Renewing the Rust-Belt

Tony Aldous looks at the redevelopment of the city of Lowell in America.

If you go north out of Boston, Massachusetts, the names of towns are familiar to English ears – Malden and Waltham, Winchester and Woburn, Wakefield, Reading and Billericay – but their geographical relationships confusing. There is not only a Suffolk-Essex border, but a Norfolk-Middlesex one! Then, just north of Chelmsford comes the city of Lowell, named not after a place in England but a Bostonian merchant with a photographic memory. It happened like this.

In the 1790s, the merchants of Newburyport – a small seaport at the mouth of the Merrimack River – built a canal to bypass the Pawtucket Falls, in a bid to bring farm produce down through their port. Alas, the Bostonians built a better canal to link the area to their city. The Pawtucket Canal attracted next to no traffic.

A few years later Francis Cabot Lowell, a leading Boston merchant, went to convalesce in England and visited cotton mills in Lancashire. Despite the mill-owners' precautions against industrial espionage, Lowell – thanks to that prodigious memory – was able on his return to 'reinvent' the power loom, and he and other 'Boston Associates' set up America's first mechanised textile mill at Waltham in 1813. When water power there proved inadequate, the 'Associates' bought out the Pawtucket Canal and were soon building the first of a dozen textile mills on a site just below the falls which be- came the city of Lowell – named after Francis Cabot.

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