Lowell Trolley and Canal

Trolley 4131 runs alongside Merrimack Canal in the Lowell National Historical Park, in Lowell, Mass. The National Park Service operates the park, including a museum in one of the original mill buildings with operating water-powered machinery, several canals and canal-related structures, and the trolley line, as well as a number of other attractions. In addition the Seashore Trolley Museum of Maine operates a small exhibit center adjacent to the park’s visitor’s center (oddly this is not shown on maps provided by the park service).

When the New England economy began to shift from small craftsmen-operated manufacturing activities to larger industrial factories in the early 1800’s, water played an important role. Lowell is located at Pawtucket Falls on a bend in the Merrimack River, which drains a large watershed in southern New Hampshire and northeastern Massachusetts. The first mills were established in the area more than a century earlier, on nearby streams. The first canal at Lowell was constructed by the end of the 1700’s, to allow shipping to bypass the falls.

Lowell also made a name for itself as a proponent of what would now be called “green” industrialization. Trees lined canal banks and other mill property, and the mill and canal companies donated open green spaces to the city or maintained them on company property. Promenading along the canals on Sundays was a popular activity for all classes, from mill workers to factory owners. There were negative aspects: the mill dams effectively destroyed the local river fishing industry for a time, and the entire watershed was managed for the benefit of the mills in one city due to early acquisition of water rights. But overall, it was by accounts a pleasant place to live, and a far cry from the typical Victorian-era image of “dark Satanic mills“.

Mention canals, and the word conjures up an image of shipping. But canals can serve a second purpose. By distributing water at a high elevation to mills that can drain to the river below the falls, multiple industries over a fairly large area can share the power of the river. And at Lowell, the Merrimack drops 32 feet in a relatively short distance. Lowell became one of the largest such sites in the nation in the first half of the 1800’s, thanks to the volume and large drop of the river there, and its proximity to the shipping ports on the coast.

Ironically, damming the river and building canals actually made the risk of flooding greater, as the dam increased the amount of water above the falls, reduced its flow over the falls, and a flood could now easily penetrate the heart of the city. Significant effort by the canal system’s chief engineer, James B. Francis, went into preventing this, and proved its worth in two once-in-a-century floods in 1852 and 1936. Francis oversaw the canal system from 1840 until his retirement in 1885, and was one of America’s preeminent engineers of the 19th century. An excellent book on the canal system from its inception until his retirement is Waterpower in Lowell, by Patrick M. Malone (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Water-power remained in use in the mills (later in the form of hydro-electric generators) through the 1950’s.

Lowell’s trolley system came much later, in 1889, after factories began to supplement water with steam power and switch from mechanical wheels to hydro-electric power. Trolleys provided a way for the expanding workforce of the city to commute longer distances than they could easily walk to work. The original in-street system closed in 1935, and the park trolley operates replica cars over street-side tracks formerly used by a freight railroad, but it does capture some of what those commuters must have felt.

In addition to the one shown here, the National Park Service operates two open cars in warmer months, and the Seashore Trolley Museum operates a historic New Orleans trolley over the same tracks weekends in the summer. Additionally, there are plans underway to expand the trolley system to year-round operation and connect it to a new intermodal passenger facility, linking the city center to the commuter rail system.

I like this photo, aside from the subject (I like trolleys) because it juxtaposes three eras: the water-powered early 1800’s of the canal system, the later electric-based transportation system of the late 1800’s, and the modern era of the internal-combustion engine (the parking lot full of cars behind the trolley). Each of these transformed the landscape of Lowell, and other industrial cities, in different ways.

The muted color in this photo is because it was a lightly overcast day and the lighting was soft and lacking in intensity or contrast. I’ve resisted the temptation to punch it up, as I think this way is more true to the actual scene and the season. Bright, vibrant, colors come with spring, and that isn’t quite here yet (or wasn’t, last weekend).

The photo was taken with an exposure of 1/200 of a second to ensure the moving trolley was not blurred, with ISO 800 to allow an f-stop of f/8 and thus a reasonable depth-of-field. The zoom lens was set to 65mm. The photo is unmodified.


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