Lowell in the 1930s: ‘Mill Power’ Excerpt

My book “Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park” begins with a chapter that offers the reader historical background for the late 20th-century story about to be told. I wanted to provide context for readers unfamiliar with Lowell and to set the stage for the enormous changes that would be described ahead. Following is an excerpt from chapter one, “The Intentional City.”—PM


Lowell got an unexpected image boost from the Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic-stimulus programs that between 1935 and 1943 employed about eight million people on public works projects ranging from bridge-building to community theater. The Federal Writers’ Project produced a series of state guidebooks. The 1937 Guide to 1930s Massachusetts included seven pages on Lowell. Here is the opening description:

“One hundred feet above sea level, on a plateau where the powerful Merrimack joins the sluggish Concord River, stands Lowell, one of the leading manufacturing cities of New England. Canals and grassy plots crisscross the crowded metropolitan business section. On the hill beyond are a city’s homes from mansion to tenement. . . After 1924, there was a general decrease [in prosperity], ending in the devasting debacle of 1929. . . The whole textile industry of the city was reduced by 50 percent . . . .”

The Lowell section has a street map and a tour route that starts on Appleton Street near the South Common (“22-acre recreational center”) and then taking the visitor across town and over the Concord River to the “beautifully planted” Fort Hill Park on Rogers Street with its “birches, maples, beeches, poplars, oaks, pines, spruces, cedars, and tamaracks.” The next points of interest are the Gothic-style Immaculate Conception Church on East Merrimack Street with “its great rosette window on the side reminiscent of the cathedrals of France” and St. Anne’s Church, “a plain Norman house of worship with a square tower, constructed almost entirely of small, irregular field-stone blocks . . . .” St. Anne’s stands alongside Lucy Larcom Park, named for the nineteenth-century poet from Lowell; also in the park is a memorial section of track “laid in 1835 for the Boston and Lowell Railroad, the first steam railroad in New England.” Notable attractions include the first Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox Church built in the United States. The cluster of industrial architecture that is the city’s reason for being does not warrant a mention; only “the Francis Floodgate” at the guard lock on the upper Pawtucket Canal is called out for the story about the huge gate from 1848 saving parts of the city during the flood of 1936.

Both Lowell State Teachers College (1894) and Lowell Textile Institute (1895) are on the list, with a highlight in the Textile Institute item describing a public “exhibit of the various processes undergone by cotton from the boll to the finished cloth. In connection with this exhibit are spindles and looms in full operation”—this is decades before the community-driven Lowell Museum at the Wannalancit Mills and today’s popular Weave Room in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum of the National Park Service.

One place of interest in the WPA Guide is an area near the North Common in the Acre neighborhood, close to the yellow-brick Byzantine church, which the authors call “Little Greece, a center of humble nondescript frame dwellings and small variety shops bearing signs in modern Greek.” The 1930s closed out darkly for Lowell’s Greek-American community. With a federally funded housing complex destined for the Acre neighborhood, an area just west of City Hall, Greek-Americans fought to protect their businesses and homes. With the assent of the City Council, more than 2,000 residents were evicted and 150 buildings demolished, destroying the traditional hub of the Greek community. While the new North Common Village provided badly needed public housing, the city’s culture was permanently altered.

The razing of the Greek section of the Acre prefigured the federally funded Urban Renewal project in Little Canada, the densely populated French Canadian-American area behind City Hall. In the early 1960s, the wrecking ball would smash dozens of blocks, scattering neighborhood residents, many hundreds of whom regularly spent their week’s pay in downtown stores, diners, and theaters.

—Paul Marion, 2014