The city was an obligatory stop for Europeans touring the United States. To French political economist Michel Chevalier, sent to the United States in 1834 to study American industry, Lowell evoked memories of the Old World before the rise of its infamous industrial cities: This then is not Manchester . . . Lowell, with its steeple-crowned factories, resembles a Spanish town with its convents, but with this difference, that in Lowell, you meet no rags nor Madonnas, and that the nuns in Lowell, instead of working sacred hearts, spin and weave cotton. The city was sometimes described as one of the wonders of the world. Niagara and Lowell are the two objects I will longest remember in my American journey, said a Scottish visitor, the one the glory of American scenery, the other of American industry.
Most visitors were impressed by the sheer scale of mid-19th century Lowell, something best appreciated from across the Merrimack River. Massive five- and six-story brick mills lined the river for nearly a mile, standing out dramatically amid the area's scattered farms. The city itself was only a backdrop; the textile mills dominated the Lowell scene.
Next to the mills, it was the complex network of power canals that caught the eye of visitors to Lowell. By 1850 almost six miles of canals coursed through the city. Operating on two levels, they drove the waterwheels of 40 mill buildings, powering 320,000 spindles and almost 10,000 looms and giving employment to more than 10,000 workers.
Despite the European response to these marvels, we cannot easily contrast new world Lowell and old world industrial cities. Though Lowell was in many ways new compared to English manufacturing centers, the mills were the product of technological and economic developments rooted in 18th-century Europe. The quickening influence of the English Industrial Revolution and the disruption of trade during the Napoleonic Wars helped push America into its own industrial age.