History is woven throughout Massachusetts, and to this day remains one of the state’s top tourism selling points. From Revolutionary War battlefields to tea parties to a legendary baseball stadium, some of America’s most well-known and celebrated milestones took place in the Bay State.
But while many visitors to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts stick to the greater Boston area or Cape Cod, there is another destination about 40 minutes north that has long been an important part of the region’s very fabric – literally.
The City of Lowell has produced its fair share of historical milestones, as well as game-changing figures of import from artists, writers and actresses to politicians and athletes. But Lowell was and remains a mill town, embracing its role in American progress by way of the Industrial Revolution.
The city was a pioneer of the textile industry during the 1800s, producing and developing technology that brought about major changes in American manufacturing. Along with that innovation also came key advances in the labor, immigrant and women’s rights movements.
In the ensuing century, the health of the once thriving mills ebbed and flowed much like the canals flowing nearby. Today, much of the city’s industrial history enjoys attention of developers, residents and visitors alike. Mills are being repurposed or refurbished and historically significant sites dot the downtown.
The centerpiece is the Lowell National Historical Park, located downtown amidst the old mill buildings and canal system.
Guided tours inside and outside give an in-depth and surprisingly interesting look at how enterprising individuals harnessed nature to turn cotton into textile and drive American industry. History, engineering and the environment all come together in an intriguing narrative, complemented by exhibits, canal boat tours and a working era trolley, and hands-on activities, crafts and events for children and families.
Perhaps the most memorable stop, other than the bright yellow trolley ride along the canals, is the working mill floor inside the park’s Boott Cotton Mills museum. Looms clack and clang all around visitors, with gears and machinery spinning from floor to ceiling. Check out the old timecard punch machine and then imagine the workers slipping and dodging in between the looms. The noise captures the attention as much as the final product. The restored machinery is in working order and produces thread, which can be shown to you by one of the staff dressed in era-garb. In fact, the gift shop sells towels made by the onsite restored looms.
Outside, the park weaves itself through the downtown, with canal walks and pathways marked by signage describing significant historical information. A walk along the canals, or behind the museum along the Merrimack River, provides a modern look at just how interwoven mill life was with nature and the rest of the city. Trolley tracks cross main streets and machinery and water control stations still stand as landmarks.
A Lowell day trip is easy during any stay in the Commonwealth, and the city has lodging, food and entertainment options, many of which continue the mill city theme.
Take the city’s minor league baseball team, the aptly named Lowell Spinners. This Boston Red Sox affiliate is a good, affordable take, especially for families, with almost nightly game promotions and activities at the riverside stadium, Lelacheur Park.
Going hand-in-hand with the immigrant workers who have helped fuel the city’s industry, Lowell enjoys a brilliant tapestry of diverse cultures and artists. Famous Lowellian, writer Jack Kerouac, has a park in his honor. The city is also home to the Whistler House Museum of Art, the birthplace of American artist James McNeill Whistler. Summer concerts echo from Boarding House Park, and the Lowell Folk Festival (July 29 – 31) is internationally known for its performers, food, activities and music.
Summer of 2016 gives vacationers plenty of added reason to visit not just Lowell National Historical Park, but any of America’s National Parks. On Aug. 25, the National Park Service turns 100 years old. From Yosemite to Yellowstone to Acadia to Lowell, the National Park Service touches every state and preserves natural and historical treasures that appeal to all interests and ages. The NPS’s Find Your Park initiative, running since last year, incorporates online and social media to bring stories and images of the diverse array of experiences to be had at America’s national parks.
It can be cost effective, too. Many parks are free, but for those that aren’t, from Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, all national parks will not charge admission in recognition of the centennial. Or, if you have a fourth-grade child, admission to any national park is free all year thanks to the Every Kid in a Park Program (more info at www.nps.gov).
Lowell is a gritty town, which drives home the scrappy, industrial beginnings woven through its eclectic offerings.
This article appeared in the Wicked Local weekly papers Wherever It Takes column for July, 2016 - and also in Destinations Travel Magazine, July, 2016 edition