Dickens in Lowell National Park

At about 6 pm on Friday, March 30, Chancellor Martin T. Meehan of UMass Lowell spoke to an audience of more than 100 people in the Moody Street Feeder multi-purpose room on the fourth floor of the Boott Cotton Mills Museum. Behind him, through tall east-facing windows of Boott Mill #6, segmented like rectangular-blocked graph paper, behind him the late-day light of early spring gave the rose-red bricks of the Massachusetts Mills a familiar warm glow—and all we could see from that fourth floor height, from a certain angle, was the uppermost sections of the mill and the old Napping building, an industrial ridgeline under the pale blue sky.

Someone listening to the Chancellor talk about the extraordinary partnership between Lowell National Park and the University and how projects such as the new “Dickens in Lowell” museum exhibition enrich the community, this exhibit whose opening we were there to celebrate, someone listening and looking out the windows could imagine the surprise of Charles Dickens when he arrived in Lowell in February 1842 and noted the “fresh buildings of bright red brick and painted wood,” a scene matched by what we were seeing outside the windows in the historic mill district of downtown Lowell, in the middle of Lowell National Park. Dickens visited factories, mills, that produced cotton cloth, carpets, and woolen fabric. He saw the city when it was still new, about 20 years old, the span of time from 1992 to now.

The rose-red structures yesterday, thanks to careful preservation and useful renovation, hardly looked older than those that Dickens saw 170 years ago. The view-shed began above street level, so there were no utility poles, street signs, or moving vehicles to distract from the vista. There may have been a wire or two that I filtered out. It was a view out of time, or timeless, a fitting backdrop for the commentary we were hearing about Dickens and the nineteenth century, about crossing the Atlantic in a small ship in a winter storm, and the boarding house outfitted with a piano. When Florian Schweizer, director of the Dickens Museum in London, spoke to the crowd, his English accent only added to the retro quality of the moment. We could imagine Dickens himself speaking with the Lowell movers and shakers who escorted him around for the half day whose experiences made for the lasting account in the author’s travel book “American Notes for General Circulation.”

Merrimack Prints web image courtesy of Lowell Historical Society