The Essex Company and Lawrence, MA

Lawrence, Massachusetts and the Essex Company
Lawrence, incorporated in 1847, was the final and most ambitious of the New England planned textile-manufacturing cities developed by the Boston entrepreneurs who launched the American Industrial Revolution.

The Essex Company was chartered in 1845 explicitly to build a dam and canals on the Merrimack River for the purpose of providing water power for textile mills. Implicitly, the directors planned to sell land on either side of the river for planned mills, homes for workers and managers, stores, churches, schools and local government. It was also created to build mills and machinery on contract.

The directors of the Essex Company included the interlocked families (Lawrences, Lowells, Appletons, Jacksons and many others) who controlled most of the New England textile industry, who were influential in the early development of the railroad in New England, and who were largely responsible for the growth of the major institutions and cityscape of Boston at a time when it competed for national pre-eminence with New York.

The dam over the Merrimack River, at the time it was completed in 1848, was the largest in the world and remains in excellent condition today because of the innovative engineering and the earliest use, for projects like this, of hydraulic cement injected in the spaces made by the granite rubble that forms the foundation of the dam.

Headgates at the North Canal Gatehouse next to the Great Stone Dam

It would be impossible to fully understand the civic and social history of this significant Industrial Revolution community, and indeed the complexity of attitudes and assumptions of the creators of the American Industrial Revolution, without the records of the Essex Company.

The Essex Company built the industrial infrastructure and laid out streets, blocks of house lots and parks. It imposed restricted use deeds – many still in force today - when selling lots or donating land to the new town. Restrictions included number, use and location of structures on lots, height, and building materials. On lots surrounding the Common donated by the Essex Company, stately homes, the City Hall and Protestant churches were to be built, Catholic churches banished to outside the heart of the City.

Irish laborers, needed for building the dam and canal, were accommodated in crowded shanties on land rented from the Essex Company on the other side of the river from the central town.

The Essex Company was led on the ground by Charles Storrow, the agent and chief engineer, as well as the City’s first mayor. The records offer a glimpse of a man with a comprehensive vision and a determination to control its implementation. He established banks, directed the development of the schools, influenced the direction of cultural activities and dominated the local distribution of relief funds, whether for the Irish famine, the Free Kansas movement, or the Pemberton Mill disaster.

None of the other mill towns on the Merrimack, Connecticut, Nashua or Saco Rivers that were part of the later named Boston Associates’ New England holdings were planned with nearly the level of detail of Lawrence. It illustrates the close connection that the American Industrial Revolution had with the culture of control that emerged as these former merchants sought to minimize the vicissitudes of chance experienced in the clippership trade with Europe.

This concern is seen in the creation or expansion of institutions such as Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Boston Athenaeum; in the care to do business primarily with relatives and friends who often became relatives; in the development of mechanisms such as trusts to protect estates; and even the pragmatic and aesthetic preference for controlling natural surroundings.

Control in the creation of Lawrence meant not only state of the art mills, but also corporation boarding houses on a scale large enough to enable mill owners to have sufficient sway over the behavior of their workers and, candidly, to demonstrate to the world that workers could be accommodated in good quality housing. It meant restricted deeds on lots to ensure that buildings were of sufficient quality. It meant micro managing the development of churches, schools and the local government.

Perhaps most significantly, the Boston Associates, with the creation of Lawrence, felt that they could not take a chance with the supply of water, and therefore created a company jointly owned by the Essex Company and Lowell’s Proprietors of Locks and Canals to purchase all necessary land and water rights for the Merrimack up to and including Lake Winnipesaukee and the other large lakes of New Hampshire. Later, this led to the Essex Company taking the lead in efforts to purify water.

Hiram Mills, chief engineer of the Essex Company, became director of the Committee on Water Supplies and Sewerage on the Massachusetts Board of Health, in which capacity he caused to be established in an Essex Company facility the
Lawrence Experiment Station, destined for international renown, which conducted the nation’s first sustained experiments on water and sewage.

The first major project to come out of this was the development, in Lawrence, of the nation’s first slow sand filter to combat Typhoid in drinking water. Until its operations were moved to bigger quarters at another site in the 1950s, the originalLawrence Experiment Station was a magnet for world leaders in sanitary engineering.

Lawrence General Hospital (left)

The activities of the Boston Associates in the manufacturing empire they built were precursors to the better-known “robber barons” who gained prominence in the later 19th century. The contemporary concern about the environmental impacts of industry can find much in the Essex Company records to trace the sources of today’s concerns, including diversion of rivers, Brownfields, and the impact of dams on fish (fishways were required in the initial charter, and the largely unsuccessful efforts, along with records of multiple lawsuits, are documented).

Lawrence was established at a critical juncture in American industrial, immigration and political history. In the late 1840s, water power was gradually being replaced by steam in America, the anticipated workers from New England farms were rapidly replaced by Irish immigrants, and the Whig Party was losing its influence through the dissolution of ties binding the Boston entrepreneurs


Tue–Fri: 9am-4pm
Sat: By appt
Sun-Mon: Closed

Address & Phone

6 Essex Street
Lawrence, MA 01840

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Founded in 1978 as the Immigrant City Archives, the mission of the Lawrence History Center is to collect, preserve, share, and animate the history and heritage of Lawrence and its people.