles and almost 10,000 looms in mills which employed more than 10,000 workers, giving Lowell the distinction of being called the “Venice of America.”
However, the increase of machines and mills slowly put an end to the paternalistic utopia, as work hours increased and women had to manage more machines. Dissatisfaction set in and the Mill Girls formed a new society: the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Together they began petitioning for improved working conditions, including a 10-hour workday. When their demands went unmet they began to leave the mills. They were soon replaced by the Irish immigrants, who originally came to build the canals and had initially been barred from working in the mills.
Between 1850-1890, Lowell’s workforce increased from 10,000 to 15,000 workers. However, they were already being surpassed by Fall River, MA, the new Spindle City. In order to remain competitive a new workforce had to be found. This led to a new reliance on immigrant labor. The Irish who had replaced the Mill Girls were followed by the French Canadians in the 1860s and 1870s, then by Greek, Polish and other nationalities, each forming their own communities and neighborhoods.
As the need for water-powered machines declined, mills in Lowell, like many textile mills throughout New England, began to move South, closer to the source of cotton. Though there was a small resurgence in manufacturing during World War II, Lowell’s manufacturing days came to an end by the 1960s. In the 1970s, the city went into decline.
Many of the boarding houses and immigrant neighborhoods were soon lost to the urban renewal of the 1960s, also called “urban removal.” However, the ethnic diversity of Lowell continued to grow.
With the development of technology, Wang Industries, Raytheon, and IBM became the new places of employment. Lowell Technological Institute and the Lowell Teaching College combined to form Lowell University, now named the University of Massachusetts Lowell or UMass Lowell.
By the late 1970s, with the help of the late Senator Tsongas and local citizens, a new Lowell began to take shape with the creation of Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. This was soon followed by the development of a professional theater, Merrimack Repertory Theater, art galleries, and tourism.
Today, Lowell is a thriving University community with arts and cultural events at its forefront: live theater, summer concerts, and the longest-running and largest free folk festival, Lowell Folk Festival. Lowell celebrates and preserves its past with riverfront walkways and pavilions as well as a swimming beach on the Merrimack River. Restaurants and al fresco dining permeate the downtown. Trolleys and boats take visitors along the six miles of canals and through downtown streets to view Lowell’s history with the help of National Park Rangers.
Street names like Appleton, Jackson and Boott dot the landscape of downtown. The artist community thrives. Once home to James McNeill Whistler, the Whistler House Museum of Art welcomes visitors along with the National Streetcar Museum. Theater still thrives at Merrimack Repertory Theatre and the nearby Lowell Memorial Auditorium features national concert and theater performances along with Lowell’s Golden Gloves and other special events.
After the Civil War, French Canadians facing economic difficulties in Quebec flocked to the mills of Lowell. Their numbers increased steadily over the decades, from about 2,000 in 1870 to more than 14,000 by 1905, when they were the largest foreign-born population in the city. By the eve of World War I, French Canadians made up about 20 percent of Lowell’s population, settling in a closely-packed neighborhood of wooden tenements, known as Little Canada.
Recruited to work in the mills by mill agents like Samuel P. Marin, they were blamed by native-born workers for lowering workplace standards. Looked down upon by the local Irish Catholic community, they founded their own Franco-American Parish, St. Joseph’s Church in 1868. So beloved was its priest, Father Andre-Marie Garin, that upon his death the community raised $8,000 to erect a memorial at St. Jean Baptiste Church.
In 1904, another parish, St. Louis De France, was formed for residents in the Centerville section of Little Canada. It also included a grammar school. By 1931, the continued growth of the French-Canadian community led to the formation of an additional two parishes with accompanying schools.
The reach of the Catholic church also included the creation of a Franco-American orphanage which opened in 1908 and was administered by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec. In 1963, it became the Franco-American School.
In addition to preserving their Catholic faith, the French-Canadian community was devoted to maintaining their cultural identity through a variety of civic and financial organizations.
In 1868, Lowell was home to two Franco-American societies: The Canadian French Institute of Lowell, a cultural and educational organization, and the Saint Jean Baptiste Benevolent Society, which distributed funds to the sick and widowed. Jeanne D ’Arc Credit Union opened in the early 20th century to handle the financial welfare of the Franco-Americans in Lowell and is still a vital institution in the community today.
