Without its rivers, there would be no history of Lowell’s neighborhoods. There would be no Lowell. When a group of entrepreneurs and investors carved Lowell from East Chelmsford in 1826, they started with the 2,800 acres of land where the Merrimack and Concord Rivers meet.
Those first 2,800 acres became Lowell’s downtown, the Acre, Back Central, Lower Highlands, Ayer’s City, and Sacred Heart neighborhoods. Lower Belvidere came next in 1834, from Tewksbury. By the time Lowell annexed Christian Hill and the rest of the southern half of Centralville from Dracut in 1851, its population had grown to over 30,000 people.
Lowell’s last two annexations came from Tewksbury’s land. The 1888 annexations grew Lowell’s Belvidere neighborhood by more than 50%. Belvidere grew again in 1906, along with South Lowell and Wigginville. Just a few years later, in 1920, Lowell’s population grew to 112,759 people, more than 5% higher than its population in the 2010 US Census.
Why is Lowell Called Lowell?
Lowell wouldn’t be Lowell if Francis Cabot Lowell’s Boston Manufacturing Company hadn’t built its first mill along the Merrimack River at the Pawtucket Falls. It’s still strange that Lowell got the name ‘Lowell,’ though. After all, Francis Cabot Lowell actually died nearly nine years before the 1826 founding of the town that grew into the city that bears his name today.
What Makes Francis Cabot Lowell So Important?
Francis Cabot Lowell came from a world of influence. George Washington had appointed his father, John Lowell, as the first district judge for the US District Court of Massachusetts. His mother, Susanna, was a member of the Cabot family, one of Boston’s first and most prominent families.
Francis Cabot Lowell was barely 20 years old and full of ideas from his education at Harvard University when he set out to learn about shipping and to get ready for a career as a merchant in 1795. His travels took him to France–right as the Industrial Revolution was unfolding.
When he came back to the US in 1796, he returned to Boston and became a merchant on Long Wharf. His father died six years later in 1802, and Lowell used his sizable inheritance to buy eight merchant ships. He began importing tea and silk from China, textiles from India, and later expanded into rum distilling.
Lowell noted how dependent the US remained on imports to run its manufacturing industries. He felt it when the Embargo of 1807 stifled overseas trade for the United States. He knew the United States needed onshore manufacturing capabilities.
When he went to visit family in the UK in 1810, he sought out the water- and steam-powered spinning and weaving machines in Scotland and England. He couldn’t buy drawings of the machines he found there, but he memorized how they worked. When the War of 1812 broke out and Lowell returned to the United States, he was able to get his plans for US-based machines through the port of Halifax because he had memorized them.
Francis Cabot Lowell’s ability to memorize those plans helped create Lowell the city. After returning to Massachusetts, he teamed up with his wealthy, well-connected associates and set about creating the Boston Manufacturing Company. The names of his partners read like a page ripped from an atlas of today’s Lowell: Appleton, Jackson, Thorndike, Moody, Otis.
They built their first mill in Waltham in 1814 along the Charles River. Under Lowell’s guidance, they built the factory that would serve as the template for all textile mills for the rest of the 19th century. Lowell also devised the mill girl system, bringing women into Waltham from the countryside, and becoming one of the earliest exploiters of the gender wage gap in the US.
It was such a raving success and moneymaker that the Boston Manufacturing Company had plenty of capital to expand north into Lowell in the decade following Lowell’s untimely death in 1817.
When: The land that became Downtown Lowell came from Chelmsford’s original land grant to Lowell in 1826.
Where: The Merrimack River forms Downtown Lowell’s borders with Pawtucketville to the north and its border with Belvidere to the east. On the west, Downtown Lowell’s border with the Acre follows Arcand Drive and Dutton St. On the south, Downtown Lowell borders South Lowell’s Back Central neighborhood, following Appleton Street.
It’s not that Downtown Lowell didn’t exist before the city’s founding almost 200 years ago, it just wasn’t Lowell yet. Very little remains of the downtown area’s East Chelmsford origins.
In the years before the mills came, two farmers, Fletcher and Tyler, divided the downtown area between themselves, with the dividing line following today’s Merrimack Street. Bridge Street and Central/Gorham Street were there too. They were there even before the bridge across the Merrimack was even built.
