One of the first planned cities in the United States, Lawrence was started in 1845, under the auspices of textile industrialist Abbott Lawrence (1792-1855) and the associates of the Essex Company.
This was a project on a grand scale, building two canals on either side of the Merrimack River to power a long line of mills, and creating a long island on the north bank.
If you have a thing for historic industrial architecture Lawrence is a dream. Many of those humongous factory buildings have been converted into lofts, offices, restaurants, dance studios and gyms, while others are still in use by the likes of New Balance.
The mills’ gigantic brick walls have also become a canvas for transformative street art, many commissioned by the Essex Art Center.
1. North Canal Historic District
For those transfixed by Lawrence’s immense mill buildings, one of the best things to do is hit the streets and see every inch of this one-of-a-kind cityscape.
The North Canal Historic District is bounded by the Spicket River in the east and Broadway in the west, encompassing that vast man-made island created between the North Canal and Merrimack River.
At first glance the cityscape is austere, but there are shops, restaurants, a brewpub (Spicket River Brewery) and cultural attractions on both sides of the North Canal.
One iconic sight on the south bank of the Merrimack River iis the Ayer Mill Clock (1909), thought to be the largest mill clock in the world. The four faces, 267 feet above the river, are just six inches smaller than the Elizabeth Tower in London.
The Ayer Mill complex now belongs to New Balance factory, which moved here in 1978 and has an outlet at 5 S Union Street.
2. Lawrence Heritage State Park
For some context during your tour of Lawrence you can stop by the Lawrence Heritage State Park, which has three units along the Merrimack River.
You can begin with the Visitors Center, which is set in a boarding house from the 1840s and has two floors of interactive exhibits explaining the industrial history of Lawrence and neighboring areas.
You’ll see models of mills and boarding houses, as well as a complete turn-of-the-century kitchen, for a vivid picture of how Lawrence’s international migrant workforce lived.
Special attention is given to the momentous 1912 Lawrence textile strike (Bread and Roses Strike), which endured for three months as a response to dismal working conditions and a sudden pay cut.
At the island’s western tip, the topic of working conditions is prominent at Pemberton Park, dedicated to the 145 workers who died in the Pemberton Mill Disaster of 1860.
3. Lawrence History Center
For more insight into the history of Lawrence and the lives of the people who have lived and worked here, the Lawrence History Center is housed in a former Essex Company complex.
This consists of an office building, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, stable and warehouse, all dating from the early 1880s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The center’s collections are huge, and include the complete Essex Company business and planning records, hundreds of oral histories and 40,000+ photographs and glass plate negatives.
This is a valuable resource for people conducting research, but you can drop by for enthralling exhibitions sourced from those massive archives.
4. Lawrence Farmers’ Market
Backdropped by evocative industrial architecture there’s a lively farmers’ market downtown on Saturday mornings, April through October.
The Lawrence Farmers’ Market is a great opportunity to shop local and support small businesses. And there are plenty, with upwards of 70 vendors each week.
You’ve got local fruit and vegetables, eggs, farm-raised meats, honey, coffee, cut flowers, teas, wines, jams, sauces, preserves, as well as a lineup of handmade skincare, candles and much more. May through October there’s also a market on Tuesday evenings in South Park.
5. Essex Art Center (EAC)
In one of the imposing mill buildings fronting the North Canal there’s an art center for Essex County. The Essex Art Center puts on deftly curated solo and themed exhibitions throughout the year, for a wide range of disciplines.
These tend to last around two months at a time, so there should be something fresh to see whenever you visit.
The center is also responsible for many of the murals now adorning Lawrence’s mills, and organizes the annual Fiesta en la Calle block party in July.
Added to that, the EAC participates in the Lawrence Arts Collective, nurturing arts and culture around the city through installations, performances and gallery shows by artists-in-residence.
6. Stevens-Coolidge House & Gardens
In stark contrast to Lawrence’s factories there’s an elegant estate close by in North Andover.
The property dates back to 1729, and for several decades from 1914 became the summer home of Helen Stevens Coolidge and her diplomat husband, John Gardner Coolidge, descended from Thomas Jefferson.
The house is actually made up of two late Federal farmhouses that were combined into one building in the 1910s by Colonial Revival architect Joseph Everett Chandler.
You can tour the house’s refined interiors in the summer, getting to know the lifestyle of affluent urbanites in the early 20th century. The gardens, recently expanded, are a joy, and host numerous events including a tulip bloom festival in spring.
7. Den Rock Park
Close to the Stevens-Coolidge House in the south of Lawrence there’s this 120-acre park along the Shawsheen River. Den Rock Park was the intended site of a city cemetery, but instead became a public park in 1896.
