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Building a Water Mill: Recreating Life in Lowell, MA

Created by:
Susan Kane
Oakcrest High School

Susan Foreman
Oakcrest High School

Jim Dunn
Oakcrest High School

Market Revolution

Grade Level:
6 to 8


Lowell, Massachusetts was a city built on water power. Early migrants used the power of the Merrimack River to run mills, but this system expanded exponentially in the early nineteenth century to support a growing textile industry. By 1836, Lowell had seven canals, with a supporting network of locks and dams to control the Merrimack's flow and distribute water to the city's twenty-six mills. But even dammed, the Merrimack proved insufficient; mill investors gained control of a series of lakes in New Hampshire spread over 100 square miles. By damming these lakes, they could ensure a regular supply of water down the river, even during the drier summer months. In this sense, water became a kind of property, like land, essential to the successful operation of looms and spindles that formed the basis of the region's growing wealth.

This activity asks students to build their own water mills to reinforce their understanding of the importance of waterways and water power to industrial development in early nineteenth-century New England. Student teams design and build their mills out of everyday products and test their design in a basin. Students then evaluate the effectiveness of their water mill and those of other teams, and present their findings to the class.

Historical Context

Francis Cabot Lowell revolutionized the early stages of industrialization in the United States, with his vision of an entire community involved in textile production. After returning from England to observe the Lancashire cotton mills, Lowell was inspired to create a system of textile mills. The shameful working conditions of the English textile mills motivated Lowell to develop a paternalistic working environment of caring for the workers. This setting would attempt to care for the workers while governing their moral reputations. Lowell passed away in 1817 before he was able to see his vision become a reality. The Boston Associates carried on the ideas of Francis Cabot Lowell and opened the first mills in 1823.

Women between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five were recruited to work at the mills. The majority of these women came from farming households. The protective setting, promised by the mill agents, alleviated parents' fears of letting their daughters leave the farms. The Lowell Mills management offered cash wages, company run boarding houses and cultural events for their workers. In return, the women agreed to a strict set of rules including church attendance and curfews. In the 1800s, job options were limited for women and the Lowell Mills offered the opportunity to earn an independent income, rather than a money-saving part of the family.

By 1850, Lowell's population was 33,000, making it the second largest city in Massachusetts and America's largest industrial center. The 5.6 mile long canal system produced 10,000 horsepower, being provided to ten corporations with a total of forty mills. Ten thousand workers used an equal number of looms fed by 320,000 spindles. The mills were producing 50,000 miles of cloth annually.

By regulating the water power of the Merrimack and surrounding lake systems, Lowell became the greatest industrial center in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Not everyone who lived near the mills, however, benefited. Rising water levels flooded adjacent farmlands and dams blocked the transportation of logs downstream. Dams also devastated fish populations by inhibiting upstream spawning, while factories routinely dumped sewage waste into the river. These byproducts, combined with increasing trash from growing populations working and living in Lowell, contaminated water supplies. Far from being in harmony with its surroundings, Lowell's loud, clanking machinery irrevocably altered the region's environment.


mills, industrialization, water power, factory, design

Goals and Objectives:

Following this activity, students will be able to:

1. Explain how technological developments and mill construction transformed the New England region of the United States in the early nineteenth century.

2. Understand how water can be harnessed to create power.

3. Work together in teams to design and create a working scale model of a mill.


STANDARD 6.4 (United States and New Jersey History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future (particularly strand c, Many Worlds Meet).

STANDARD 6.6 (Geography) All students will apply knowledge of spatial relationships and other geographic skills to understand human behavior in relation to the physical and cultural environment.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Nineteenth-Century Water Mill Multi-Media Presentations (a list of programs available from the Lowell National Historic Site is provided Appendix A).

Handout: Lowell's Canal System in 1850 (attached as Appendix B)

Student Worksheet: Design your own Mill (attached as Appendix C).

Student Worksheet: How did the Mill Work? (attached as Appendix D).

Water source (for example a five-gallon jug of water and a large basin or a sink. Note if you opt for the five-gallon jug of water and basin, you only need one for the class; you can re-pour water into the jug and use it while testing each group).


Stopwatch or clock

Large measuring cup or other pouring device

One set of building materials for each group of students including: Styrofoam cylinder, plastic or wooden spoons, small wooden (balsa) pieces, bendable wire (such as florist or craft wire), string, paperclips, rubber bands, toothpicks, aluminum foil, tape, wooden dowels, plastic or wax coated food container lids, or other materials

Details of Activity

Part 1: The Relationship of Work to Water (10-15 min.):

View with students the following three multi-media clips available from the Lowell National Historic Site (these can be found at http://www.nps.gov/lowe/photosmultimedia/multimedia.htm). The first provides a series of maps that demonstrate the rate of mill growth between 1796 and 1848 in Lowell, MA. The second provides a graphic demonstration of how a water mill works, while the third introduces the history of a particular mill, the Suffolk Mill (a list of these and other multi-media presentations on this website is attached as Appendix A to this lesson plan:

1. Canal Development in Lowell: 1796-1848

2. Waterpower Demonstration

3. Suffolk Mill Turbine

Next, distribute the handout Lowell's Canal System in 1850 (which appears as Appendix B at the end of this lesson), and ask students the following questions, recording answers on the chalkboard:

1. How many mill sites are on the map? How close are they to each other?

2. How many mills are located on rivers? How many are located on canals (ask students if they know the difference between a river and a canal)?

3. Based on the answers to questions 1 and 2, how important is water to these mill sites? How close are they? Did they help in bringing raw materials to mills or moving finished products from mills to their buyers? How about as a power source for the mill machines?

Part 2: Build a Mill (40 min.):

Divide students into groups of 4-5 students, providing a set of materials per group. Each student should also be given a copy of the worksheet Design your own Mill (appendix C in this lesson plan).

Explain that students must develop their own working watermill from everyday items, and that the watermill should be able to rotate for three minutes without falling apart in order to be considered a working mill.

Students should meet and develop a plan for their watermill. They need to agree on materials they will need, and write or draw their plan.

Student teams may request additional quantities of any of the materials provided, up to two sets of materials per team. They may also trade unlimited materials with other teams to develop their ideal parts list.

Student groups next execute their plans. They may need to rethink their plan, request other materials, trade with other teams, or start over.

Part 3: Putting it to the Test (15-20 min.)

When all teams have completed construction, each will need to test their watermills in a large basin with water (or a sink with running water). They have to be able to secure their watermill to the side of the basin or sink so it does not move from a central place and does not roll forward to one side.

Following testing of all teams water mills, students should complete an evaluation/reflection worksheet, and present their findings to the class (this Evaluation/ Reflection Sheet is attached as Appendix D at the end of this lesson plan).

Practice and Reinforcement


Web Links:
Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan website.

Smithsonian Lemelson Center innovation lesson plan

IEEE; includes great science-based lesson plans.

Supplementary Materials




For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here