Before the Hamilton Canal District

On Saturday, September 18, 2021, I co-led a walk of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District with Yovani Baez-Rose, the city’s Economic Development Director, and with Camilo Espitia, the city’s Chief Design Planner. Yovani and Camilo spoke about the ongoing activity in and future plans for the district while I spoke about what had been on the site previously. Here are the things I talked about:

Lowell Manufacturing Co with Merrimack Canal in foreground. The start of the Lowell Canal is visible underneath the people.

Lowell Manufacturing Company – Established in 1828. Made “osnaburg” cheap, coarse fabric used for clothing for slaves. Also made carpets on hand looms. In 1848, Lowell Manufacturing Company became Bigelow Carpet. Erastus Bigelow invented a new way of making carpet which made it cheaper and affordable to the growing middle class. Bigelow left Lowell in 1914, but in 1917, U.S. Cartridge Co rented the entire facility to make ammunition for World War One. During World War One, US Cartridge was the largest producer of small arms ammunition in America. In the 1970s, Paul Tsongas brought together public and private interests to build the Market Mills project, which created hundreds of units of housing, first floor retail space, the visitor center of Lowell National Historical Park

Lowell Canal – a relatively short, covered canal that left the Merrimack Canal at a right angle near Market Street and flowed parallel to Market Street until emptying into the Pawtucket Canal near the Market Street Parking Garage. The Lowell Canal powered the Lowell Manufacturing Company which is today’s Market Mills complex.

Pawtucket Canal heading east through HCID

Pawtucket Canal – opened in 1798 to create a safe route around the Pawtucket Falls for boats carrying cargo from the forests of New Hampshire to Newburyport and the Atlantic Ocean. It leaves the Merrimack River just above the Pawtucket Falls and curves through the Acre and Downtown before flowing into the Concord River alongside the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. The Pawtucket Canal worked as intended but when the Middlesex Canal opened in 1803, traffic shifted there and the Pawtucket Canal was soon out of business. (The Middlesex Canal was a 27 mile long canal and left the Merrimack River above the Pawtucket Falls opposite today’s Hadley Field in the Highlands and traveled through Middlesex County to the Charles River in Boston).

Merrimack Canal – opened in 1823. The first Lowell canal dug for power generation. It begins as Swamp Locks (alongside the Lowell Justice Center) and follows Dutton Street and Lucy Larcom Park before flowing into the Merrimack River. It powered the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, the first of the big textile mills in Lowell. The Merrimack Mills were demolished in the 1960s as part of Urban Renewal.

Hamilton Canal – Named for Alexander Hamilton, a friend of and inspiration for the founders of Lowell, the Hamilton Canal leaves the Pawtucket at Swamp Locks and flows parallel with Jackson Street before turning left shortly before Central Street and draining into the Pawtucket Canal opposite the back of the Market Street Parking Garage. The Hamilton Canal powered the Hamilton and Appleton Mills.

Western Canal – Opened in 1836, this canal also left Swamp Locks and flowed through the Acre until it reached the Merrimack River on the west side of the Tsongas Arena. It passes between St. Patrick’s Church and Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. It powered the Tremont and Suffolk Mills. The Tremont Mills were located where the Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union headquarters is located and the Suffolk Mills is now known as Wannalancit Mills. Direction of water flow reversed by the Northern Canal in 1848.

Artist Nancy Selvage at the fall 2019 dedication of Hydro

Sculpture “Hydro” – By Nancy Selvage. Initiated in 2011 and completed in 2019, is Lowell’s latest public art piece and is located in the Hamilton Canal Innovation District’s Utopian Park. The sculpture, designed by artist Nancy Selvage, “creates a playful interactive experience for children to explore the journey of water flowing and swirling through a ‘turbine’ gateway that confidently strides forward to greet and embrace the public.”

Louis Lord Overpass – Chapter 696 of the Acts of 1960, “An Act designating a certain overpass in the city of Lowell as the Louis J. Lord Memorial Overpass.” “The overpass at Middlesex street and Thorndike street in the city of Lowell shall be known and designated as the Louis J. Lord Memorial Overpass, and a suitable marker bearing said designation shall be erected and maintained thereon by the state department of public works.” October 10, 1960. Louis Lord served several terms on the Lowell City Council in the 1920s and also owned a tobacco store near the intersection with Thorndike for many years. He was known as the “Mayor of Middlesex Street” for his leadership in that part of the community and for his charitable work in the neighborhood. He had been born in Quebec and came to Lowell at age 7. He was very active in the Republican City Committee. His son, Raymond J. Lord, was mayor of Lowell in 1960-61, and served a number of terms on the Lowell City Council prior to and after that. His grandson, Raymond J. Lord Jr., served several terms on the city council in the late 1970s.

Lowell Machine Shop – The machinery for Lowell’s first mill was built in Waltham but the Merrimack Manufacturing Company soon established its own machine shop to construct machinery for use in the city’s expanding mills. Incorporated in 1845 as a separate company, the Lowell Machine Shop was soon producing cotton machinery, water turbines and even locomotives. One of the first was called Patrick in honor of Patrick Tracy Jackson.  From 1835 to the 1860s, the Lowell Machine Shop built 100 steam locomotives. Some were used by the Boston and Lowell Railroad, one of the first railroads in America. Lowell Machine Shop was torn down in 1932.

Freudenberg and Pellon – Beginning in 1960s, occupied 110 Canal Place and a building that stood on the adjacent parking lot. In the 1930s, Dr. Carl Nottebohm, a Freudenberg researcher in Weinheim, Germany, was developing new backing materials when he discovered a method of manufacturing textiles directly from fibers – creating non-woven textiles. To describe the new technology, the name Pellon® was created. ‘PEL‘ was taken from ‘pelos’, the Spanish word for hair since interfacing was primarily made from hair canvas. ‘LON’ comes from nylon, the first synthetic fiber and a key component in the new fabrics. In 1950, Pellon® interfacings were introduced in the United States. The new materials were resilient, lightweight and lint free and they forever changed the textile and apparel industry. Soon after its introduction, the name Pellon® was synonymous with non-woven fabrics.

I also covered two recent structures: 

Lowell Justice Center – $146mil. Designed by Finegold Alexander Architects. Energy efficient design rated Leed Platinum (first courthouse in Mass to receive this). Seven stories housing Superior, District, Probate, Juvenile and Housing Court plus Registry of Deeds, DA’s office, and Court Service Center. 17 courtrooms. Two-story entrance lobby. Etched glass artwork at entrance by Martin Donlin (UK artist). Interior wall tile resembles bolts of cloth. Extensive use of natural lighting.

McNerney Square – David McNerney (1931-2010). Born in Lowell. Moved to Texas for high school. Started in the navy but switched to the army. While serving as the First Sergeant of an infantry company in the Fourth Infantry Division, McNerney’s outfit was ambushed by a much larger enemy force in the Battle of Polei Doc in the Valley of Tears on March 22, 1967. With all the officers either killed or severely wounded, McNerney took command of the company and though wounded himself, personally engaged enemy soldiers and coordinated the defense of the rest of the company until reinforcements arrived. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. McNerney retired from the Army in 1969 and worked for US Customs at the port of Houston until his retirement in 1995.

One Response to Before the Hamilton Canal District

  1. David Daniel says:

    Thanks for this fascinating weave of historical strands. I hope that tour is offered again sometime; I’d love to take it using this post as a guidebook.

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