By the early 1820s, the Merrimack Mills set up operations in Lowell, recruiting young, unmarried women from the countryside–just like the Boston Manufacturing Company had done in Waltham. Soon, St. Anne’s Church was built. Boardinghouses like Dutton Street’s New Block appeared on the city’s skyline. More mills were added too. Lowell Street was extended into Downtown Lowell and renamed Market Street. Lowell’s first schools opened. By the 1830’s, Middle Street was being added too. Lowell’s population hit 6,400 people.
Throughout the 19th century, Downtown Lowell continued to grow, drawing the attention of writers like Charles Dickens in 1842 and rising politicians like President Polk in 1847 and Abraham Lincoln during his 1848 visit. Local stores, like Bon Marché, Pollards, and O’Donnell & Gilbride, rose up and thrived, serving the growing city.
Downtown Lowell developed an entertainment scene, with theaters like the Savoy and the Rialto, and personalities like Uncle Dudley, a Civil War veteran turned confectioner whose clock still stands outside the site of his candy shop.
Downtown Lowell lived and died with the fortunes of its mills, and suffered greatly when the mills left for the South, starting in the 1920s. Stores closed, jobs vanished, and people left. World War II briefly injected some life into the city when the factories supported the war effort. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s and the establishment of the National Park that Lowell’s renaissance arrived and the city started moving toward prosperity again.
Today, Downtown Lowell offers a vibrant college population, artist’s communities, and a number of public and private museums showcasing the city’s history. Downtown Lowell is still known for its historic mill buildings, but now people also come for its annual summer folk festival, its dining scene, and its minor league baseball team, the Lowell Spinners.
When: The land that became the Acre came from Chelmsford’s original land grant to Lowell in 1826.
What: Lowell’s Acre neighborhood includes Little Canada and the lesser known communities of Uptown and Gageville.
Where: The Acre neighborhood spreads outward from its core at the North Common, St. Patrick Church and the Fletcher Street Market Basket. The neighborhood’s boundaries roughly follow Dutton Street along its border with Downtown Lowell and the Merrimack River along its border with Pawtucketville. The Pawtucket Canal and Broadway form its border with Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood.
The Acre proudly wears its long history. As the story goes, in 1822, thirty Irish men walked from Boston to what was then East Chelmsford. Why?There was work there building the boardinghouses, canals, and factories in the new city on the banks of the Merrimack River.
The story of those men became the story of the Acre. As each wave of new immigrants arrived in Lowell looking for the promise of work, they passed through the Acre. Each generation, each wave of immigrants brought its culture, language, and contributions to Lowell.
The Irish came first and built St. Patrick Church, on land donated from Kirk Boott of the Merrimack Mills. The Greeks soon joined the Irish and built the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
They were followed by the French Canadians, Portuguese, Poles, and Jews from Eastern Europe. Later waves of immigration to Lowell brought Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and immigrants from Southeast Asia.
Today, the Acre boasts some 200 years of history, and holds the stories of many families’ first landings in the United States and their earliest steps toward the American dream. Along the Acre’s border with Pawtucketville–where Pawtucket Street crosses Mammoth Road–prominent 19th century businessman Frederick Ayer built his stately home, which later became the Franco American Orphanage, and then the Franco American School.
As the Acre’s largest park, the North Common has long been a central part of the Acre’s culture and landscape. On the southeastern edge of the Acre, the Giant Store, which once helped form the core of Downtown Lowell’s department store heyday, now serves as an example of the city’s once-abandoned commercial buildings that have repurposed as residential properties.
When: Centralville was annexed from Dracut in two parts, first in 1851 and again in 1874.
What: Centralville includes the smaller neighborhoods of Christian Hill, Jersey, and West Centralville.
Where: Centralville is bordered by Dracut on its north and east. The Merrimack River separates the neighborhood from the rest of Lowell to its south. The only land border it shares with another Lowell neighborhood lies to its west, where the Beaver Brook marks its boundary with Pawtucketville.
Centralville started off as Central Village, a farming community that grew up between Chelmsford and Dracut–on the Dracut side of the Merrimack River. Centralville really didn’t become Centralville until the Central Bridge was built in 1826. Even today, the bridge remains a central part of the neighborhood’s identity.
For years before the first bridge was built, villagers from Dracut and Central Village could only cross the Merrimack River by ferry. Bradley’s Ferry, as it was once called, crossed the river at the location of today’s bridge.
After the bridge was built and it was easier to cross the river, Centralville came to identify more with Lowell. As Centralville residents watched Lowell’s mills grow across the river, they increasingly called for Centralville to be annexed. That happened in 1851.
