This is the latest in The Sun's "Be a Volunteer" series.

LOWELL -- Remember when this city was a rural town?

You probably have no recollection.

But there actually was a time.

Then all of a sudden, people quickly swarmed Lowell. This population influx led to some public health problems in the 1830s, documented by the Board of Health commissioners during their first meeting in 1836.

"Voted that Dr. Green be hereby authorized to remove all, and any, infected with small pox, to the Hospital without any further notice to this board," the minutes from the meeting state.

The city's rent for that smallpox hospital on Lafayette Street cost a whopping $12.50 per month.

These are only some of the tidbits you can learn on a website about early Lowell -- a project that Brad MacGowan has been working on for about four years.

"The Town & the City: Lowell before The Civil War" is a collection of documents, images, maps and writings from when Lowell became a town in 1826 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

MacGowan, 61, of Chelmsford, has digitized thousands of original documents from early Lowell. He volunteers at The Center for Lowell History, where he does the digitization work.

The documents give residents a glimpse into what life was like here, in a historic part of America between the Concord and Merrimack rivers, MacGowan said.

"This is a case study of a city being created," he said about his project.

"You can learn about what Lowell was like back then, and some of the laws they needed to enact."

The pages on the site and their contents fall into two major categories: Digitized documents; and other primary and secondary source materials from a variety of collections including images, maps and books.

The originals of these document collections belong to the city of Lowell, UMass Lowell and the Lowell Historical Society. The originals are located at Lowell City Hall and The Center for Lowell History.

"These documents weren't accessible to the public," MacGowan said. "I figured I could help people who want to study these things in more depth."

His family is from Lowell, so he's always been interested in the city's history.

When MacGowan retired, he started looking into history research and archival training.

"I'm lucky I've been able to get involved in this," he said. "I've gotten a lot of good feedback, and I hope more people can take advantage of it."

To check out "The Town & the City: Lowell before The Civil War," visit