– Lowell Politics and History

  • Lord Overpass Walk

    Lord Overpass Walk Report

    On Monday, November 16, 2015 at 6 pm at the Lowell Senior Center, the city’s Department of Planning and Development and the civil engineers hired to redesign the Lord Overpass will hold a public meeting at which residents will have an opportunity to share their ideas about the project. In…

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  • By Gerry Nelson

    Lowell Week in Review: November 15, 2015

    Lord Overpass Public Meeting Tomorrow night at 6 pm at the Senior Center at Broadway and Fletcher, the Lowell Department of Planning and Development will hold a public meeting on the Lord Overpass renovation project. The consultants who are designing the new version of the Overpass will be on hand…

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  • "Lowell" book launch event

    Lowell Week in Review: November 22, 2015

    It was a busy week in Lowell, perhaps because not much gets scheduled during the upcoming week, the week of Thanksgiving (although if you’re like me, you have a hard time believing that Thanksgiving is just four days away). Lord Overpass Meeting More than 100 people attended the Monday night…

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  • Lowell High 1976

    Lowell Week in Review: November 29, 2015

    Citywide Parent Council Revival A meeting of a revived Citywide Parent Council of the Lowell Public Schools will be held this coming Monday, November 30, 2015, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Robinson School at 110 June Street in Lowell. (see Facebook event page This is an…

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Early Colonial “Lowell”

Yesterday I posted a review of Massacre on The Merrimack: Hannah Duston’s Captivity and Revenge in Colonial America by Methuen’s Jay Atkinson. Duston’s story is put in the context of the violence and uncertainty in this part of New England at the end of the seventeenth century. There are many references to Andover, Dunstable, Billerica, Groton and other familiar and nearby community names. It was a reminder that the place in which we live was once the frontier of English settlement in America.

Early map of “Lowell”

The first English settlers came to this vicinity in 1653 when a group of 29 men from Woburn and Concord petitioned the General Court to grant a charter for the town of Chelmsford on six square miles “of upland and meadow” bordering the Merrimack and Concord Rivers.  The parcel sought by these settlers (which included what is now downtown Lowell) was already occupied by the Pawtucket Indians who called their settlement Wamesit.  Fortunately for the Pawtuckets, a minister named John Eliot had begun visiting them annually in 1647 and had converted the tribe to Christianity.

Eliot Church on Summer St in Lowell

Plaque honoring Rev John Eliot

Because Eliot was committed to the actual as well as to the spiritual well-being of the Pawtuckets, he intervened in the Chelmsford petition and requested the General Court to grant the Indians a charter for the land which they had long occupied and cultivated.  The legislature did just that, granting the Pawtuckets 1000 acres on the west bank of the Concord River (downtown Lowell) and 1500 acres on the east bank (Belvidere) for a town to be called Wamesit while also granting the Chelmsford petition albeit for land farther west along the Merrimack (shown on the 1650s sketch map that appears above).

Twenty years later, the colonial paternalism towards the Indians of southern New England was shattered by King Philip’s War (1675-76). This was the deadliest war in the history of America in terms of the percentage of the population killed. Men from Chelmsford fought Indians throughout the region.  While there is no evidence that the native residents of Wamesit ever took up arms against their English neighbors, they were still ejected from their land and forced to flee to northern New England after the English prevailed.

With Wamesit largely abandoned, eventually a group of settlers that included Jonathan Tyng, Daniel Hinchman and Jerahmell Bowers contacted Wannalancit, the leader of the Pawtuckets, and convinced him to sign a series of deeds that conveyed all of the Wamesit land to a loosely organized group called “The Proprietors of Wamesit Neck.”  Because the new owners of the land were already settled in adjacent towns (mostly Chelmsford), they used the Wamesit land primarily to expand their own farm and grazing lands without embarking on much new building construction.  The few people who actually moved their homes into Wamesit considered themselves to be part of Chelmsford, although the General Court still saw Wamesit as an independently organized community.

This informal arrangement continued until 1725 when the citizens of Chelmsford elected Steven Pierce to be their representative to the General Court.  However, when Pierce arrived in Boston the General Court refused to seat him since he was a resident of Wamesit, not Chelmsford and therefore could not represent Chelmsford.  After much protest by the inhabitants of both Wamesit and Chelmsford, the General Court on June 13, 1726, granted a petition by the Town of Chelmsford to annex the land known as Wamesit to Chelmsford.  For the next one hundred years, what is now Lowell south of the Merrimack and west of the Concord became East Chelmsford.

The sparse settlement patterns persisted, however, and the former Wamesit grant remained largely agricultural and sparsely inhabited with none of the pressure to create an infrastructure of meeting houses, school rooms, and family residences that normally accompanied the creation of a new town.  This condition persisted until November 1821 when Nathan Appleton and his associates arrived to find what amounted to a strategically located vacant lot upon which they could build their revolutionary industrial city that became known as Lowell.

