Lowell Canal-side Hike Revisited

It’s about ten days early in the month for the timing of this post about  a 2010 canal-side hike that appeared first on this blog and was reprinted in my book Mill Power. The weather is warming, and soon enough we’ll be into the days of preseason Lowell Walks and then Lowell Walks. Re-reading this today reminded me of what’s out there on and off the streets when we get out of our cars. Also, the Lowell Waterways Vitality Initiative will show progress in the next few months and generate a lot of activity—-PM

Walk This Way: A Canal Hike, 2010 (from Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park)

The two hikers set out on a pure blue near-spring morning for a Sunday walk that would loosely trace the rough-cut of a stretch of walkway along the midsection of the Pawtucket Canal. Starting on Jackson Street near the commercial core of the city, they traversed the Hamilton Canal District, where large-scale construction would begin in six or eight months. There’s a mini-industrial canyon vista up the Hamilton Canal with two remaining suspended walkways over the water. The area was quiet at 8 a.m.—the Charter School on Jackson not in session, and upper-story residents sleeping in. Photographer Jim Higgins calls this area the “last frontier” of Lowell’s mill-scape. Once redevelopment begins, changes will be swift and dramatic. The plan calls for extensive preservation and adaptive reuse, and even the protection of some factory ruins as architectural evidence of the scale of production. These are the early mills: Hamilton Mfg. Co. (1825), Appleton Co. (1828).

The companions walked west over the Louis Lord Overpass above Thorndike Street and crossed the invisible line between the Acre and the Lower Highlands neighborhoods. The sidewalk overlooks a subterranean section of Middlesex Street. Of note is the Nobis Engineering building, a historic rehab of the former Davis & Sargent Lumber Company, which is being certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design or LEED project. The side close to the Boys and Girls Club is clad in corrugated metal that complements the cleaned-up brick-and-stone exterior of the original structure. The property backs up to what will be the Canalway path on the upper Pawtucket Canal. Birds sang loudly in the trees. Kenny’s Cleaners, a leather and suede specialist, occupies the adjacent brick building whose weathered green window bays jut out, flanking a stone archway above the door. Behind the Club is a back lot of jungle-thick twisted thickets and branches that can hide any kind of wildlife.

The walkers popped out on the side of the Club, opposite Palin Plaza with its Asian building accents and commercial cluster (Angkor Wat Realty, New Palin Jewelry, White Rose Restaurant, H & R Block, etc.). Clemente Park across the street is one of the most active parks in the city: basketball, skateboarding, volleyball, swings. Tom Clark wrote a poem about the baseball legend Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates that recalls the ballplayer’s death in a plane crash at sea (near the so-called Bermuda Triangle) while on his way to deliver disaster relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972. The Puerto Rican native was renowned for his charity. Clark’s poem, called “The Great One,” concludes: “No matter how many times/Manny Sanguillen/dove for your body/the sun kept going down/on his inability to find it//I just hope those Martians realize/they are claiming the rights to/far and away the greatest right fielder/of all time.”

The Pawtucket Canal curves broadly around Western Avenue on the other side. In the early days of the National Park, tourists in national park canal boats swinging up this way would often get waves from the workers in the Joan Fabrics plant when the windows were open. Hundreds of artists now work in studios in the vast industrial structure.

Past Clemente Park, the travelers slid down a side street, Saunders, which dead-ends at the canal—there is an old taxi barn for yellow cabs—and proceeded on Payne Street. Here, it looks like Lowell might be the auto-body-repair-shop capital of the northeast—Le’s, Vo’s, M & R, and James Trinity bunched up. At the corner is School Street Light Truck Parts with a neat, compact operation. Truck cabs and rear ends are stacked three high just like the shelves of boats at a marina. A green canopy shields a row of tires. The next building has signs for car accident repair and a chiropractor—one-stop shopping. They turned north and crossed the Korean War Veterans or School Street Bridge, passing through the National Grid complex behind the Stoklosa School. Gone from the complex are the reddish brown behemoth gas storage tanks of the Lowell Gas Company that some people used to eye warily.

The walkers wound their way back up Willie and Franklin streets, noting two remarkable small stone houses on either side of a wooden house with a roof detail that reads “1902.” They picked their way back to a new section of the Canalway along the Western Canal at Suffolk Street, all shiny railings and smooth pavement, behind the American Textile History Museum, and then crossed Dutton Street to the Swamp Locks canal complex (named for the marsh-like area in the old days) and their starting point. The mid-March ice had not given up its hold on the Merrimack Canal, where a beat-up blue rowboat was trapped against the stone wall.

—Paul Marion (c) 2014