It was a vital national industry, employing many thousands. The plants, although state of the art when built, were outdated. Years of poor management and outright hostile labor relations had not helped. Foreign competitors were taking market share, and US companies were belatedly moving production facilities south or offshore. Would you like to contribute your tax dollars reviving this industry?
I was speaking, of course of the New England textile industry. After a bit of industrial espionage, American entrepreneurs copied and improved British manufacturing techniques. In 1793, the English immigrant Samuel Slater built a mill in Rhode Island to use the Arkwright method pioneered by his former employer. Francis Cabot Lowell toured British plants, memorizing as much as he could during the day and sketching and writing at night in his room. He and his associates raised money in one of the first public stock offerings, and built a mill in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1814. The mill took in raw cotton, and using water power, produced finished cloth. It was profitable from the first, and it looked promising as a venture on an even larger scale. Lowell died three years later, but his partners named their new planned industrial city for him.
The siting was brilliant at the time. It took advantage of an existing system of canals around the falls and rapids of the Merrimack River, and was connected to Boston by the Middlesex Canal. The high point was in the decades after the Civil War, and then Lowell began to decline. The decline had been gradual at first, but the inescapable fact was that there was no longer any compelling reason to make cloth there. Water power was not available when the river froze or flooded. The mills were converted to steam power, then to electric power from coal and hydro, but the cost of hauling in coal by railroad put them at a disadvantage (Fall River and New Bedford, having good harbors, held out longer). When the Great Depression came to Lowell, it just never left. There is an excellent write-up of Lowell’s industrial history here.
The Wannalancit Mills, seen from across the canal, showing the water intakes. It is now used for office space.
End of story? Not quite. Lowell is still no garden spot, but there was a bit of a revival in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The region was part of the high technology boom, and although Silicon Valley was the eventual winner, there were enough people with ideas to support a decent high tech industry. With financial services, health care, and biomedical companies in the area, some of the old mill owners’ houses are being refurbished.
This was the “campus” of Wang Laboratories. It is now an office park. Someone in there could be cooking up the next big idea.
The point is that no amount of money could have saved Lowell’s textile mills. Once the initial advantage of water power was gone, the end could be delayed but not avoided. Neither the human nor financial capital was destroyed, in the end. First, manufacturing spread throughout New England, and then to the Midwest, as the principles learned in Lowell were applied to other industrial processes. Farming was never a good idea in the acid, rocky soil of New England, and this was the start of the shift from agriculture to manufacturing in the Northeast. The mills were profitable for many years, and the profits funded other ventures.
Francis Cabot Lowell’s company, the Boston Manufacturing Company, closed in 1930. At that time, the industries that would take its place were not even imagined. Would they have ever come into existence if money and effort were still being used to keep the mills alive? Detroit is in about the same situation that Lowell was in around 1900. If General Motors closes (as seems inevitable), people will still drive cars. After all, we still wear clothing long after the Lowell mills closed. There just may no longer be a compelling reason to make those cars in Detroit.
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