“Massacre on the Merrimack” by Jay Atkinson

I was up late last night, not to watch the Patriots but to finish reading Massacre on the Merrimack, Jay Atkinson’s excellent new book about Hannah Duston and her encounter with Abenaki warriors along the bank of the Merrimack River in March 1697. The 39 year old Duston had just given birth to her thirteenth child when a native American raiding party in the service of the French in Canada attacked the English frontier settlement of Haverhill, Massachusetts. While her husband led their other children to safety, Duston, her infant, and another Haverhill woman serving as Duston’s nurse were taken captive by the Indians along with other English residents of the town.

The French would “purchase” English captives so the raiders and those they held began the long journey to Quebec through the late winter wilderness. Soon, those unable to keep up, including Duston’s young daughter, were murdered by their captors. After a week of travel, Duston and two others found themselves on an island in the Merrimack near today’s Concord, New Hampshire, held hostage by two of their original captors and their families which added eight women and children to the group. As the Abenakis slept, Duston and her two companions seized hatchets and killed all ten. Taking a canoe, they began a perilous journey down the Merrimack to Haverhill.

In Massacre on the Merrimack, Atkinson does an incredible job of portraying the harshness and brutality of the time while placing it all in the broader historical context of English versus French competition for dominance over North America. Upon her return to Haverhill, Duston became a celebrity for a short time, not in the over-the-top sense of celebrity as we know it today, but more as someone of interest and admiration. She quickly resumed the routine of life on the frontier and lived into her 70s. She had become so unremarkable that her burial site is unknown today.

Hannah Duston’s obscurity did not last. She was “rediscovered” in the years after the American Civil War thanks largely to the work of two Lowell men. Robert Boody Caverly was by profession a lawyer but was also a poet, playwright and historian. Among his works was a book entitled Heroism of Hannah Duston Together with the Indian Wars of New England. Caverly initiated an effort to memorialize Hannah with a statue on the island in the Merrimack on which she had gained her freedom. Caverly raised $6000 for a statue and commission another Lowell man, Joseph Andrews, to sculpt it. A cemetery stone carver, Andrews nonetheless did a masterful job with the Duston statue which was unveiled in 1874.

It’s no coincidence that Hannah Duston’s renaissance came at a time when American expansionism caused brutal conflict with the native Americans in the west (the battle of Little Bighorn came two years after the unveiling). By equating Hannah’s ordeal with the conflict in the west, it provided a more virtuous context for contemporary expansion. More recently, as attitudes towards the subjugation of native Americans in the nineteenth century changed, Hannah fell into disfavor in popular culture.

Atkinson wisely avoids plunging into this modern popular culture conflict and focuses on the story. In the prologue, the author explains that he strove to tell Duston’s story in a “carefully researched narrative.” In that, he certainly succeeds.

If you like adventure novels, buy this book because it sure reads like one. If you like carefully researched history, buy this book. If you are interested in the early history of the region in which we live today, buy this book. So congratulations to Jay Atkinson whose Methuen home is not far from the Duston homestead (Methuen was part of Haverhill back then). Hopefully this book will inspire others (me included) to dig deeper into the early colonial period of our region’s history which is a fascinating but under examined part of our community’s heritage.

Lowell Week in Review: November 29, 2015

Greenhalge School

Citywide Parent Council Revival

A meeting of a revived Citywide Parent Council of the Lowell Public Schools will be held this coming Monday, November 30, 2015, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Robinson School at 110 June Street in Lowell. (see Facebook event page This is an important development for the schools and for the city so hopefully there will be a good turnout of parents and CPC will resume the valuable advocacy work it did for several decades until disbanding a few years ago.

When my son was a student in the Lowell public schools from 1995 through 2008, I was an active member of CPC, twice serving as chair. According to the by-laws in effect back then, the purpose of CPC was to (1) involve parents in addressing and responding to issues in the Lowell Public Schools pertaining to educational standards, equity, minority isolation and other education-related issues; (2) provide an open forum for discussions regarding school issues and voted policies; (3) provide a mechanism for parent representation; and (4) give its members the responsibility of keeping their respective schools informed.

Every parent or guardian of every child in the Lowell Public Schools was automatically a member of Citywide, but the heart of the organization was the two parent representatives elected from each school (with six from Lowell High). These reps met monthly to discuss issues of citywide import. In the perfect world, one of the representatives from a school would also be a member of that school’s PTO while the other would be a member of the School Site Council. That way, both of the boards within the school that involved parents (PTO and SSC) would be represented on Citywide.