The Central Bridge (now Cox Bridge) spans over 500 feet in length. At some points, it crosses depths of over 30 feet of water. The bridge cost $21,000 to build (in 1826 dollars) which was subsidized with high tolls in its early years.
The tolls continued until late into the 19th century. The original Central Bridge, built of wood, burned in one of Lowell’s biggest fires in 1882, leaving Centralville again cut off from Lowell for more than a year.
When the Central Bridge was again destroyed in 1936, by the flood, the city replaced it with steel, and a great debate raged over whose name the bridge would memorialize. City residents proposed naming the bridge for Benjamin Butler, Kirk Boott, John Jacob Rogers, and Dudley Page.
For years, Dudley Page, a Civil War veteran, local personality, and downtown merchant, nearly won the contest and even received Lowell City Council’s unanimous approval in 1937. The decision was overturned however, because Page was still alive at the time. Even after he died, the name of the bridge did not change, until it was renamed for John E. Cox in 1986, after the longtime city councilor and member of a Centralville family.
When Civil War General Benjamin Butler first came to Lowell in the 1820s, he saw Christian Hill first, or more specifically, the views that one of Lowell’s highest points offered of the growing town. Those impressive views from spots like the Christian Hill Reservoir haven’t faded with time and still attract photographers and city sightseers today. But, Christian Hill’s history goes back even earlier.
Deep in Christian Hill’s early history—in 1758—Solomon Abbott bought a 110-acre farm that spanned from today’s First Street to Tenth Street and from Bridge Street to the top of Christian Hill. Lowell residents remembered the Abbotts for generations when they named the islands at the base of Hunts Falls after the Abbott family.
Over the years, Centralville has called Christian Hill by other names, including Dracut Heights and Centralville Heights. For over a century starting in the 1830s, Christian Hill was home to the Central Village Academy (also known as the Dracut Academy), a well-known private boarding school where Benjamin Butler once taught. Dracut Academy later evolved into the Varnum School, which itself closed in the 2000s. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.
Today, Centralville’s Christian Hill offers commanding views of Lowell’s city skyline and is one of Lowell’s most residential neighborhoods. Closer to Dracut, in West Centralville, visitors can retrace the life and steps of Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation novelist who was born here in 1922.
When: Pawtucketville was annexed to Lowell from Dracut in 1874.
What: Pawtucketville includes the small neighborhood of Rosemont Terrace in its extreme east, bordering Centralville.
Where: Besides Pawtucketville’s eastern border with Centralville which follows Beaver Brook, Lowell’s largest neighborhood shares no other land borders with any other Lowell neighborhoods. To the north and west, Dracut surrounds Pawtucketville. To its south, the Merrimack River separates Pawtucketville from most of Lowell.
Pawtucketville, home to the Pawtucket Boulevard and the historic Pawtucket Congregational Church, is Lowell’s largest neighborhood. Like Centralville, Pawtucketville also started as part of Dracut, but was annexed to Lowell about 20 years later, in 1874.
Pawtucketville still has Dracut’s oldest cemetery, Claypit, behind Brunswick Lanes. However, even today, nearly 150 years after the area’s annexation to Lowell, it’s not clear whether the cemetery falls under Lowell’s or Dracut’s jurisdiction.
Dating to the 1660s, Pawtucketville is one of the first places that European explorers visited in the area. The name Pawtucket came from a Penacook word for a place of loud noise, a reference to the falls splashing against the bedrock far below.
Before the bridge was built in 1792, the only way across the river and to Dracut and New Hampshire was by ferry. That ferry today is remembered in the name of Old Ferry Road.
As transportation to and from Pawtucketville improved and the remoteness of the village decreased, Pawtucketville grew and achieved many of Lowell’s firsts, including its first schoolhouse (the Colburn Schoolhouse) in 1755 and its first church (Pawtucket Congregational in 1797).
Irish and French-Canadian families settled the area as it grew. By the turn of the 20th century, the Lowell Textile Institute (later UMass Lowell) came to Pawtucketville. Soon after, an isolation hospital was built, which later became Lowell General Hospital.
Today, Pawtucketville may be best known for its picturesque walking trails against the Pawtucket Boulevard, which started as a car racing track in the early 20th century. The neighborhood also boasts an interesting mix of college students, parks, and historic buildings like the Pawtucket Congregational Church.
