The Founding of Lawrence, MA

I found the following in a book on the history of textiles, and as per Uncle Johnny’s [John Endicott Lawrence, Sr.] feeling that this was “an event that merits close scrutiny,” I have enclosed here the first part of that account.



Lawrence Machine Shop, Lawrence, MA



The history of the foundation and development of Lawrence bears close analogy to that of Lowell, save that one man instead of several conceived the enterprise and carried on the preliminary work necessary to its successful start.

That man was Daniel Saunders, of Andover, Mass., who had become interested in the project by the merest accident. He came by chance some time before 1835 into possession of a plan showing the grades and locks for a canal from Lowell to the tide‑water on the Merrimac, and, studying it closely, concluded there was considerable aggregate fall of water between the two points, though apparently there was little individual fall in the few slight rapids.

As Saunders had been engaged in the woolen business, he realized the value of the water power for mill work, and determined to investigate for himself. Accordingly, with a companion and equipped with only a straight edge and a spirit level he went over the falls between the two points, and discovered the great power hidden in the insignificant rapids. He kept the information from all but his immediate family, to whom he freely predicted the possibility of a great manufacturing city on the Merrimac in the towns of Methuen and Andover, and set about buying land sufficient to control the water power. In 1840 he began purchasing land at the head of Peters Falls, some distance above where the first mills were built, and also bought an island and some land lower down. Soon he had sufficient to control Peters Falls, and thus the whole power of the river. He had enough land by 1843 to deem it safe to lay his plan before J. G. Abbott, John Nesmith, and Samuel Lawrence, all residents of Lowell, and they formed the Merrimac Water Power Association, with Daniel Saunders, Jr., Abbott Lawrence, Thomas Hopkinson, and Jonathan Tyler, of Lowell, and Nathaniel Stevens, of Andover, as the other stockholders.

The company set about securing more land to protect their rights. Some adverse criticism of the scheme arose, and many of those skeptical of the success of the enterprise called the scheme “Saunders’ Folly.” It was proposed to call the new town Saunders, but Mr. Saunders objected, suggesting that, as it was on the Merrimac and there was no town in Massachusetts by that name, it be called Merrimac, and so it was called until April 17, 1847, when it was incorporated as a town and took the name of Lawrence in honor of Abbott Lawrence, one of the subscribers to the enterprise.

Saunders in eighteen months had bought up all the land needed save a few parcels, and controlled in all between three and four thousand acres. On March 20, 1845, Daniel Saunders, Samuel Lawrence, John Nesmith, and Edmund Bartlett received a charter as the Essex Company.

In the privately printed Memoir of Abbott Lawrence, by H. A. Hill, it is said that on the day that the Massachusetts legislature passed the bill incorporating the Essex Company, successor to the Merrimac Water Power Association, all of the incorporators, among them Mr. Abbott Lawrence, were at the State House, and as soon as the measure was signed started to North Andover by rail, and thence proceeded to the falls at Lawrence by carriages.

The company consisted of Messrs. Abbott Lawrence, William Lawrence, Samuel Lawrence, Francis C. Lowell, John A. Lowell, George W. Lyman, Theodore Lyman Nathan Appleton, Patrick T. Jackson, William Sturgis, John Nesmith, Jonathan Tyler, James B. Francis, and Charles S. Storrow, the engineer of the enterprise.

Under the direction of Mr. Daniel Saunders a careful examination of the neighborhood was made and the various plans for harnessing the water power were discussed upon the spot. Subsequently the party sat down to dinner at the Merrimac House in Lowell. After dinner, steps were taken toward a permanent organization.

Mr. Abbott Lawrence and Mr. John A. Lowell retired for a few minutes’ consultation, and when they returned offered the Water Power Association for all of its rights and interest thirty thousand dollars over and above the reimbursement of all expenses previously incurred. It was also agreed to carry out all of the agreements of the Associates for the purchase of land to secure flowage rights and to head the organization of the Essex Company by a large subscription of stock.

The proposition was accepted, and the preliminaries were signed the same day, March 20, 1845. Mr. Lawrence was the first and largest subscriber to the Essex Company, taking a thousand shares at a hundred dollars each, and was its first president. On April 16 stock to the amount of a million dollars was issued, with Abbott Lawrence, Nathan Appleton, Ignatius Sargent, and William Sturgis as directors. Charles Storrow was made agent and chief engineer.

A great dam was completed across the Merrimac Sept. 19, 1848, canals were dug, and the town site was laid out, work being begun Aug. 1, 1845.

The Washington Mill, built in 1846, was the first one completed, and E. A. Bourne was chosen president. It started the next year, when it took the name Bay State Mills, woolen, worsted, and cotton goods being made. The Bay State shawls, first made in 1848, and the blue flannel coatings, first turned out in 1859, were widely known. A few months later the second mill, the Atlantic, was started, and the first cotton arrived Jan. 12, 1849, consigned to the Atlantic Cotton Mills, of which Mr. Lawrence was also president and one of the largest stockholders.

The Pacific Mills, named from the Pacific Ocean, were incorporated in 1853, and at that time were the largest works of their kind in the world. Their original capital was $2,000,000. Mr. Abbott Lawrence was president. The mills in 1857 had to ask an extension of credit, and Mr. Lawrence contributed several hundred thousand of his personal fortune to save the enterprise, upon which one‑third of the people of Lawrence were dependent. Since the struggles of these early days the Pacific Mills have been very successful, and their products are known over the world. Other mills have since sprung up, one of which, the Wood Worsted, which is owned by the American Woolen Company, is the largest worsted mill in the world. The population of Lawrence, which in 1845 was a few hundred, was 85,892 in 1910, and had 1,138,876 spindles in 1911. The Census Bureau reports that the value of its textile products is $70,000,000 annually…

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