That describes the perfect world which is often far from reality. Citywide often was fortunate to have a single representative from each school. That’s not an unusual situation in any volunteer organization but there were a number of other factors that worked against Citywide. Everyone faces tremendous competition for their time and few feel they can make the time commitment to one more organization. Many of the parents of Lowell school children come from cultures where parents questioning or challenging professional educators was just no done as opposed to our system in which, to quote former Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr, “the only time meaningful change occurs in the school system is when parents make a pain in the neck of themselves.” Parent groups aren’t a top priority of professional educators who have too many other demands on their time. A principal will lose her job because her students’ MCAS scores don’t improve; she won’t lose her job because the school lacks a Citywide Parent Council representative.

It really is up to the school committee and the school superintendent to make active parental involvement a higher priority of the system’s school principals. Getting parents involved is a long, arduous process. Those who commit their time should be made to feel valued contributors and not bothersome interlopers. Parents most likely to become involved are those with children in the earlier grades, so the focus should be on the elementary schools.

At the time I was involved in Citywide Parent Council, the superintendents were George Tsapatsaris and Karla Brooks Baehr. Both of them were sincerely committed to meaningful parental involvement. Neither would accept “we invited parents but no one showed up” as an excuse from a principal. During both of their tenures, Citywide was an effective force that made demands for higher standards, better facilities, safety improvements, and adequate funding. It also served as a counterweight to the demands of the employees of the system on elected officials. Without a strong parental voice, the only organized entity speaking out on school issues are those who work for the school system.

So good luck to those behind this revival. And if you’re a parent or guardian of a student in the Lowell Public Schools, head over to the Robinson School on Monday night and get involved.

City Council meeting

There is no city council meeting this coming Tuesday. Last week’s meeting featured discussions about police deployment strategy; the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s advancement of Lowell to the next level of the process that ultimately (many hope) will lead to a new or renovated high school; and the receipt of a $1mil grant to aid the homeless (that discussion also touched on the city’s approach to panhandling). I wrote a full report about the meeting on Tuesday so please check it out if you haven’t already done so.

Christmas Shopping in Lowell

Yesterday’s City of Lights Parade marks the official start of the Christmas season in Lowell. If you’re like me, you’re more likely to shop for gifts online than you are to drive to the mall, but don’t forget your many gift-buying opportunities right here within the city limits. Western Ave and Mill No. 5 are both filled with places where local artists and artisans sell their products. Each makes the first Saturday of the month (i.e., NEXT Saturday) a special time in Lowell, but during December, hours expand so check out their respective websites.

Inside Western Ave Studios

Besides these two venues, there are plenty of other great gift-buying outlets in Lowell, especially downtown. Check out the Brush Art Gallery, the Arts League of Lowell Gallery, and many other downtown places. As so many found this summer during Lowell Walks, just park your car and wander around, you’re sure to find something interesting.

You might also want to visit the Merrimack Repertory Theatre to see It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play which runs through December 20. I saw it Wednesday night and wrote a review afterwards.

Finally, if you missed Fred Faust’s day-after-Thanksgiving story about the creation of the Shedd Park Splash Pad, please check it out. It’s an inspirational tale of community activism in Lowell.

Slip Slidin’ at the South Common

I almost fell down this morning on the blacktop oval on the floor of the South Common when I slipped on a patch of ice that I didn’t see because I was looking up at the “1874” on the front of the Eliot Church at the top of the northern slope on the Summer Street side of the park. One foot went left, but I adjusted fast and stumbled forward while holding my dog’s leash. He paid no attention. It was the first ice of the season that I’ve noticed—or didn’t notice until it was under me. Frost made the grass slick, too. When Ringo-the-dog and I got to the South Street turn of the oval, a man in a dark parka and knit cap walked to a corner of the small parking lot near the fenced-in pool and began a tai chi routine that he appeared to have done a thousand times before. The slow-motion, dance-like Chinese martial-arts movements go back to the 1600s or earlier. His exercises brought an unexpected elegance to the gritty green space typically marred by litter and liquor empties.

The park was quiet this morning except for a band of raucous crows diving onto the roof of the Rogers School. An SUV police cruiser was tucked in on the roadway next to the basketball courts waiting for a traffic infraction. The blue lights will wake up any distracted driver at 6.30 a.m. City workers this past week raked and removed a ton of leaves in the seasonal pick-up. The sports field that was ravaged last winter by the “Snow Farm” comings and goings did not completely recover despite the new loam and re-seeding. The new grass grew unevenly, and the center section is almost as scrubby as it was in the past. Without any irrigation on the site, the field repair was going to be tough no matter what was tried. Those of us who use the Common regularly and follow city affairs continue to look forward to the complete overhaul of the historic park that has been on hold for several years. The beautiful landscape design by Brown & Rowe architects of Boston that was proposed for the renovation about five years ago will make a huge difference in this part of the city. As the Judicial Center and Hamilton Canal District development projects make progress, the South Common renewal should be brought along in support of the larger revitalization of the Thorndike-Dutton corridor.

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