Little Canada Panels
Location of the panels
Panel 1 is at the Northern Canal Overlook next to the Howe Bridge and across from UMass Lowell’s University Crossing. Panel 2 is on the bridge that carries Pawtucket Street over the Northern Canal. It provides an unobstructed view along the canal way toward the Suffolk Mill complex. Panel 3 is in front of Edward A. LeLacheur Park on Aiken Street. Panel 4 is in front of the UMass Lowell recreation fields at the intersection of Hall and Aiken Streets.
For over 30 years, UMass Lowell’s presence has grown in what was once Little Canada. Several dormitories, a recreation center and playing fields, a baseball stadium, and the Tsongas Arena stand where triple-deckers, social clubs, and small family-run businesses once predominated.
The signage project was undertaken by UMass Lowell to recognize the history of its East Campus, once home to thousands of French-speaking immigrants. It is intended to help faculty, staff, students, and visitors to the area recall this history.
Large waves of French Canadian farming families migrated to New England starting in the 1860s. In only 40 years, the French-Canadian population of New England grew from 37,000 to over 600,000. About 31,000 of these immigrants established their new lives in Lowell, and the number more than doubled by 1900. Little Canada was born. Communal ties were strong, with the Catholic faith a unifier.
In an oral history, Louise Harmon recalled: “When I was a girl [in the late 1880s], pretty nearly everyone went off to the States. Farming did not pay as well as it does now, prices were low, we were always hearing of the big wages earned over there in the factories, and every year one family after another sold out for next to nothing and left Canada. Some made a lot of money, no doubt of that, especially those families with lots of daughters.”
Whole families walked to work in the Merrimack, Suffolk, and Lawrence textile mill complexes that dominated the neighborhood. About 90 percent of French-Canadian families relied on their children’s money to survive. Wages got spent in numerous neighborhood stores and markets where the French language predominated. Time got spent in social clubs where people could reminisce about ‘back home’.
Textile work in Lowell and across New England slowly disappeared beginning in the 1920s, and with it, Little Canada’s vibrancy dissipated. In the mid-twentieth century, the Lowell city council promised to redevelop the neighborhood, but ultimately it got demolished. Generations dispersed, and the cherished community disappeared.
The panels were designed by Chris Danemayer of Proun Design and installed by Mystic Scenic. Celeste Bernardo, Laurel Racine, and Christine Bruins from the Lowell National Historical Park and Steve Stowell from the Lowell Historic Board advised and collaborated with the project team. From UMass Lowell, Adam Baacke, Robert Forrant, and Barbara Jean Gilbert guided the project. Anthony Sampas, Peg Shanahan, and Janine Whitcomb assisted with the research and image selection.