This was later improved during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), who laid out the trails, built two amphitheaters and cut steps into Den Rock, the gigantic granite outcrop for which the park is named.
The cliff here is a popular spot for rock climbing, while the park’s trails lead through wetlands and along a tranquil stretch of the Shawsheen River.
8. Fisichelli’s Pastry Shop
This family-owned Italian baker has been in business at the same location since 1915. One of many great things to know about Fisichelli’s Pastry Shop is that the same oven used by founder Orazio Fisichelli more than a century ago is still in working order and used today.
During the Great Depression, the Fisichellis opened their place up as a community bakery. Italian immigrants would share recipes, and this is the origin of some of Fisichelli’s specialties, like its handmade Italian cookies.
Come for soft biscottis, cannolis, vanilla and chocolate pasticiotti, cakes for all occasions and much more.
9. Spicket River Greenway
The Spicket River meanders through the northern part of Lawrence, joining the Merrimack at the east end of the North Canal.
There has always been a long sequence of public parks on the banks, but in 2013 these were all joined by the 3.5-mile Spicket River Greenway.
This paved, multi-use trail takes you through attractive residential neighborhoods, and is bookended by grand old mill districts, now enjoying a new lease of life.
If you make the trip in summer the banks of the Spicket River are lush, with a lot of tree cover, and you’re never more than a short detour from the nearest bakery, cafe or restaurant if you need a pit stop.
10. Methuen Rail Trail
At Manchester Street Park, near the western trailhead for the Spicket River Greenway, you can get onto another trail, along what used to be the Manchester and Lawrence (1849).
The converted rail corridor extends through the northern part of Lawrence and into neighboring Methuen for almost 2.5 miles. There’s a lot of historic railway infrastructure, like bridges, cuts and a former station at the intersection with Union Street.
This all mingles with peaceful natural areas along the Spicket River, like the marshy Nevins Bird Sanctuary, as well as impressive industrial architecture.
11. Duck Bridge (Union Street Bridge)
An important part of Lawrence’s historic industrial cityscape, this 1888 bridge on the Merrimack River is the oldest double-intersection Warren through truss in the state in the care of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works.
The Duck Bridge is also one of the oldest all-riveted bridges in the state. It was built by the prolific Boston Bridge Works, and has kept a lot of its original elements, including the pedestrian railings.
One good reason to make the crossing on foot is to take in the view, as the river is flanked by gigantic old textile mills and factories, resembling a giant man-made gorge.
12. Canal Street Antique Store
Along the North Canal, two handsome old mill buildings have been turned into a multi-dealer antique mall.
There’s more than 40,000 square feet of retail space in these warren-like buildings, all packed with furniture, collectibles, primitives, art, vinyl, salvaged architectural elements, clothing, vintage home appliances and masses of unique decorative items from many different eras.
The Canal Street Antique Store has over 130 dealers, as well as a design center to showcase local makers on the fourth floor.
13. High Service Water Tower and Reservoir
A landmark visible for miles around Lawrence is this 157-foot water tower, built in the Italianate style in the mid 1870s.
The High Service Water Tower caps Tower Hill, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The structure is octagonal, with an adjoining circular stairwell. You can access the base of the tower via a small park next to Bellevue Cemetery.
That burial ground dates to 1847 and is the resting place of several U.S. Congressmen, victims of the Pemberton Mill Disaster (1860) and most notably Hollywood actor Thelma Todd (1906-1935), who died in suspicious circumstances.
14. Great Stone Dam
If you’re interested in the engineering that powered Lawrence’s industrial townscape, you can see where the Merrimack River was dammed to feed the North Canal and South Canal.
An impressive undertaking, the Great Stone Dam was built from 1845 to 1848, over Bodwell’s Falls. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, this structure is 900 feet long and 35 feet high, making it the largest dam in the world at the time of construction.
The main material is granite, with innovative hydraulic injections of concrete contributing to the dam’s amazing durability over 170+ years.
There’s a good view of the dam from the Broadway bridge, and the vistas are especially pretty at sunset.
15. Riverfront State Park
A short way upriver from the Great Stone Dam you can visit the third unit of the Lawrence Heritage State Park.
In this part of town both sides of the Merrimack are heavily wooded, and have quiet residential areas, so this is a fine place to come for some peace and greenery.
There’s a shaded riverfront trail, with wonderful views, and more paths through the woods for a refreshing walk.
When it comes to amenities, there’s a boat launch, ADA-accessible playground, basketball, street hockey rink and everything you could need for picnics.