As an inner-city teen, I found refuge in the Lowell National Historical Park. While many of my peers were getting drunk, pregnant, or dropping out of school, I was weeding the slag heap at the Saugus Iron Works National Historical Site, squeezing into a War of 1812 uniform for parades, getting First Aid certified, and writing articles for our Junior Ranger newsletter, Mill Yard Echoes. From eighth grade through my senior year of high school, my experiences as Junior Ranger played a significant role in my life – providing me with opportunities and experiences not typically available to an urban teen, and instilling in me the values of hard work, perseverance, and a strong sense of self-worth.
Every year our advisor, Park Ranger Sandy Shephard, would take us to the Cape Cod National Seashore for a weekend of volunteer work, learning, and sightseeing. We stayed in a creaky old lighthouse, going out at night to hike the nearby trails. I remember many nights lying on the beach looking up at the sky, amazed at how many stars you could see without the haze of city lights. We even got to spend a day in Provincetown, poking through the little shops lining the main street, eating fried clams and french fries, and walking out on the pier.
I am grateful for everything the Junior Ranger program at the Lowell National Historical Park provided me during my teenage years. In honor of National Parks Week, I want to share more about the park for those who have never been!
The History of the Lowell National Historical Park
For a city that is known as the seedy setting for films like The Fighter and High on Crack Street, it often comes as somewhat of a surprise when people find out that Lowell, MA has a National Park.
Founded in 1836, Lowell was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. With the Merrimack River and Pawtucket Falls as natural resources of untapped power, businessman Francis Cabot Lowell foresaw the potential of the area. After visiting textile mills in Great Britain, and studying the mechanical aspects of the machinery, Lowell returned to the states and with business partners built his first mill in Waltham, MA. Sadly, Lowell died in 1817, just a few years before his visions were realized. Picking up where Lowell had left off, his business partners created a series of mills and canals in Lowell.
Business quickly boomed, and for the next century, Lowell was a prosperous mill town home to wave after wave of immigrants who provided the labor to run the industry. Unfortunately, by the turn of the century the people of Lowell fell on hard times as industry moved south. By War World II, the Depression had taken its toll on the city and its people. Though there was a brief respite during WWII as the mills produced munitions for the troops, this was short lived, and the city soon sank back into a long decline. The mills were bulldozed or boarded up and abandoned .
In the 1970’s, as economic hard times continue to press upon the former mill city, residents who hadn’t fled in hope of better luck elsewhere were ready for change. It was then that Superintendent of the Lowell Public Schools, Patrick J. Mogan, touted his idea of turning Lowell into an urban National Historical Park. It was a daring concept, as other National Parks were built to preserve land and nature, not an urban cityscape. With the help of Congressmen Brad Morse and Paul Cronin, Mogan’s ideas began to take flight. Congressman Paul Tsongas became a driving force behind the plan, and in 1978 President Carter established the Lowell National Historical Park.
Since then, the park has grown and helped revitalize the city. Check it out!
The Visitor’s Center
The Visitor’s Center is your first stop! Here you can purchase tickets for tours, explore exhibits, get maps and information, and view a screening of “Lowell: The Industrial Revelation,” which runs every half hour from 9am-4pm. At 4pm, you can catch “Lowell Blues,” a documentary film about Lowell native Jack Kerouac.
Views of Lowell Trolley Tour
Take a ride on one of the historic trolleys and be transported back in time! (Free)
Boott Cotton Mills Museum
Visit the Boott Cotton Mills Museum for a chance to experience the sights and sounds of a 1920’s textile mill. There are also exhibits and films that bring to life Lowell’s industrial past. (Adults, $6.00; Seniors, $4.00 (62+); Youths, 6-16 $3.00; Students (16+ with ID), $4.00; Children 5 and under, free.)
Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center
Here you can learn more about the history of Lowell, and tour The Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit, which explores the lives of the laborers who built the mill city. (Free)
River Transformed Exhibit
Visit the Wannalancit Mills to learn about and see the turbines that powered Lowell’s mills. (Open by Tour Only.)
In addition to these sites, there are many Ranger-guided tours available, including one that takes you onto the waters of Lowell’s 5.6 miles of canals. For full details of what the park has to offer, check out the Lowell National Historical Park homepage.