Boomtown: Lawrence, Massachusetts

Boomtown: Lawrence, Massachusetts

In 1845 the land along the Merrimack River that would soon be called Lawrence had a population of 104.  Five years later the population had exploded to 8,358.  By 1920 the population had swelled to a high of 94, 270.  All these people arrived in Lawrence as the river was dammed, canals were dug, brick buildings were constructed, and water was diverted to fuel the entire enterprise.  Water power moved everything, including the people who moved here for the work the mills provided. 
Lawrence is ten miles downstream from Lowell, which was the most successful textile city in North America.  The Essex Company wanted to duplicate that success using the same Merrimack River water that Lowell used.  The first step was to build the great stone dam in Lawrence to better regulate the flow of water to the mills.  Next, as in Lowell, a power canal was built to channel the energy of that water to the mills.  This powerful water had to go somewhere, and it was directed through turbines that turned gears that turned leather belting that turned the looms that thousands of factory workers tended.

And it didn’t stop with the loom workers.  The mills had to be maintained and grow.  The workers had to eat, and live somewhere, and go to church, and their children had to go to school.  Banks and hospitals and trolleys and parks and stores and houses and roads to connect it all grew like concentric rings out from the turbines.  Lawrence, like Lowell before it, became a boomtown.  Like Lowell, it thrived until cheap electricity and labor pulled textile jobs to the South and eventually overseas.

Unlike Lowell, which has a major university and political clout in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that enabled it to rebound more quickly, Lawrence was lost without the manufacturing jobs for decades.  The loss of jobs led to an exodus of many of the people who were the backbone of the community, and that void was filled with poverty, helplessness, riots in the 1980’s, insurance scamming in the form of staged accidents and arson, and drugs and crime led to Lawrence being one of the least attractive places to live in New England.

And yet the bones of the city are strong.  There’s beauty in the mill buildings and homes that the textile wealth brought to the community.  Looking beyond the criminal element, there is a vibrant immigrant community that is family-oriented, hard-working and chasing the American dream.  Lawrence is a city poised for explosive growth, just waiting for the next economic turbine to power it all.

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