History of Lowell, Massachusetts

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The History of Lowell is closely tied to its location along the Pawtucket Falls of the Merrimack River, from being an important fishing ground for the Pennacook tribe[1] to providing water power for the factories that formed the basis of the city's economy for a century. The city of Lowell was started in the 1820s as a money-making venture and social project referred to as "The Lowell Experiment", and quickly became the United States' largest textile center. However, within approximately a century, the decline and collapse of that industry in New England placed the city into a deep recession. Lowell's "rebirth", partially tied to Lowell National Historical Park, has made it a model for other former industrial towns, although the city continues to struggle with deindustrialization and suburbanization.

Lowell is considered the "Cradle of the American Industrial Revolution",[2] as it was the first large-scale factory town in the country.

Pre-Columbian and Colonial[edit]

The site of present-day Lowell was a rendezvous point and an important fishing ground for the Pennacook Indians. The land above the Pawtucket Falls on the northern bank of the Merrimack was inhabited by the Pawtucket group, while the land along both sides of the Concord River was inhabited by the Wamesits. Passaconaway, the great Pennacook sachem, had a longhouse at the top of the Pawtucket Falls. His son, Wannalancit, later lived on the opposite bank.

Although Europeans had explored the area previously and had dealings with and laws regarding the natives, the first European structure in the Greater Lowell area was a building used as a courthouse and chapel by the Reverend John Eliot. Eliot had arrived in what is now Lowell in 1647, and set up his church the following year. In 1652, settlers moving inland arrived in the area prompting Eliot to petition the General Court of Massachusetts to set aside the Praying Indian reservation at Wamesit. On May 29, 1655, the towns of Chelmsford, near Wamesit, and Billerica, on the eastern bank of the Concord, were chartered. These towns contained land that would become Lowell. By 1665, a ditch had been dug around Wamesit to separate it from Chelmsford.

However, settlers of European descent continued to move into the Merrimack Valley, and they soon were buying land from the natives in Pawtucket, and even in the Wamesit reservation. War with other tribes also decreased the number of Pennacook. Passaconaway left in 1660, and although the Pennacook did not take up arms, King Philip's War weakened the natives further. In 1686, Wannalancit sold Wamesit, only retaining hunting and fishing rights for his people.

Pow-Wow Oak

In 1701, the land that was formerly Pawtucket officially became part of the town of Dracut (and would later be added to Lowell). In 1726, the western part of Wamesit was forcibly annexed to Chelmsford, since it now contained mostly white settlers who were not paying tax to the town yet wanted representation. Western Wamesit then became known as East Chelmsford. Eastern Wamesit remained part of Billerica until December, 1734 when it became part of Tewksbury. An oak tree, known as the Pow-Wow Oak and said to have been standing since 1700, was a gathering site for the Wamesit tribe. It is also believed that Revolutionary War soldiers from New England traveled past the Pow-Wow Oak on their way to defend Lexington and Concord.

Early industrialization and the Waltham System[edit]

Boston Manufacturing Co., Waltham, Massachusetts

Samuel Slater had started his production at Pawtucket, Rhode Island two years earlier when a group of Essex County businessmen formed the Proprietors of Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River in 1792. This organization was tasked with building a canal to bypass the Pawtucket Falls, so that lumber from New Hampshire could more quickly be delivered to the shipyards at Newburyport. Bypassing the falls was accomplished with a mile and a half long canal, with four sets of locks. Unfortunately, the Proprietors of the Middlesex Canal had been formed in 1793, and in 1803, they opened the 27-mile, 20-lock Middlesex Canal. Beginning in Middlesex Village (Chelmsford and later part of Lowell) immediately above the Pawtucket Falls, this canal provided a direct connection to Boston by connecting the Merrimack River to the Charles River at Charlestown, Massachusetts.[3] A direct, all-water route from Boston, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire was then available - severely damaging the Pawtucket Canal's business.[4]