When: South Lowell came to Lowell in two main annexations, in 1826 and 1906. Small amounts of land were also added to South Lowell in 1834, 1874, and 1888.
What: South Lowell includes many smaller communities such as: Sacred Heart, Wigginville, Riverside Park, The Bleachery, Concord Heights, Chapel Hill/Back Central, The Grove, The Flats, and the South End.
Where: Today’s South Lowell is bordered by Tewksbury on its south and east. To its north, the southern end of the Lowell Cemetery and the JG Pyne School properties form its border with Belvidere, extending across Calvin Street and to the Tewksbury line.
To the west, across the Concord River Bridge on Lawrence Street, South Lowell’s Sacred Heart neighborhood has the River Meadow Brook as its northern border with Back Central. Ayer’s City borders the Sacred Heart neighborhood to its south and west.
The neighborhood’s Back Central section forms South Lowell’s northernmost community, bordering Downtown Lowell to its north, Belvidere to its east, and the Highlands to its west. Both Sacred Heart and Back Central are often considered neighborhoods in their own right.
In the southeast of the city, South Lowell feels more like a collection of neighborhoods than a single neighborhood with one identity and history. As Lowell expanded through waves of annexations, South Lowell grew in spurts, from northwest to southeast. The communities that formed in their wake are as diverse as the city of Lowell itself.
South Lowell grew in three waves:
- In 1826, Lowell annexed what is now Back Central/Chapel Hill and the Sacred Heart neighborhoods.
- In 1834, 1874, and 1888, small slivers of land around the Spaghettiville bridge on Lawrence Street and the railroad bridge on Boylston Street were added to South Lowell.
- In 1906, the rest of South Lowell was added, including most of Wigginville, Riverside Park, and land that follows Woburn Street to today’s Tewksbury line.
In the 19th century, as businesses and the city grew further and further away from downtown, workers followed, settling further and further into lands that had once been farms. The Irish followed jobs further south, building St. Peter’s Church in 1841.
By a generation later, they had pushed deeper south still, into Lowell’s new Grove neighborhood, and built Sacred Heart Church and School in the 1880s, reinventing a neighborhood that had already been known for its Bleachery as early as the 1840s and even a Civil War training camp on Gorham Street in the 1860s.
When the Bleachery closed during the Great Depression and Prince Macaroni Manufacturing Company and its Prince Grotto Restaurant moved in, the neighborhood’s next identity was born. Ghosts of it still survive today in the Prince Spaghettiville signage that still hangs on the bridges leading into and out of this section of South Lowell.
Today, South Lowell is the name given to this wide variety of neighborhoods, from the tightly knit homes that grew up around Sacred Heart Church and School in the late 1800s to the Back Central neighborhood that borders downtown. Further south, South Lowell’s Wigginville and Riverside School areas still retain a feeling of Tewksbury, of which they were a part until 1906.
When: The land that became Ayer’s City was annexed from Chelmsford when Lowell was created in 1826.
What: Swede Village lies in the southern part of the Ayer’s City neighborhood off Gorham Street across from the cemeteries.
Where: Maps regularly add Ayer’s City to South Lowell or to the Highlands, but it developed as a distinct Lowell neighborhood during most of the 19th century. The Sacred Heart neighborhood lies to its east along with the Concord River, which separates Ayer’s City from South Lowell. To the west, the Lowell Connector forms its border with the Highlands. Back Central lies to the north. The Chelmsford town line forms its boundary to the south.
Ayer’s City grew up on the land between South Lowell and the Highlands with its own unique and interesting history. Before there even was an Ayer’s City, farming families from Chelmsford settled along the River Meadow Brook and grew fruits and vegetables for generations as the city of Lowell’s developed around them.
Ayer’s City emerged from its quiet obscurity when a dry goods merchant named Daniel Ayer began speculating in real estate in the late 1840s. In developing the land, Ayer set aside Tanner Street for business since it was closest to the Boston & Lowell railroad line. Several tannery businesses soon moved in and settled on Tanner and nearby Lincoln Streets, and served as the neighborhood’s main employers, in an area of Lowell that had been considered remote … and flat.
That flat land gave its name to one of Ayer’s City’s main roads, Plain Street. Over time, more trains were added and other industrial employers moved in, including a garbage incinerator, a glue factory, and a brewery that eventually became Lowell’s famous Harvard Brewery.
Today, Ayer’s City is mostly residential. Plain Street, perhaps known best as the home of Lowell’s Target location, is its main commercial street. Ayer’s City is also home to many of Lowell’s cemeteries.
