Skip to Main Content

Lowell History: Visitor Observations 1827-1913

Observations of Lowell by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1843



This, then, is Lowell,--a city springing up, like the enchanted palaces of the Arabian tales, as it were in a single night, stretching far and wide its chaos of brick masonry and painted shingles, filling the angle of the confluence of the Concord and the Merrimac with the sights and sounds of trade and industry. Marvellously here have art and labor wrought their modern miracles. I can scarcely realize the fact that a few years ago these rivers, now tamed and subdued to the purposes of man and charmed into slavish subjection to the wizard of mechanism, rolled unchecked towards the ocean the waters of the Winnipesaukee and the rock-rimmed springs of the White Mountains, and rippled down their falls in the wild freedom of Nature. A stranger, in view of all this wonderful change, feels himself, as it were, thrust forward into a new century; he seems treading on the outer circle of the millennium of steam engines and cotton mills. Work is here the patron saint. Everything bears his image and superscription. Here is no place for that respectable class of citizens called gentlemen, and their much vilified brethren, familiarly known as loafers. Over the gateways of this new world Manchester glares the inscription, "Work, or die". Here

                   "Every worm beneath the moon 
                   Draws different threads, and late or soon 
                   Spins, toiling out his own cocoon."

The founders of this city probably never dreamed of the theory of Charles Lamb in respect to the origin of labor:-- 

                   "Who first invented work, and thereby bound 
                   The holiday rejoicing spirit down 
                   To the never-ceasing importunity 
                   Of business in the green fields and the town?

                   "Sabbathless Satan,--he who his unglad 
                   Task ever plies midst rotatory burnings 
                   For wrath divine has made him like a wheel 
                   In that red realm from whence are no returnings."

Rather, of course, would they adopt Carlyle's apostrophe of "Divine labor, noble, ever fruitful,--the grand, sole miracle of man;" for this is indeed a city consecrated to thrift,--dedicated, every square rod of it, to the divinity of work; the gospel of industry preached daily and hourly from some thirty temples, each huger than the Milan Cathedral or the Temple of Jeddo, the Mosque of St. Sophia or the Chinese pagoda of a hundred bells; its mighty sermons uttered by steam and water-power; its music the everlasting jar of mechanism and the organ-swell of many waters; scattering the cotton and woollen leaves of its evangel from the wings of steamboats and rail-cars throughout the land; its thousand priests and its thousands of priestesses ministering around their spinning-jenny and powerloom altars, or thronging the long, unshaded streets in the level light of sunset. After all, it may well be questioned whether this gospel, according to Poor Richard's Almanac, is precisely calculated for the redemption of humanity. Labor, graduated to man's simple wants, necessities, and unperverted tastes, is doubtless well; but all beyond this is weariness to flesh and spirit. Every web which falls from these restless looms has a history more or less connected with sin and suffering, beginning with slavery and ending with overwork and premature death. 

A few years ago, while traveling in Pennsylvania, I encountered a small, dusky-browed German of the name of Etzler. He was possessed by a belief that the world was to be restored to its paradisiacal state by the sole agency of mechanics, and that he had himself discovered the means of bringing about this very desirable consummation. His whole mental atmosphere was thronged with spectral enginery; wheel within wheel; plans of hugest mechanism; Brobdignagian steam-engines; Niagaras of water-power; wind-mills with "sail-broad vans," like those of Satan in chaos, by the proper application of which every valley was to be exalted and every hill laid low; old forests seized by their shaggy tops and uprooted; old morasses drained; the tropics made cool; the eternal ices melted around the poles; the ocean itself covered with artificial islands, blossoming gardens of the blessed, rocking gently on the bosom of the deep. Give him "three hundred thousand dollars and ten years' time," and he would undertake to do the work. 

Wrong, pain, and sin, being in his view but the results of our physical necessities, ill-gratified desires, and natural yearnings for a better state, were to vanish before the millennium of mechanism. "It would be," said he, "as ridiculous then to dispute and quarrel about the means of life as it would be now about water to drink by the side of mighty rivers, or about permission to breathe the common air." To his mind the great forces of Nature took the shape of mighty and benignant spirits, sent hitherward to be the servants of man in restoring to him his lost paradise; waiting only for his word of command to apply their giant energies to the task, but as yet struggling blindly and aimlessly, giving ever and anon gentle hints, in the way of earthquake, fire, and flood, that they are weary of idleness, and would fain be set at work. Looking down, as I now do, upon these huge brick workshops, I have thought of poor Etzler, and wondered whether he would admit, were he with me, that his mechanical forces have here found their proper employment of millennium making. Grinding on, each in his iron harness, invisible, yet shaking, by his regulated and repressed power, his huge prison-house from basement to capstone, is it true that the genii of mechanism are really at work here, raising us, by wheel and pulley, steam and waterpower, slowly up that inclined plane from whose top stretches the broad table-land of promise? 

Many of the streets of Lowell present a lively and neat aspect, and are adorned with handsome public and private buildings; but they lack one pleasant feature of older towns,--broad, spreading shade-trees. One feels disposed to quarrel with the characteristic utilitarianism of the first settlers, which swept so entirely away the green beauty of Nature. For the last few days it has been as hot here as Nebuchadnezzar's furnace or Monsieur Chabert's oven, the sun glaring down from a copper sky upon these naked, treeless streets, in traversing which one is tempted to adopt the language of a warm-weather poet: 

                   "The lean, like walking skeletons, go stalking pale and gloomy; 
                   The fat, like red-hot warming-pans, send hotter fancies through me; 
                   I wake from dreams of polar ice, on which I've been a slider, 
                   Like fishes dreaming of the sea and waking in the spider."

