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My District: Is Home to the Lowell National Historical Park

The Massachusetts mill town has embraced its roots as the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution.

By Eric Peterson  |  June 26, 2024
Edward Kennedy Massachusetts
Vanna Howard Massachusetts

Lowell, Mass.—aka Spindle City—was on the front lines of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. The Merrimack River powered dozens of hulking textile mills in the heart of the city, producing ream after ream of fabric.

Lowell’s textile industry began to decline after the Civil War, as mill owners resisted modernization and eventually moved most operations to the Southeast. Many of Lowell’s mills were vacant by the Great Depression, and some were demolished. After World War II spurred a brief boom, the city’s mill era came to an end, leaving several of the massive structures as reminders of better times.

Local leaders dreamed up an idea to recast the old mills as stars in a new historical site, leading to the establishment of the Lowell State Heritage Park in 1974 and the Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. The move quickly proved savvy, preserving the city’s historic core and catalyzing tourism.

NCSL caught up with Lowell’s representatives in the Massachusetts General Court, Sen. Edward Kennedy Jr. (D-1st Middlesex District) and Rep. Vanna Howard (D-17th Middlesex District), to discuss the park and its modern significance.

What does the Lowell National Historical Park mean to your district?

Kennedy: It’s very, very important to the central business district in Lowell, and it puts Lowell on the map in terms of tourism. It’s just an important economic generator for the city.

I was first elected to the Lowell City Council when I was 26, and when I was elected, one of the first things I did was to go to Washington, D.C., with a delegation from Lowell to testify in favor of Lowell National Historical Park.

When we first got the park in 1978, the initial investment by the federal government was $40 million, and that was a lot of money in the ’70s. So, it was a big deal. The city had a parade and everything else, but you know, Lowell’s central business district gets a lot from the tourism that’s generated by the park.

Howard: The national park is vital in making sure that Lowell, not just downtown, is preserved and protected for everyone to enjoy and to understand the history of the Industrial Revolution that took place here in the city.

When people think about a national park, they think about trails and hikes and all that stuff. Many people would come to Lowell for the first time, and they didn’t realize that they’re standing in a national park. There’s residential, there’s commercial in these converted mill buildings. I live in a converted mill building, and the one that I live in is right downtown. It was converted in the mid-’80s.

children watching milling exhibition lowell national historical park, lowell, massachusettsWhat stands out to you about it?

Kennedy: Some of the tours and the interpretation that the park rangers provide during those tours makes people realize just how important Lowell was for the Industrial Revolution. Lowell claims to be “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.”

Lowell is situated along the Merrimack River, and there are other mill cities similar to Lowell that also have mill space along the river. Lowell, in addition to the mill space, has a pretty complex canal system, and I think that sets it aside from the other communities like Lawrence and Haverhill in Massachusetts, and Nashua and Manchester in New Hampshire.

What some communities did back in the 1970s with development in their efforts to rejuvenate the cities, they went modern. Lowell went back to its roots and the origination of the city. And I think that’s what has set Lowell apart. Lowell appreciated the history and the richness of the history, and that’s what the Lowell National Historical Park showcases.

Howard: This exhibit that started last year took years and years—“One City, Many Cultures” has exhibits of all these various cultures from the past and the present that reside here in the city of Lowell. More than 100 community members contributed to this important exhibit. It’s an immigrant city where everyone from everywhere is welcome, just like the people that came before us. A total of 72 languages are spoken at our high school.

Exhibits at the Morgan Cultural Center tell the story of the “mill girls” who came from Ireland to work in the mill, and from there, they also led the labor movement for fair wages and the rights of women.

Why is the park important? What can we learn from it today?

Kennedy: We’ve had it for quite some time, but going forward, Lowell should always remember how important the park is to the downtown. Before Lowell had the park, the downtown area was in dire straits, as were many of the mill cities in New England, because of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. The interstates were built, then all of a sudden, most of the commercial development moved out of the city to malls, and it was devastating to communities like Lowell.

Howard: The park is just like my refugee story. I was born in Cambodia, and we settled here as refugees. It’s really to provide opportunities for everyone that comes to Lowell, just like for me. The Irish, the Greeks, the French Canadians, Cambodians, and now the many newly arrived.

The park is really there, not just to protect and preserve these historic buildings, but to share stories, to be part of the story, sharing of the past, the present and the future.

Today, we learn from our past, and each building has a story. Going forward, you can’t forget where you come from. The national park plays a major role in preserving the stories and the cultures of immigrants and refugees.

What else is great about your district? What makes the area special?

Kennedy: One of the most interesting parts of my district is that it’s not homogeneous. In other words, it’s not all urban. I’ve got urban parts of my districts. I’ve got suburban parts of my district and even rural parts of my district. I’ve got quite a few farms in some of the communities in my district. It makes the district, I think, very interesting and it provides us with a wide range of interests.

Howard: Lowell is the fifth-largest city in Massachusetts, but it’s more like a small town. Going back 20-plus years, downtown went through revitalization to turn it into a place not just to come to work and to shop, but to live, to work, to raise your family and to play as well.

The Lowell Folk Festival is the second-largest free folk festival in the country. The park plays a major role in that. And I do cleanup with the national park. Every year, four times a year, we preserve and protect and clean our canal, and I’m part of the cleanup crew.

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelancer.

“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to talk about life in the places they represent, from high-profile events and destinations to the fun facts only the locals know. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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