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Chapter 7  What is Progress For? (continued)

...The result was that by Thoreau’s time, Lowell had dozens of mills and was the second largest city in Massachusetts.

When Henry came through the Lowell area with his brother on their rowing trip up the Merrimack, he couldn’t resist romanticizing its Indian days of two centuries earlier. “It was in fact an old battle and hunting ground through which we had been floating, the ancient dwelling-place of a race of hunters and warriors. Their weirs of stone, their arrowheads and hatchets, their pestles, and the mortars in which they pounded Indian corn before the white man had tasted it, lay concealed in the mud of the river bottom. . . . Pawtucket and Wamesit, where the Indians resorted in the fishing season, are now Lowell, the city of spindles, and Manchester of America, which sends its cotton cloth round the globe.”

As the center of American textile manufacture, Lowell represented practically everything Thoreau stood against. He was an early skeptic of the industrial revolution, opposed to depending ever more fully on machines: “I cannot believe,” he wrote in Walden, “that our factory system is the best mode by which men may get clothing.” To Thoreau’s way of thinking, nature’s landscapes and watercourses had to be rudely disturbed to construct the factories, dormitories and waterpower channels. The mills meant mind-numbing 14-hour days for workers tending the machines—when they could have been exploring nature’s vales. Thoreau was even opposed to the product, cheap textiles. His theory of keeping life simple by sticking to necessities had no room for the world of fashion and finery. “As for Clothing,” he wrote, “perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty, and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.” Thoreau practiced what he preached in this regard, wearing rough homespun clothing most of the time.

I knew that the factories and grounds of the early textile industry in Lowell were preserved as a national historical park. I was eager to visit this setting as a way of time-traveling back to the reality Thoreau witnessed at the birth of the industrial revolution just a few miles north of his home in Concord.

I faced a formidable logistical challenge in accomplishing such a visit, however. According to the taxi driver who had transported me from the Billerica Dam, the city of Lowell was without lodgings of any kind. I didn’t have any plan to overcome this gap, nor any idea about storing the kayak pack while I spent the day exploring the old factories. All I could do was find a taxi and see what the driver and I—and the goddess Fortuna—could come up with.

Just getting off the river in Lowell was going to be a challenge, since the water was hemmed in by tall, concrete sea walls and industrial properties guarded by chain link fences. Fortunately, as I paddled downriver, I was able to hail an early morning walker on the sea wall who gave me a useful piece of advice. Just before the dam, on the south bank of the river, he told me, stood the Lowell Motorboat Club and its boat ramp. When I reached the giant red “DANGER” sign marking the dam, I followed his advice and pulled toward the south shore where I spotted a portly older man standing by a dock and a boat ramp.

“Could I come ashore here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Just pull in over to this side,” he added, pointing to a spot alongside the ramp. His voice had a thick Boston accent. “Where’s your car parked?”

I thought a moment and answered, truthfully, “In Idaho.”

Jerry got quite a kick out of this exchange, and repeated it several times to other members of the club as they arrived that morning, each time giving a hearty laugh: “I asks him where he left his car, and he says Idaho!”

to be continued... Buy your copy now for just $9.95, and find out how this adventure continues!

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