In the Merrimack Valley: John Greenleaf Whittier in Lowell

Today December 17 is the birthday of American poet and editor John Greenleaf Whittier – born in Haverhill in 1807. He was also an ardent advocate for the abolition of slavery in the United States. hittier worked in Lowell as an editor for the Middlesex Standard  in the mid-1840s. During this time he became a friend of poet Lucy Larcom. Here is an excerpt from his Lowell work wherein he describes Lowell the city on the Merrimack River in the Merrimack Valley –  a place he knew so well. His description of the Irish immigrant-Lowell-dwellers is stark.



This, then, is Lowell,–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 and painted shingles, filling the angle of the confluence of the Concord and the Merrimac with the sights and sounds of trade and industry. Marvellously here have art and labor wrought their modern miracles. I can scarcely realize the fact that a few years ago these rivers, now tamed and subdued to the purposes of man and charmed into slavish subjection to the wizard of mechanism, rolled unchecked towards the ocean the waters of the Winnipesaukee and the rock-rimmed springs of the White Mountains, and rippled down their falls in the wild freedom of Nature. A stranger, in view of all this wonderful change, feels himself, as it were, thrust forward into a new century; he seems treading on the outer circle of the millennium of steam engines and cotton mills. Work is here the patron saint. Everything bears his image and superscription. Here is no place for that respectable class of citizens called gentlemen, and their much vilified brethren, familiarly known as loafers. Over the gateways of this new world Manchester glares the inscription,
“Work, or die”…

There is one beautiful grove in Lowell,–that on Chapel Hill,–where a cluster
of fine old oaks lift their sturdy stems and green branches, in close proximity
to the crowded city, blending the cool rustle of their leaves with the din of
machinery…  Long may these oaks remain to remind us that, if there be utility in the new, there was beauty in the old, leafy Puseyites of Nature, calling us back to the past, but, like their Oxford brethren, calling in vain; for neither in polemics nor in art can we go backward in an age whose motto is ever “Onward.” 

 The population of Lowell is constituted mainly of New Englanders; but there are representatives here of almost every part of the civilized world

But of all classes of foreigners the Irish are by far the most numerous. Light-hearted, wrongheaded, impulsive, uncalculating, with an Oriental love of  hyperbole, and too often a common dislike of cold water and of that gem which the fable tells us rests at the bottom of the well, the Celtic elements of their character do not readily accommodate themselves to those of the hard, cool, self-relying Anglo-Saxon. I am free to confess to a very thorough dislike of their religious intolerance and bigotry, but am content to wait for the change that time and the attrition of new circumstances and ideas must necessarily make in this respect. Meanwhile I would strive to reverence man as man, irrespective of his birthplace. A stranger in a strange land is always to me an object of sympathy and interest. Amidst all his apparent gayety of heart and national drollery and wit, the poor Irish emigrant has sad thoughts of the “ould mother of him,” sitting lonely in her solitary cabin by the bog-side; recollections of a father’s blessing and a sister’s farewell are haunting him; a grave mound in a distant churchyard far beyond the “wide wathers” has an eternal greenness in his memory; for there, perhaps, lies a “darlint child” or a “swate crather” who once loved him. The new world is forgotten for the moment; blue Killarney and the Liffey sparkle before him, and Glendalough stretches beneath him its dark, still mirror; he sees the same evening sunshine rest upon and hallow alike with Nature’s blessing the ruins of the Seven Churches of Ireland’s apostolic age, the broken mound of the Druids, and the round towers of the Phoenician su-worshippers; pleasant and mournful recollections of his home waken within him; and the rough and seemingly careless and light-hearted laborer melts into tears. It is no light thing to abandon one’s own country and household gods. Touching and beautiful was the injunction of the prophet of the Hebrews:  “Ye shall not oppress the stranger; for ye know the heart of the stranger, seeing that ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

Taken from an exerpt on the UML/Center for Lowell History website here:

3 Responses to In the Merrimack Valley: John Greenleaf Whittier in Lowell

  1. KMurphy says:

    “There is one beautiful grove in Lowell,–that on Chapel Hill,–where a cluster
    of fine old oaks lift their sturdy stems and green branches, in close proximity
    to the crowded city, blending the cool rustle of their leaves with the din of

    Does anyone know where “Chapel Hill” is? “in close proximity to the crowded city” does anyone know if maybe it is Lucy Larcom Park…over by the highschool?

    Thank you for posting this…..Kkeefe-murphy

  2. Marie says:

    KM – I’m not sure what site Whittier had in mind but I think that the area up off Gorham Street near the Superior Court House is called Chapel Hill by some.

  3. Paul Marion says:

    Yes, Chapel Hill is part of what is now known as the Back Central neighborhood. In the 1980s the City planning office, I believe, published a booklet, a guide to the architecture in the Chapel Hill section. I looked and cannot find it on the web as a digital document, but I’m pretty sure there is a hard copy at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History or in the National Park research library in Lowell.