WPA Tour of Lowell from 1937

The Federal Writers’ Project was a New Deal program that provided jobs to unemployed writers during the Great Depression. The writers produced hundreds of publications including guides to states and cities and a variety of history projects. The best-known product of this effort was the American Guide Series which featured an individual guide book for each state and territory.

The Massachusetts volume was published in 1937. In a letter published at the beginning of the book, Governor Charles F. Hurly wrote:

More than the conventional guidebook, this volume attempts to present the history and heritage of Massachusetts as well as its numerous points of interest and the contemporary scene. Though designed to portray Massachusetts to visitors, it is also intended, as it were, to present Massachusetts to Massachusetts.

The WPA Massachusetts guide had a section about Lowell which included a tour of 18 attractions in the city. Here is the tour which is 11.7 miles long and intended to be undertaken in an automobile. I have added contemporary photographs to the original 1937 text and directions:

TOUR 11.7 miles

South from Appleton St. on Thorndike St.

  1. South Common is a 22-acre recreational center.

Left from Thorndike St. into Central St.; Right from Central St. into Wamesit St.; Left from Wamesit St. into Rogers St., crossing the Concord River, tributary to the Merrimack.

  1. Rogers Hall, 196 Rogers St., facing a hilly park, is a preparatory school and junior college for girls.

Right from Rogers St. into Park Ave. and straight up the hill.

3. Fort Hill Park, beautifully planted in open vistas framed by birches, maples, beeches, poplars, oaks, pines, spruces, cedars, and tamaracks, has from its crest a magnificent view.

Down the hill into Park Ave. East as a direct return is prohibited; Left from Park Ave. East; at cemetery into unmarked Knapp Ave.; Left from Knapp Ave. on Rogers St., bearing Right from Rogers St. into Nesmith St.; Left from Nesmith St. into East Merrimack St.

  1. The Immaculate Conception Church (Catholic), corner of Fayette St., is a Gothic edifice of the gray granite which abounds in this region. The truncated tower of the church, its delicate spires, and its great rosette window on the side are reminiscent of the cathedrals of France.

  1. St. Anne’s Church (Episcopal), corner of Kirk St., is the gem of the city’s smaller churches. This is a plain Norman house of worship with a square tower, constructed almost entirely of small, irregular field-stone blocks, smooth-faced and almost slate in color. The low wing of the church vestry and the rectory at its farther end break the monotony of the line.

  1. Lucy Larcom Park, adjacent to St. Anne’s, is a long, narrow strip of greensward extending along the Pawtucket Canal, which here swirls suddenly up from gatelocks after flowing for some distance beneath the city. This parkway was named in honor of Lucy Larcom, a 19th-century New England poet who wrote ‘Hannah Binding Shoes’ and the prose ‘New England Girlhood,’ which tells of her early days as a mill hand at Lowell. At the Merrimack St. end of the park is a section of the Railroad Track laid in 1835 for the Boston and Lowell Railroad, the first steam railroad in New England.

Left from Merrimack St. into Cardinal O’Connell Parkway.


  1. The Cardinal O’Connell Bust surmounts a granite bird bath in the middle of the Green, commemorating the fondness of St. Francis of Assisi for the winged creatures of God. The bust is an excellent likeness of the Cardinal, a native of Lowell.

Left from the Parkway into Market St.; Right from Market St. into Worthen St.

  1. The Birthplace of Whistler (open weekdays 10-5 except Mon.; Sun. 12-5) 243 Worthen St., is a shrine for artists who often know nothing of Lowell except that it is the birthplace of James Abbott McNeil! Whistler (1834-1903), America’s most renowned painter, dandy, and wit, son of an Army engineer. The house, built in 1824, stands directly on the sidewalk in what is now a shabby but quiet byway near the Greek quarter of the city.

Right from Worthen St. into Broadway; Right from Broadway into Lewis St.

  1. The Greek Orthodox Church, corner of Jefferson St., established in 1907, was the first of its denomination in America. It is a Byzantine structure in yellow brick, with a squat central red dome surmounted by a gilded Greek cross and fronted by two still lower domed towers. This section is LittleGreece, a center of humble, nondescript frame dwellings and small variety shops bearing signs in modern Greek.

Left from Lewis St. into Jefferson St., crossing the canal.

  1. St. Patrick’s Church, on Suffolk St. facing Jefferson St., is an impressive Gothic gray-stone church, distinguished by its very tall tower with tapering spire.

Left from Jefferson St. into Suffolk St.; Right from Suffolk St. into Cross St.

  1. North Common is a recreational center, serving the Acre, a section tenanted by Irish, French, and Greeks.

Retrace Cross St.; Left from Cross St. into Suffolk St.; Left from Suffolk St. into Merrimack St.

  1. The Statue of Father Garin, on the small side lawn of St. James’s Catholic Church, was erected by the French-Canadians to their parish priest of this name. A fine bronze statue of heroic size, by Philippe Heber, it presents a tall, bareheaded, commanding figure, with strong but sensitive scholarly face.

Right from Merrimack St. into Pawtucket St.; Left from Pawtucket St. into Moody St.

  1. The Lowell Textile Institute (co-educational), corner of Colonial Ave., established in 1897, is probably the largest school of its kind in the world and the only one offering instruction in textile processes. Among technical schools of every nature, it ranks at the top. Of especial interest is an exhibit (open) 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.

