LOWELL -- When people think of Lowell's history, they think of the mills and the textiles they produced during the Industrial Revolution.
Canals might not always come to mind, but Lowell historians know just how important they were in harnessing the waters of the Merrimack and Concord rivers to power those mills.
So when you're coming to visit the Boott Mills Cotton Museum -- or perhaps seeking a different look at Lowell's industrial history -- check out the canal boat tours led by Lowell National Historical Park rangers.
On Sunday, Ranger Victor Medina led the "Working the Water" tour, focusing on what brought Irish immigrants to Lowell -- then called East Chelmsford -- in the 1800s to create the canals and build the mills. It's an opportunity to learn about those "who sacrificed everything to lay the foundations for what would become the most successful and premier textile city in the United States for decades to come," he said.
Before embarking on the journey, Medina implored attendees to think about what home means -- and then imagine leaving behind everything they knew for just the hope of opportunity and a better life.
"You don't even know if you'll make it to your destination alive," he said. "All you know is that once you go out that door, you will never see home again."
During a short trolley ride from the Visitors Center on Market Street to the Swamp Locks Gatehouse, Medina discussed the conditions that forced many Irish to leave Ireland even before the potato famine of 1838, and the harrowing boat journeys many would not survive to get here. Upon arriving in Boston, many would work at the docks before learning of the canals and mills being planned in Lowell from recruiters sent by industrialist Kirk Boott, he said. The Irish would walk from Boston for work to dig the canals, dam the river and build the mills in Lowell, where they would live in a self-constructed shanty town, Medina said.
At the Swamp Locks Gatehouse, tour attendees boarded a small boat operated by 25-year Capt. Tom Gallagher for a trip down the Pawtucket Canal to the Guard Locks Great Gate and Francis Gate House. Attendees learned about the history and significance of these structures and experienced the lifting of the boat with the controlled filling of water in the lock -- essentially a "boat elevator," Medina said.
He spoke about the creation and role of social clubs and Boott's donation of an acre of land to create St. Patrick's Catholic Church. The name stuck -- that neighborhood of the city is still known today as the Acre.
The Irish would pool their skills and resources not only to build the church but to work for each other's well-being and to benefit future generations, Medina said.
"This is what solidifies the mortar of both the church and the Irish community," he said, as the boat made its way back to Swamp Locks.
When conditions permit, tours will briefly go out onto the Merrimack River, but the route this day was modified to stay within the canal system because of heavy river flows.
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3 Different Tours
The park offers three tours with four different routes, and each tour runs about 90 minutes to two hours. Each park ranger has his or her own take on each route, so you can go on multiple tours and have a unique experience each time, Ranger Victor Medina said. While the tours run on weekends only, rangers stick to the Working the Water route, he said. Following are the other tours that become available when the park expands to its daily summer schedule.
11 a.m.: Working the Water. Noon: Engineering and Innovation: follows the Working the Water route and extends up the Merrimack River to the Pawtucket Gate House before looping back.
2 p.m.: Transforming Landscapes: Boat tour goes from Swamp Locks to the Francis Gate House, back to Swamp Locks, then continues on to the Lower Locks by Middlesex Community College, where attendees can get the double lock-chamber experience, Medina said. The trolley then takes attendees to the Boott Cotton Mills Museum before returning to the Visitors Center.
3 p.m.: Transforming Landscapes: Reverse of the earlier Transforming Landscapes route.
All tours start at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitors Center at 246 Market St. There's free visitor parking at 304 Dutton St., but don't forget to bring your ticket with you for validation. All tour attendees, even children who get in free, must register. For more information or to reserve tour seats, call the Visitor Center at 978-970-5000.
In 1834, James B. Francis and his boss at the New York and New Haven Railroad, traveled to Lowell to work for the Locks and Canal Company. When Whistler left resigned in 1837, he appointed Francis the chief engineer.
In 1850, Francis ordered the construction of the Great Gate over the Pawtucket Canal to protect Lowell's downtown mills from devastating floods. The project became known as "Francis' Folly," because no one believed it would work, never mind that it may ever be needed.
Sure enough, less than two years later, in 1852, the gates saved Lowell from the devastating floods of 1852, then again in 1936, 1938, 2006 and 2007, by preventing the Merrimack River from entering the canal system.
Incidentally, when Whistler left the city, he sold Francis his house on Worthen Street -- the same building where the Whistler House Museum of Art now resides.