Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Wamesit Canal / River Meadow Brook

I've been delaying finishing this one for months, so here it goes...

During Doors Open Lowell weekend, I went with fellow Lowell Historical Society board member Gray Fitzsimons down to the Wamesit Canal / River Meadow Brook area. He has been doing research on the district, in part with Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust due to its association with the Concord River Greenway. History of industrial operations along the Concord River are here: http://lowelllandtrust.org/greenwayclassroom/history/industrialization.htm/. One of the reasons it took me so long to get this post up is I needed to take time to research the history of this area, which is as old as the rest of Lowell, although it is in some ways it is only tangentially connected to downtown's history.

I have a hard time knowing what to call this section of the city, honestly. The Wamesit canal runs from a dam on the Concord River just below Lawrence Street in South Lowell to the end of River Meadow Brook in a section of town that may be partially in either or all of South Lowell, or Sacred Heart, or the Bleachery, or The Flats, or even the beginnings of Back Central - depending on who you ask, where they grew up, and when they lived there. I would love to know what people consider what down here. All I know is the street patterns around this final stretch of River Meadow Brook (beyond where it turns away from where it is channelized along the Connector), the various waterways themselves, and the huge industrial complexes (I'd imagine other than downtown, this is Lowell's largest single concentration of red brick) divide this area into a series of subsections that seem hardly related and frequently off the beaten path.

I guess the real answer is this section of town is everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's a border, not a center. For that reason, and the historical value this part of town contains, an extension along the greenway, linking these little pockets by the waterways they owe their existences to, would be pretty cool.

Before we go any further, here is an areal screenshot, courtesy of maps.bing.com, and a map from 1924. If you're a Google Maps user and haven't checked out the 3/4 view areals that Microsoft has put up on Bing, you're really missing out. Without this, I would've never been able to re-associate the photos I took with here I took them!

Area today

Same area, 1924. Note that the canal, and the number of factories along it, used to be far more extensive.

History (Briefly)

In the 1790s, the same decade that the Pawtucket Canal was dug and 30 years before the first large textile mills went up downtown, Moses Hale bought land and water rights to River Meadow Brook. For this reason, it is alternatively known as Hale's Brook. On this stream, he built a fulling and carding mill. Depending on the source, he later built a sawmill, and/or then, where the old Prince Spaghetti plant now stands, he built a grist mill. The 1897 Illustrated History of Lowell also credits him with building the cartridge factory usually credited to its later owner, his son-in-law, Oliver Whipple. Charles Cowley places Hale's fulling mill along the brook, near Gorham Street.

Over the years, many other operations were built near here, leasing power from the Wamesit Power Company. The Lowell Bleachery, US Bunting Company, the Sterling Mills, etc. Generally speaking, these were people not connected to the Boston-based manufactories running off the canal system owned by Locks and Canals. Even today, there are generally many small, seemingly local operations running out of these buildings, as opposed to the condo developments downtown.


Well...overall, I was unhappy with the photographs I took, and I don't know as much as I would like to about the area, so I'm going to defer back to the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust website link I posted earlier. There is a great series of PDFs about these buildings, but the link can be hard to find, so I'll supply it directly here: http://lowelllandtrust.org/greenwayclassroom/history/industrialization-casestudies.htm.

My photos:

Wamesit Canal

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