When: The Lower Highlands came to Lowell from Chelmsford in 1826. The Upper Highlands and Middlesex Village were added in 1874.
What: The Highlands neighborhood includes the Upper Highlands and Lower Highlands as well as Middlesex Village and the Hale-Howard neighborhood.
Where: The Merrimack River and Broadway form the northern border of Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood. Chelmsford lies to its west and south. The Lowell Connector forms its eastern border with Ayer’s City. In the extreme northeast of the neighborhood, it shares a small border with Lowell’s Back Central neighborhood.
The Highlands forms the southwest corner of Lowell. Largely residential with many mid-century homes, the Highlands also boasts Victorian mansions. With its deep history as one of Lowell’s first residential neighborhoods, the Highlands has its monuments to its past, including the the Wilder Street Historic District and the Tyler Park Historic District, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995 and 1989, respectively.
One of the neighborhood’s most notable intersections, Cupples Square is named for Lorne E. Cupples, a WWI veteran. Another neighborhood landmark is Lincoln Square and its statue of Lincoln, which was bought with pennies donated by schoolchildren in 1909, the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Wang Towers and now Cross Point, built on land that once belonged to the city’s Poor Farm, rises above the Highlands. On Stevens Street, Lowell Catholic High School, Lowell’s last remaining Catholic high school, occupies the former site of St. Peter’s Orphanage.
Annexed to Lowell from Chelmsford in 1874, Middlesex Village owes much of its early development to the completion of the Middlesex Canal in 1803, however, a small village has existed there since the 17th century. Lowell’s oldest known home can be found on today’s Wood Street, where Jerathmell Bowers’ one-and-a-half story Cape Cod style house was built, circa 1673.
Today, Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood reflects the area’s residential beginnings and the city’s commercial growth along its main roads. Although the city’s poor farm has been gone for more than a generation, its footprint remains in the commercial properties that have emerged to the south of Chelmsford Street along the neighborhood’s border with Ayer’s City.
When: Belvidere came to Lowell from Tewsbury in four parts, in 1834, 1874, 1888, and 1906.
What: Beyond Upper Belvidere and Lower Belvidere, Lowell’s Belvidere neighborhood also includes the Oaklands, Belvidere Hill and Atherton Village communities.
Where: The Tewksbury line forms the eastern border of Belvidere. Its southern border with South Lowell follows the southern end of the Lowell Cemetery and the JG Pyne School properties and extends across Calvin Street and to the Tewksbury line. The Concord River forms Belvidere’s western boundary with Back Central and Downtown Lowell. To its north, the Merrimack River separates Belvidere from Centralville.
Belvidere, meaning “beautiful to behold” in Italian, has always been about the views. This Lowell neighborhood got its name in 1816 when it was still part of Tewksbury. Edward Livermore, a judge, bought a 150-acre farm there and renamed it Belvidere, a name that caught on and is now used for this entire neighborhood on Lowell’s eastern border.
From the hills in Belvidere, you can see the city’s two main rivers, the Merrimack and the Concord, as well as the downtown area. These days, you can also see modern additions to Lowell’s skyline like Cross Point in the Highlands.
Lowell’s wealthiest have always called Belvidere home due to its proximity to the downtown area. Many of its mansions, built by early mill owners are still some of the most valuable properties in the city.
Everywhere you look in Belvidere, you find the neighborhood’s history. The Pow-Wow Oak, or the stump marking the space where it lived for some 300 years, remains on Clark Road. Kittredge Park, named for Captain Paul Kittredge, a Belvidere resident killed during WWI in France, is also notable for the late Senator Paul Tsongas’ contributions to beautify and restore it during the late 1980s.
Across Rogers Street/Rte. 38 lies the city’s largest park, Shedd Park, donated in 1910 by Freeman Ballard Shedd, a local Civil War veteran and downtown druggist. Abutting Shedd Park, Rogers Fort Hill Park offers commanding views of the city during the winter and a leafy escape from the city during the rest of the year.
On the other side of Rogers Street, Rogers Hall, now apartments, still recalls the elite school for girls that operated at the site for 80 years before closing in 1973.
Today, Belvidere is still known for great views, stately homes, and lots of green space for recreation. Belvidere is home to Lowell Cemetery, a garden cemetery styled after Mt. Auburn in Cambridge. The Cemetery, founded in 1841, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.