07/20/2012 07:24 am ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Explore America: Lowell National Historical Park

Lowell National Historical Park isn't your typical national park with open space greenery, wildlife and hiking trails. This national park celebrates the town of Lowell's contribution to the Industrial Revolution, with its many water-powered mills where immigrants and women once worked. Downton Abbey fans and people who enjoy that period of history when the Industrial Revolution changed the world, might like spending a day in Lowell, Mass.

This is also the place where the Beat Generation's Jack Kerouac was born and lived for much of his life and each year in October fans come from all over the world to celebrate the iconic author.

Lowell National Historical Park's Visitor Center can be a one-stop resource for things to see and do in this city. "Lowell National Historical Park is part of downtown Lowell. The park is the city, the city is the park," says Philip Lupsiewicz, spokesman for the Lowell National Historical Park. "We celebrate industrialization and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. We're not like most national parks and that's the beauty of it. We're not something that's off to the side, we're part of the fabric of the city. The story of Lowell goes back to the 1830s and continues today."

Not many cities have canals. Lowell has 5.6 miles of canals that historically provided power to the mills in Lowell and you can take a canal boat tour in the summer for a different way to see Lowell.

"They still provide power, they still function as they historically have," Lupsiewicz says of the canals. "So it's a great way to see the city of Lowell that you normally wouldn't. We have canal boats especially designed for the canals themselves."

Lowell also has turn of the century trolleys people can ride. There's a historical district that educate people about Lowell's past and the oldest buildings date back to the 1840s, with the exteriors frozen in time.

One building is Market Mills, an old mill that now houses the park's visitor center. Another building the park service owns is Boott Cotton Mills Museum, where on the first floor, a weave room circa 1920 shows how cloth was made. Visitors can see, hear and experience what that was process was like. You can even buy cotton by the yard or towels made in the weave room and those proceeds go right back to the National Park Service.

On the second floor, there's a museum about Lowell and industrial textile history. "Lowell is considered one of the first planned industrial cities. The city was planned in the early 19th century," Lupsiewicz said. "There were capitalists who wanted to make products in the country and they wanted to make this on a large scale, so they looked to the model in England like Manchester, which Charles Dickens writes about and they envisioned Lowell as a model city." In fact, Dickens came to Lowell during his visit to America in 1842.

A temporary work force of women was hired and they came to Lowell from all over New England. They were given the name "mill girl" and presumably sent money back to their families on the farm. These mills made mostly cotton cloth.

The "Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit" is in the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center owned by the park. It's an old boarding house and gives people an idea of the life of a mill girl in a boarding house and life for immigrants in Lowell during that time. There is also a display of Kerouac's belongings he brought on the road such as his backpack, typewriter, socks, and a mess kit.

The main employer now in this city of 107,000 people just 30 miles northwest of Boston, is the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, but there are still some vestiges of mills left, says Lupsiewicz, adding that some Trader Joe's reusable grocery bags are made right here.

The visitor center also offers information for those interested in art and museums, such as the non-profit Brush Art Gallery & Studios across the street, which offers different exhibits, artist workspace and features local artists. Just a couple steps away in the other direction is the New England Quilt Museum, which hosts the Lowell Quilt Festival Aug. 9-11, 2012.

Another museum in Lowell to check out is the American Textile History Museum. The museum will offer free admission Saturday July 21 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will showcase 19th Century America and the Civil War era, with military re-enactments, social dance and dress, crafts and games for kids.

Lowell's Jack Kerouac
Kerouac, who wrote the seminal book "On the Road," was born in Lowell, lived in several different houses in the city and is now buried here in the Edson Cemetery.

That means Lowell gets a steady stream of Kerouac fans. Some come for his birthday March 12 and many come in October for the annual homecoming called "Lowell Kerouac Literary Festival." It's a week of events which starts this year on Oct. 8, 2012 and is organized by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac.

While October might sound like a random time, it's based on what Kerouac says in "On the Road." He wrote, "...I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October." The week is co-sponsored by the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Kerouac Center and the Cultural Organization of Lowell.

Festivities this year include walking tours, art, music, readings, a lecture by an MIT professor on "How the Hippies Saved Physics," pub tours, and a birthplace to grave bus tour.

Many go to the park's visitor center for information on Kerouac. "All the homes, every place he lived at is a private residence, that's the interesting thing," Lupsiewicz said. "There's a plaque on the house he was born in, you can't go in it."

So Kerouac fans make the pilgrimage to Kerouac's gravesite and there's a Jack Kerouac Commemorative Memorial in Kerouac Park, across the street from the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.

You can still visit a couple of bars Kerouac frequented, such as Worthen House Cafe, Lowell's oldest tavern and restaurant, where Edgar Allen Poe was also a former patron. Another bar Kerouac fans visit is Ricardo's, which was called Nicky's Bar in his time.

The park's visitor center welcomes Kerouac fans with any questions they might have. "Our visitor center has information panels, a partial exhibit - it's a sketch of Jack Kerouac, because there is no museum to Kerouac at the moment, the park service works with the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac group," he says.

To help plan your visit, here are the operating hours for the various buildings run by the National Park Service.