Left from Moody St. into Riverside St.; straight ahead on Varnum Ave., the continuation of Riverside St.

  1. Wannalancit Park, a grassy embankment shaded by trees, traversed by footpaths and dotted with benches, extends for several miles along the river.

Retrace Varnum Ave.; Right from Varnum Ave. into Mammoth Rd., crossing the bridge; Right from Mammoth Rd. into Pawtucket St.

  1. The Spalding House (private), 275 Pawtucket St., originally a tavern, erected in 1760, presents a carefully restored exterior of two-and-a-half stories with hip roof, its twin chimneys, later than the single central type, its yellow clapboards with white trim, and its 8-paned windows. The narrow black blinds are a variation from type. The curved iron hand rail with brass knob, at the front steps, and the green-paneled front door are restorations.

Left from Pawtucket St. into Wannalancit St.; Right from Wannalancit St. into Clare St.; Right from Clare St. into Broadway.

  1. The Francis Floodgate consists of a guard lock of massive timber 27 feet wide, 25 feet deep, and 2 feet thick, built in 1848 and at the time known as ‘Francis’ Folly.’ Major Francis, its builder, at that time chief engineer of the Locks and Canal Co., was the target of sharp criticism and caustic derision to the day of his death. But 88 years after its construction the gate was dropped and reinforced by sandbags, just in time to save Lowell from the havoc wrought by the river in cities to the north.

Left from Broadway into Wilder St.

  1. The Lowell State Teachers’ College (1894), 850 Broadway, is constructed of the yellow brick which Lowell favors whenever tempted from its allegiance to gray granite. It is notable for its beautiful location in a broad-landscaped campus on a spacious hilltop.

Left from Wilder St. into Liberty St.

  1. The Lincoln Memorial, in Lincoln Square, is a medallion head of the Emancipator by Bela Pratt, given to the city by its school-children.

Here’s what the WPA Guide says about Lowell in the 1930s:

LOWELL. Company Founders and City Fathers

City: population 100,114, settled in 1653, incorporated as a town in 1826, as a city in 1836.

Railroad Station: Northern Depot, Middlesex St., for B. & M. R.R. and N.Y., N.H. & H. R.R.

Bus Stations: Railroad Station and Lowell Bus Terminal, 44 Bridge St., for B. & M. Transportation Co., Vermont Transit Co., Frontier Coach Lines, Champlain Coach Lines, and Blue Way Line; 70 Central St. for Grey Line.

Accommodations: Four hotels.

Information: Lowell Chamber of Commerce, Merrimack St.

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 hills beyond are a city’s homes from mansion to tenement.

The early history of this region is identified with the town of Chelmsford, of which it was for many years a remote and insignificant part. At that time only a settlement existed here, supporting itself by the handicrafts of the home and the fisheries of Pawtucket Falls.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, the name of Francis Cabot Lowell, known as the originator of American cotton manufacturing, enters the annals of this city. In England he had studied British methods of textile operations. Returning to this country he devised and financed a practical power loom for American use. Through Ezra Worthen, the possibilities of the river Merrimack and the recently constructed Pawtucket Canal were investigated. Lowell was enthusiastic, and in February, 1822 (five years after Lowell’s untimely death), the Merrimack Manufacturing Company was formed by his associates. Overnight the company founders became the first city fathers in what would today be called a huge company town. Both men and women slept in corporation lodging houses, ate in company dining-rooms, shopped in company stores, and were buried in company lots. Employees worked from five in the morning to seven at night. Women received from two dollars and twenty-five cents to four dollars a week, men about twice that. On March i, 1826, the district was incorporated as the township of Lowell in recognition of its sponsor, and the company associates promptly took over the political reins. Outside capital poured in from the merchants of Boston and many other sources. To the cotton manufacturing of the Merrimack Company was added the Print Works in 1824. The Hamilton Company, with a capital of $600,000, and the Appleton and Lowell Manufacturing Companies were among the many that rushed in to exploit the miraculous water-power of the Merrimack. Agents of these various companies scoured Europe in search of cheap labor, painting glowing pictures of the promised land across the sea and luring thousands of immigrants into the maw of the hungry, growing city.

Canals formed an integral part of this expansion. The Middlesex Canal, built in the first years of the nineteenth century, was the first American traction canal of a type already familiar in England and on the Continent. Much of the freight and passenger traffic of the new community flowed between its banks.

Europe watched Lowell with something like amazement. Its rapid rise to industrial eminence interested and astounded economists, historians, and writers all over the world. Many of the skilled workers who first came to the factories were the Irish and English, who now occupy prominent places in the city life. After thorn came the non-English-speaking groups who settled in their own little communities, building their churches, schools, and convents and preserving the culture of their homeland. The French-Canadians, the Poles, and the Greeks today have their own clubs and newspapers. The Greeks dominate so large a section of the city that Lowell has often been called a modern American Athens.

The peak of the city’s industrial development was achieved in the period of artificial prosperity preceding 1924. After 1924 there was a general decrease, ending in the devastating debacle of 1929. Many of the mills moved south. Other industries were liquidated. The whole textile industry of the city was reduced by fifty per cent, and thousands of workers were left jobless and homeless. Lowell lost its position as the most important textile center in the world. It ceased to be the ‘Spindle City.’ Yet in place of these losses, it began slowly to make gains and to change its aspect. From a concentration on textiles it broadened its scope to include many kinds of manufactures. By 1934 it seemed to have entered the upward grind toward recovery.

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