Consequently, many small manufacturers were opening up milling and manufacturing operations in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. Most were run by man-power and were quite small, although a few small water-powered operations did exist along the Concord River. Meanwhile, Francis Cabot Lowell, a wealthy but sickly Newburyport merchant, was in Great Britain in an attempt to improve his health. He toured the local textile factories during his stay. F.C. Lowell learned the key aspects of their operation and in 1811 he met with his colleague Nathan Appleton in Edinburgh, Scotland. They saw great potential in textile manufacturing in New England, thanks to the availability of materials and labor, as well as abundant water power. They discussed establishing mills in the region. When F.C. Lowell's mercantile business suffered due to the War of 1812, he moved back to Boston. His import business was ruined by the war, but the loss of quality British finished goods on the market presented a new opportunity. F.C. Lowell, his brother-in-law Patrick Tracy Jackson, Appleton, and other investors founded the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813. Thanks to an historian in the 1940s, this loosely connected group of investors has become known as The Boston Associates. Amesbury mechanic Paul Moody, with the help of F.C. Lowell, recreated the machines Lowell had seen in Britain, in under a year. By offering a very early example of a public stock option, the investors raised $100,000, which they used to build a textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts. Their textile mill used water power generated from the Charles River, and primarily employed young Yankee women. This was the beginning of what would come to be referred to as the Waltham System, later called the Lowell system. The young Yankee women, or "mill girls," lived in company boarding houses and attended churches supported by the companies. Life inside and outside the factory was closely scrutinized and carefully controlled. The Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham was the first mill to transform raw cotton into cloth in one mill. They met with great success. Due to the small size of the Charles River, however, it soon became evident that a new and larger source of water power would be needed to support continued expansion.

Beginnings of Lowell[edit]

Lowell's canal system - historical evolution

With the War of 1812 over, British goods again returned to the American markets. Wanting to protect the fledgling American textile industry, F.C. Lowell went to Washington, D.C. to lobby for a protective tariff on finished cloth. In spite of all his success, Lowell died the following year in 1817 at age 42. He left the very wealthy Boston Manufacturing Company to Patrick T. Jackson. By 1820, the Company was searching the Merrimack River for a suitable location for their new operation, but were struggling. Eventually, business associate Ezra Worthen reminded Paul Moody about the Pawtucket Canal, and in 1821 the Boston Manufacturing Company bought the properties of "Proprietors of Locks and Canals." The canal was deepened, the number of locks was decreased to three and a dam was built at the top of the falls to improve the flow into the canal. A sizable amount of farmland was bought in East Chelmsford, and in 1822 The Boston Manufacturing Company spun off the Merrimack Manufacturing Company The company officers were Warren Dutton as President, Ezra Worthen as Superintendent, Kirk Boott as Agent and Treasurer (since Jackson needed to remain in Waltham), Appleton, Jackson, Moody, and others.

When the investors first visited East Chelmsford, the population within Lowell's current borders was approximately 250 and consisted mostly of farmers. Thousands of employees, mostly young women, were recruited from all over New England to work in new textile mills. These women were to be model citizens, unlike the working underclass in England. They lived in company owned boarding houses. They went to cultural events, attended classes, and read books. In 1840, some of the mill girls even began writing and publishing literary magazines, including the Lowell Offering. In addition to the mill girls, Yankee workmen and Irishmen from Charlestown came to dig the canals. They widened the Pawtucket Canal and dug the Merrimack Canal, Lowell's first power canal. The Merrimack Canal, which ran from the Pawtucket Canal just above Swamp Locks to the Merrimack River, delivered almost all of the 32 foot drop (head) of the Pawtucket Falls to the level of the Merrimack Mills. The Irish settled outside the center of the planned town in what became known as the 'Paddy Camps' - today's Acre neighborhood. St. Patrick's Church, one of the earliest Catholic churches north of Boston was established there a few years later in 1831. The Merrimack Manufacturing Company's first mill was operational on September 1, 1823 and a church and school were founded the following year. In 1825, "Proprietors of Locks and Canals" separated from the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, allowing it to lease water power back to the Merrimack Company, as well as other ventures. Kirk Boott was also the agent of this company. The Lowell Machine Shop opened that same year, led by Moody, who had moved from Waltham in 1823. On March 1, 1826, Lowell was incorporated as a town with a population of 2,500.[5]

The selling of hydropower and land to other companies led to an explosion in manufacturing in Lowell:[6][7]

  • 1825: Hamilton Manufacturing Company, Hamilton Canal
  • 1828: Appleton Company, Lowell Company, Lowell Canal
  • 1830: Middlesex Company
  • 1831: Suffolk Company, Tremont Company, Lawrence Company, Lawrence Canal, Western Canal
  • 1835: Boott Mills, Eastern Canal
  • 1839: Massachusetts Mills
  • 1844: Prescott Mills were founded, and bought by the Massachusetts Mills in 1845.
  • 1847: On Thanksgiving Day, the Northern Canal and Moody Street Feeder opened, increasing water power available to the corporations.