Additionally, a budding literary scene emerged within the city. Over the course of 125 years, twenty-two Franco-American newspapers have been published in Lowell. Stars of this scene include, internationally celebrated journalist and literary critic, Yvonne LeMaitre, who contributed to Lowell’s English and French press, as well as the New Yorker and the Smart Set. Perhaps the best known member is author Jack Kerouac (Jean-Louis), best known for writing On The Road, a work of spontaneous prose which came to represent the Beat Generation. Kerouac grew up immersed in the city’s ethnic working-class and wrote five books largely set in Lowell, notably The Town and the City.
The city’s Franco musical tradition also thrived, with Calixa Lavallee, the composer of the Canadian national anthem, residing and marrying in the city in 1867. At the turn of the century, Lowell was home to the Champagne brothers’ musical publishing house, The Orion Music Company, which produced recordings of French-Canadian songs.
In 1970, urban renewal claimed most of Lowell’s Little Canada. This, combined with the closure of the Franco-American school in 2016, has meant that maintaining this culture in Lowell now falls to new civic organizations and cultural events.
The Franco-American Day Committee is responsible for Lowell’s annual Franco-American Festival Week, which is held in late June to coincide with St. Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec’s national holiday. Festival events include a French-language Mass, a traditional ham and bean supper, and live Quebecois music.
The Franco culture is also celebrated by Kerouac Memorial Park and the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac celebration, as well as Lowell National Park’s Mill Girl & Immigrant Exhibit at the Patrick Mogan Cultural Center.
Le Comite Franco Americain de Lowell: https://francolowellma.wordpress.com/
Lowell Historical Society: http://www.lowellhistoricalsociety.org/related_links.htm
Official Lowell National Park Handbook: http://www.nps.gov/lowe
La Survivance: Franco-American Culture in the Merrimack Valley from Merrimack Valley Magazine 2016
Lowell’s Franco Attractions and Sites
Discover the city’s Franco Heritage sites, along with additional attractions, including geocaching at historical sites, restaurants, accommodations, entertainment, and points of interest, by exploring the city map below.
St. Joseph the Worker Shrine
The aim of St. Joseph the Worker Shrine is to provide a place of prayer, conscious reflection, and social action that is hospitable to and calls forth the gifts of all who come to the Shrine. On April 18, 1868, Father André Garin O.M.I. arrived in Lowell to preach a mission at St. Patrick’s Church to the hundreds of French-speaking mill workers, who had migrated from Canada. His preaching was so popular that the congregation grew beyond their first church, which was later blessed as a shrine in honor of St. Joseph the Worker in 1956.
37 Lee St, Lowell, MA 01852
St. Jean Baptiste
St. Jean Baptiste is an imposing stone cathedral built in the Byzantine Romanesque Revival style between 1889 and 1896, designed by Patrick W. Ford. Father André Garin O.M.I. was instrumental in getting the cathedral built in the neighborhood known as Little Canada. There is a statue of Father Garin, sculpted by Louis-Philippe Hebert in 1896, in front of the building. The cathedral is currently in the process of becoming a commercial venue.
741 Merrimack St, Lowell, MA 01854
The Franco American School
In 1908, the French-Canadian Catholic community created a Franco-American orphanage, which was administered by the Sisters of Charity of Quebec. In 1963, it became the Franco-American School. Though the building still stands, the Franco-American School, which educated generations of children, closed in 2016.
357 Pawtucket St, Lowell, MA 01854
Union Saint Joseph
The Union Saint Joseph was founded in 1870 as a benevolent institution to help educate, assist, and enrich the lives of Lowell’s French Canadians. By 1888, they constructed their own building on Dutton Street, where many smaller French-Canadian societies met and organized. The Union was the most influential French organization until the turn of the century.
265 Dutton St, Lowell, MA 01852
Jack Kerouac Park
Jack Kerouac is a French-Canadian, Lowell-native writer best known for “On The Road.” The Jack Kerouac Commemorative is located in Kerouac Park (7) on Bridge Street. Dedicated in 1988, the commemorative contains excerpts from Kerouac’s writings. The path, with its cross and series of circles, refers to Kerouac’s Roman Catholic and Buddhist beliefs and evokes his lifelong spiritual quest.
75 Bridge St, Lowell, MA 01852
Places Serving Poutine
Poutine is a French-Canadian classic that is served across Canada. It’s a hearty dish of French fries, fresh cheese curds, and brown gravy.
361 Bridge St, Lowell, MA 01850
Food truck based out of Rochester, NH which is sometimes in Lowell
A-Brews Tap & Grill
1794 Bridge St, Dracut, MA 01826
Scola’s Italian Restaurant
101 Broadway Road, Dracut, MA 01826
Franco Historical Sites
Sites of Interest