History: Mill towns

DSCF4594Travelers are often obsessed with history.  Many major tourist attractions are historical sites, and we’ve noticed that people we’ve met on this trip often focus on historical minutiae.  But in planning out a truck-schooling curriculum for Greta this year, we ran into a problem:  history was Greta’s least-favorite subject.  I was taken aback – wasn’t it my responsibility, as a parent, to drag her on a tour of historical sites and monuments (everyone should see Gettysburg, dammit, even if I hadn’t)?  I asked her if there were any part of history she’d enjoyed, and she mentioned the history of the railroads.  Further discussion clarified that she was interested in seeing historical stuff, artifacts from the past that showed how things were made or economies and regions organized. She wasn’t at all interested in staring reverently at a field where a battle had taken place 150 years ago, and I realized, neither was I.  Being in a place where something happened long ago is kind of cool, but going out of your way to visit such a place didn’t make sense to either of us.  Our historical agenda derived from this insight;  we would visit historical places where there were substantial, tangible remnants of history (and preferably cool, Steampunk-looking ones with lots of gears and parts), and avoid places with people in period dress.

a carding machine in Lowell

a carding machine in Lowell

Mill towns jumped to the top  of this list.  Our friend Dan prepared an exhaustive map of every mill town in New England he could find, and we set out to find a few.  North Adams was interesting, especially as a large mill had been converted to the Mass MOCA museum.  But clearly the main goal was to be Lowell National Historical Park, which preserves the mill district  where the industrial revolution really took hold in America.  It was an early planned, industrial city – a group of Boston investors scoped out possible sites for development, and settled on Lowell because of the drop in elevation of the Merrimack River, and the opportunity to build canals and waterways off it. DSCF4611

Lowell also continued our trip theme of Cities Which Were Really Important 100 Years Ago, but Aren’t Anymore.  Except in this case it was 150 years.  At its peak Lowell had 55 major mills, and dozens of smaller ones.  Lowell took the cotton from the South and turned it  into cloth.  The original work force was New England farm girls, and a highly controlled, paternalistic system was put in place to ensure their respectability while living in the city.  Within a few decades the work force shifted to immigrants, and Lowell was the site of early labor organizing in this country.DSCF4619

The National Park Service has preserved much  of this infrastructure.  The historical area is an interesting mix of remnants of the waterways, a few preserved mill buildings, such as the Boott Mill complex, where you can walk through rooms with operating looms:DSCF4666DSCF4648

and other parts of the district, where privately owned sites sit vacant, or are available for redevelopment. DSCF4627DSCF4590

In this way, Lowell is similar to our experience at Ebey’s landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island, where 90% of the land is in private ownership, and the Park Service provides an overall organization and focus.

DSCF4582Once you get away from the renovated buildings, Lowell is pretty depressed and depressing.  Some mill buildings have been turned to other uses – such as a large medical clinic or loft housing for artists and yuppies – but let’s face it, the supply of old mill sites is much greater than any foreseeable demand for redevelopment.  It’s a story we’ve seen repeatedly on this trip, cities which peaked economically 100 years ago, and there hasn’t been much new investment.  I remember an Atlantic article a few years ago, where Bernard-Henri Levy visited Buffalo and said that this was inconceivable to a European, that one of the most important cities from 100 years ago could be allowed to decline so precipitously.  But the economy moves on, technologies and transportation systems change, and when a city has lost its primary economic raison d’être, what really can be done?  Architects tend to focus on the potential of the amazing building stock left behind, but this supply-side view ignores the lack of demand to fill those buildings up.

The next important mill town we visited was Paterson, New Jersey, located on the Falls of the Passaic River.  Although Paterson is a short trip from New York City, I had never been there before;  the average New Yorker just can’t conceive of voluntarily visiting New Jersey.  Paterson also didn’t have the best reputation – when I recently mentioned this visit to a friend, he was astonished that we drove through the center of Paterson without having our trailer stripped while waiting at a red light.  (This may be a slightly outdated view – we drove through the center of Paterson and it seemed like a depressed, but not necessarily dangerous place to me.)  DSCF5274

The Paterson mill district is even older than Lowell.  The initial group of developers included Alexander Hamilton and it was the first substantial manufacturing area in the country.  The mills centered around the Great Falls of the Passaic River, a 77-foot drop into a narrow canyon.  A very cool spot, and one that you might have seen in the Sopranos, as people sometimes get thrown off the bridge pictured here:DSCF5266

A really knowledgable historian who grew up in Paterson and now works for the NPS gave us the rundown on Paterson, which was surprisingly important – most of the early steam locomotives in the country were manufactured here, it was the center of the silk industry, an it was the site of the first Colt factory.  There are a few remaining mill buildings in the district near the Falls, as well as a museum (which we didn’t have time to visit, as we got stuck in horrific traffic jams in Paterson, and then missed a turn to the parking lot and had to circle around narrow streets with a trailer, and then ended up in front of an elementary school just as it let out).  DSCF5289DSCF5312DSCF5299Despite its gritty reputation, Paterson didn’t see as depressing as Lowell.  Perhaps we just saw a lot more street life, with a clearly vibrant immigrant population.  Perhaps it was because dreams of urban redevelopment don’t seem so unlikely when you’re within an hour of Manhattan and you have some great building stock.  We wished we had more time to investigate the city further, as the downtown has many remaining civic and cultural buildings from its era of prosperity.

1 thought on “History: Mill towns

  1. Jerry Finrow

    Remarkable brick work, I remember visiting Lowell and thinking how fabulous these buildings were and of course the architecture of the town and its relationship to the river(s) is remarkable. There is something really nice about the biuldings responding to nature in this way, something we profoundly miss in cities today. Your photos are great, love them….



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