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The Beginning of an Epoch

Judge Josiah Gardner Abbott, in 1886, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of Lowell, wrote, “Lowell marks the beginning of a epoch in the history, not only of New England but of the whole country. With the foundations of Lowell were laid the foundations of the manufacturing industry of the whole country.” From a modest settlement of Indians and English colonists grouped at the junction of the Concord and Merrimack rivers, evolved in the 19th century the largest concentration of cotton and weaving mills in the hemisphere. Lowell, as the first large industrial city of America, carried proudly her name “the Spindle City.”

At the heart of Lowell’s historic contribution to the development of American industry was its mile of mills along the Merrimack and the thousands of workers who kept the spindles humming. In this phenomenal evolution, the Franco-Americans of Lowell, her citizens of French-Canadian and French descent, played a vital role. By their industry and their application to their work, they brought to the looms and spindles a trustworthy and essential hand. But if their industrious spirit contributed to the city’s economic expansion, their culture and traditions, solidly established on the faith of their forefathers, also contributed to everything which constitutes the soul of a city — its culture, religious spirit and politics.

The French presence in North America is very old, Champlain discovered the Merrimack river in 1605, Lamothe-Cadillac colonized Detroit in 1701. Julien Dubuque founded Dubuque, Iowa in 1788, and, in the seventeenth century, the newly formed Catholic diocese of Quebec, under the jurisdiction of Bishop Laval, extended from Quebec to New Orleans. French-Canadians emigrated to the United States before the Revolution and many even formed their own regiments in Washington’s army. Emigration to Lowell, however, began considerably later.

After the incorporation of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company in 1822 and the establishment of Lowell as a town in 1826, progress was rapid. Work on the construction of the mills and canals abounded. By 1836, the year of Lowell’s incorporation as a city, eight large mills were constructed and in operation. Out of a population of 15,000, 6,793 were operatives in the mills. By 1860, the population had more than doubled to 36,827.