How unlike the elm-lined avenues of New Haven, upon whose cool and graceful panorama the stranger looks down upon the Judge's Cave, or the vine-hung pinnacles of West Rock, its tall spires rising white and clear above the level greenness! or the breezy leafiness of Portland, with its wooded islands in the distance, and itself overhung with verdant beauty, rippling and waving in the same cool breeze which stirs the waters of the beautiful Bay of Casco! But time will remedy all this; and, when Lowell shall have numbered half the years of her sister cities, her newly planted elms and maples, which now only cause us to contrast their shadeless stems with the leafy glory of their parents of the forest, will stretch out to the future visitor arms of welcome and repose. 

There is one beautiful grove in Lowell,--that on Chapel Hill,--where a cluster of fine old oaks lift their sturdy stems and green branches, in close proximity to the crowded city, blending the cool rustle of their leaves with the din of machinery. As I look at them in this gray twilight they seem lonely and isolated, as if wondering what has become of their old forest companions, and vainly endeavoring to recognize in the thronged and dusty streets before them those old, graceful colonnades of maple and thick-shaded oaken vistas, stretching from river to river, carpeted with the flowers and grasses of spring, or ankle deep with leaves of autumn, through whose leafy canopy the sunlight melted in upon wild birds, shy deer, and red Indians. Long may these oaks remain to remind us that, if there be utility in the new, there was beauty in the old, leafy Puseyites of Nature, calling us back to the past, but, like their Oxford brethren, calling in vain; for neither in polemics nor in art can we go backward in an age whose motto is ever "Onward." 

The population of Lowell is constituted mainly of New Englanders; but there are representatives here of almost every part of the civilized world. The good-humored face of the Milesian meets one at almost every turn; the shrewdly solemn Scotchman, the transatlantic Yankee, blending the crafty thrift of Bryce Snailsfoot with the stern religious heroism of Cameron; the blue-eyed, fair-haired German from the towered hills which overlook the Rhine,--slow, heavy, and unpromising in his exterior, yet of the same mould and mettle of the men who rallied for "fatherland" at the Tyrtean call of Korner and beat back the chivalry of France from the banks of the Katzback,--the countrymen of Richter, and Goethe, and our own Follen. Here, too, are pedlers from Hamburg, and Bavaria, and Poland, with their sharp Jewish faces, and black, keen eyes. At this moment, beneath my window are two sturdy, sunbrowned Swiss maidens grinding music for a livelihood, rehearsing in a strange Yankee land the simple songs of their old mountain home, reminding me, by their foreign garb and language, of

                   "Lauterbrunnen's peasant girl."

Poor wanderers, I cannot say that I love their music; but now, as the notes die away, and, to use the words of Dr. Holmes, "silence comes like a poultice to heal the wounded ear," I feel grateful for their visitation. Away from crowded thoroughfares, from brick walls and dusty avenues, at the sight of these poor peasants I have gone in thought to the vale of Chamouny, and seen, with Coleridge, the morning star pausing on the "bald, awful head of sovereign Blanc," and the sun rise and set upon snowy-crested mountains, down in whose valleys the night still lingers; and, following in the track of Byron and Rousseau, have watched the lengthening shadows of the hills on the beautiful waters of the Genevan lake. Blessings, then, upon these young wayfarers, for they have "blessed me unawares." In an hour of sickness and lassitude they have wrought for me the miracle of Loretto's Chapel, and, borne me away from the scenes around me and the sense of personal suffering to that wonderful land where Nature seems still uttering, from lake and valley, and from mountains whose eternal snows lean on the hard, blue heaven, the echoes of that mighty hymn of a new-created world, when "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy." 

But of all classes of foreigners the Irish are by far the most numerous. Light-hearted, wrongheaded, impulsive, uncalculating, with an Oriental love of hyperbole, and too often a common dislike of cold water and of that gem which the fable tells us rests at the bottom of the well, the Celtic elements of their character do not readily accommodate themselves to those of the hard, cool, self-relying Anglo-Saxon. I am free to confess to a very thorough dislike of their religious intolerance and bigotry, but am content to wait for the change that time and the attrition of new circumstances and ideas must necessarily make in this respect. Meanwhile I would strive to reverence man as man, irrespective of his birthplace. A stranger in a strange land is always to me an object of sympathy and interest. Amidst all his apparent gayety of heart and national drollery and wit, the poor Irish emigrant has sad thoughts of the "ould mother of him," sitting lonely in her solitary cabin by the bog-side; recollections of a father's blessing and a sister's farewell are haunting him; a grave mound in a distant churchyard far beyond the "wide wathers" has an eternal greenness in his memory; for there, perhaps, lies a "darlint child" or a "swate crather" who once loved him. The new world is forgotten for the moment; blue Killarney and the Liffey sparkle before him, and Glendalough stretches beneath him its dark, still mirror; he sees the same evening sunshine rest upon and hallow alike with Nature's blessing the ruins of the Seven Churches of Ireland's apostolic age, the broken mound of the Druids, and the round towers of the Phoenician sun-worshippers; pleasant and mournful recollections of his home waken within him; and the rough and seemingly careless and light-hearted laborer melts into tears. It is no light thing to abandon one's own country and household gods. Touching and beautiful was the injunction of the prophet of the Hebrews:  

"Ye shall not oppress the stranger; for ye know the heart of the stranger, seeing that ye were strangers in the land of Egypt."