Lawrence, Massachusetts straddles the Merrimack River at what used to be called Bodwell’s Falls. The two communities of Andover and Methuen took up south and north sides of the river where once Native Americans had roamed. Europeans settled these towns in the mid-1600s. Prior to creation of Lawrence the area was home to a number of farming families on both sides of the river. Most houses were located on the road from Haverhill to Lowell (Haverhill Street) and the Londonderry Turnpike (now Broadway). The Andover Bridge was built in 1793 at the falls and was the first bridge over the river. The Medford-Andover Turnpike was constructed in 1806 connecting the Merrimack Valley with Boston. All this preceded the creation of the City of Lawrence.
The Merrimack Water Power Association, formed in 1843, bought land in both towns and surveyed the area. As the plans were drawn up the idea of the city began to take shape. March 20, 1845 the group was incorporated into the Essex Company with a million dollars in capital. The directors were Abbott Lawrence, Nathan Appleton, Patrick T. Jackson, John A. Lowell, Ignatius Sargent, William Sturgis, and Charles S. Storrow. Abbott Lawrence was president during the early years. Construction of the Great Stone Dam and the North Canal started that same year. The dam was the largest of its kind in the world at the time. The Essex Company also built a foundry and forge that would become the Lawrence Machine Shop, later part of Everett Mills. The Company also built the Prospect Hill reservoir and water mains, the Bay State Mills, boarding houses, and a hotel (to become the Franklin House). There was a lot of activity during the late 1840s at Bodwell’s Falls. The construction of the Atlantic Cotton Mills, the Upper Pacific Mills, the Pemberton Mills, and the Duck Mills would follow. By 1847 the town originally named Merrimack was incorporated as Lawrence in honor of Abbott Lawrence.
The city was to be a center of commerce, both for the manufacturing of products for profit and for housing the employees who would patronize the businesses that blossomed around the mills. Land was drained and leveled; streets were planned; spaces for recreation, religious worship, government, and education were provided for. The Essex Company provided the land for a common on the north side of the river and then proceeded to deed land to various congregations to build churches. Grace Episcopal was the first, but others soon followed: First Baptist, Freewill Baptist, Lawrence Street Congregational, and many others. Catholics were meeting in homes as early as 1846. The first building was a wood frame St. Mary’s in 1848.
The first town meeting was held April 26, 1847 in Merrimack Hall at the corner of Jackson and Common streets. At that time the public school system and the nascent police and fire departments were put into place. By the following (1848) year political lines had been drawn and the election for town officers commenced. That same year water began to flow through the North Canal. By 1853, when Lawrence was incorporated as a city the population had risen to over 12,000. The lithograph on display on the 3rd floor of the library shows the new city in 1854: Common, churches, brick buildings, tree-lined streets, and a contented cow in the foreground. That same year Charles S. Storrow was elected the city’s first mayor as a Whig. New institutions were introduced to the city’s citizens: The White Fund (1852), Almshouse, 1849, and the Lawrence City Mission (1859).
The second mayor, Enoch Bartlett, held office during the “Know-nothing” era. The city experienced this phenomenon in much the same way as every community in the commonwealth – a brief and active movement that dwindled away into memory almost as quickly as it came. By 1859 Irish Catholic voters were having an impact on city elections by helping to elect Henry K. Oliver to the mayor’s office. The following year (1860) the Pemberton Mill on Canal Street collapsed and later burned with many operatives caught in the rubble. More than a hundred died and several hundred were wounded. Senator Abraham Lincoln visited the site in March on the way to visit his son at Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire.
The city furnished 2497 men for the war for the union. Lawrencian Sumner H. Needham was one of the first to die on the 19th of April 1861. Later Lawrence Civil War veterans would incorporate 2 GAR lodges, Needham and Gen. Lawton, and these men would continue to lead the city at patriotic events well into the 20th century.
Improvements to the Spicket River in the 1880s allowed the river to flow with fewer impediments. In 1873 a reservoir was built on Tower Hill. A second canal was dug on the south side of the river. Steam and electrical power was added to waterpower. Paper mills, machine shops, foundries, shoe factories, and many other industries were added to the city’s industrial base. In 1882 Lawrence elected its first Irish Catholic mayor. The horse car railway gave way to electric street railway in 1891. The 1890s saw improvement in the building of schools, a greatly improved water and sewer system, the first public library building, and a state armory.
By the turn of the 20th century the city had a new high school and courthouse and shortly thereafter were added the new building for the Lawrence General Hospital, the Bay State Building, and the Post Office. The mill buildings lined the river and canals on both sides. The city was also well on its way to paving the streets.
Labor unrest was an issue throughout the industrialized world and Lawrence had its share of strikes and lockouts. The Textile Strike of 1912, often called the Bread and Roses Strike, would go down in history as one of the most important strikes in American labor history. The years between the wars would see great improvement in workers’ rights: a shorter workweek, better pay, and more benefits. Lawrence would always answer its country’s call providing more than its share of combatants in all the conflicts of the 20th century.
After the World War II the veterans came home expecting to continue working in the mills and making their homes in the Merrimack Valley. The mills had been humming throughout the war years and there seemed to be no reason to believe that life would not continue as it had. A great catastrophe hit the northeastern textile industry in the early 1950s as one company after another abandoned communities like Lawrence and took their factories to the southeast where both energy and labor were cheaper. The result, across the industrial north, was abandoned mill buildings, decaying infrastructure, and communities with little money and few prospects. In Lawrence during the decades that followed, city fathers ran one scheme after the other to induce new industry into the empty buildings. Urban renewal was a mixed blessing: new housing that was often not maintained, historic buildings razed rather than renovated, and a once vibrant shopping district close to moribund.
Lawrence is still a small city of just over 7 square miles. Its population is slightly over 70,000 from a high in the early years of the 20th century of over 100,000. The city has always been a home to new immigrant groups. At one time Lawrence citizens spoke as many as 51 different languages. Spanish, Creole, Vietnamese, and Cambodian have replaced some of the earlier languages. Some of the mills have seen new and interesting tenants: artists, restaurants, and small industry. The city always has liked public celebrations and it now regularly hosts Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in March, Semana Hispana in June, the Bread and Roses Festival on Labor Day, The Three Saints Festival on Labor Day Weekend, and the Robert Frost Festival in October. The High School was recently reaccredited and many new school buildings have been built. Many of the institutions that started so long ago are still a positive influence on the community. Wonderful old buildings are now being saved for new uses. There are now 2 institutions of higher education: Northern Essex Community College and Cambridge College.
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