Canal tours show engineering marvel and tell epic story of Lowell’s history

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It’s an engineering marvel unlike any other in the world.

And it’s located right here in Lowell.

The city’s 5.6 miles of canalway harnessed enough water to power city factories almost 200 years ago. This is where America’s industrial revolution all started, making Lowell a world leader in mass-producing textiles in the 1820s.

Every weekend through Columbus Day, you can hop on a boat for a Lowell National Park canal tour and experience the Mill City’s  role in shaping the country’s economy.

It’s the kind of gritty, epic story you can envision rolling on the big screen, directed by the likes of  Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will be Blood), Martin Scorsese (The Departed) or the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men).

Picture this:

In the early 1800s, 30 scrappy, salt-of-the earth laborers leave Ireland behind with the hopes of finding work in America. They dock in Boston and their foreman hears talk of a city being built from scratch.

The men walk from Boston to Lowell, where they meet a wealthy engineer and Harvard grad, Kirk Boott. He hires the Irish immigrants to build the city’s first canals.

For about 84 cents a day, the men use gunpowder to blast through miles of granite, 60-feet wide and 8-to-13 feet deep.

Days are spent pushing wheel barrels filled with heavy mud, dirt and sand, hauling concrete blocks with horses and breaking stone with sledgehammers.

Considered outsiders and hooligans, the Irish laborers aren’t allowed to live in housing. Instead, they’re forced to live in temporary camps.

Through the blood, sweat and tears of immigrant workers seeking a pay check— from 1830 to 1840 alone the city’s population jumped from 6,474 to 20,796 — the Lowell canal system was built.

The weekend boat tours give a feel for how the city grew and changed over time.  

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Visitors also get to check out “The Great Gate.”

Engineered by James B. Francis, the 25-foot-tall, 21-ton-wall of wood helped save the city from catastrophic flood waters in 1852, 1936 and was dropped again in 2006 when a Mother’s Day flood threatened to put downtown under water.

This is a tour you’ll want to put on your radar. 

What: Lowell Canal Tours
Where: Lowell National Park Visitors Center, 246 Market St.
Info: Boat tours are $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for students and youths, free for children 5 and under. Tours are at 11 a.m., 12 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. Visit the Lowell National Park website here to learn more.


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HOWL Street Team

Exploring everything from food and shopping to arts and entertainment so you can experience the best of what Greater Lowell has to offer.