City of Lowell[edit]

Lowell's canal system - today

Meanwhile, the town was rapidly growing around the new jobs, becoming a city on April 1, 1836 with Dr. Elisha Bartlett as the first mayor.[8] Lowell was only the third Massachusetts community to be granted city government, after Boston and Salem. The population at the time was 17,633, and soon, a court, jail, hospital, cemetery, library, and two town commons were established. The first museums and theatres opened around 1840. Lowell also began annexing neighboring areas, including Belvidere from Tewksbury in 1834, and Centralville from Dracut in 1851. Daniel Ayer started the satellite city of Ayer's City in South Lowell in 1847, and in 1874, Pawtucketville and Middlesex Village were annexed from Dracut and Chelmsford respectively, bringing the city close to its present borders.

Father John's Medicine

By 1850, Lowell's population was 33,000, making it the second largest city in Massachusetts and America's largest industrial center. The 5.6 mile long canal system produced 10,000 horsepower, being provided to ten corporations with a total of forty mills. Ten thousand workers used an equal number of looms fed by 320,000 spindles. The mills were producing 50,000 miles of cloth annually. Other industries developed in Lowell as well: The Lowell Machine Shop became independent in 1845, patent medicine factories like Hood's Sarsaparilla Laboratory and Father John's Medicine opened. Tanneries, a bleachery, and service companies needed by the growing city were established. Moxie, an early soft drink, was invented in Lowell in the 1870s. Around 1880, Lowell became the first city in America to have telephone numbers.

Lowell continued to be in the forefront of new industrial technology. In 1828, Paul Moody developed an early belt-driven power transfer system to supersede the unreliable gearwork that was utilized at the time. In 1830, Patrick Tracy Jackson commissioned work on the Boston and Lowell Railroad, one of the Oldest railroads in North America. It opened five years later, making the Middlesex Canal obsolete. Soon, lines up the Merrimack to Nashua, downriver to Lawrence, and inland to Groton Junction, today known as Ayer (renamed after Lowell patent medicine tycoon Dr. James Cook Ayer), were constructed.

Uriah A. Boyden installed his first turbine in the Appleton Mill in 1844, which was a major efficiency improvement over the old-fashioned waterwheel. The turbine was improved at Lowell again shortly thereafter by Englishman James B. Francis, chief engineer of Proprietors of Locks and Canals. Francis had begun his career with Locks and Canals working under George Washington Whistler, the father of painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and his improved turbine, known as the Francis Turbine, is still used with few changes today.

Francis also designed the Francis Gate, a flood control mechanism that provides a means of sealing the canal system off from the Merrimack River, and completed the canal system by adding the Northern Canal and Moody Street Feeder, both designed to improve efficiency to the entire system. To further improve the amount of year-round, day and night water power Lowell needed, Francis, along with engineers from Lawrence, were involved with The Lake Company, a corporation involved in building dams in the Lakes Region of Central New Hampshire. These dams, constructed and improved mid-century, allowed the cities on the Merrimack River to store and release water from the Merrimack's source, including Lake Winnipesaukee.[9]


Being a booming city with many low-skilled jobs, waves of immigrants came into Lowell to work the mills. The original Irish that came to help build the canals were followed by a new group after the Irish Potato Famine, and later Catholic Germans. Ethnic tensions to the point of riots were not unheard of, and in the 1840s, the American Party (often called the Know-Nothing Party) with its Anti-Slavery Plank won elections in Lowell. By the 1850s, the cheap labor provided by the immigrants, increased competition as more manufacturing centers were built elsewhere, and strikes caused the breakdown of the Lowell System. In its place, densely populated ethnic neighborhoods grew around the city, their residents bound to their churches and communities more than the factory corporations.

The American Civil War shut down many of the mills temporarily when they sold off their cotton stockpiles, which had become more valuable than the finished cloth after imports from the South had stopped. Many jobs were lost, but the effect was somewhat mitigated by the number of males serving in the military. Lowell had a small historical place in the war: Many wool Union uniforms were made in Lowell, General Benjamin Franklin Butler was from the city, and members of the Lowell based Massachusetts Sixth—Ladd, Whitney, Taylor, and Needham—were the first four Union deaths, killed in a riot while passing through Baltimore on their way to Washington, DC. Ladd, Whitney, and later Taylor are buried in front of City Hall under a large obelisk.

After the war, mills returned to life. Recruiters fanned out all over New England for help. New mill hands were often new widows, mothers in single parent families. By August 1865, this source dried up.[10]

New immigrant groups moved into the city. In the 1870s and 1880s, French Canadians began moving into an area which became known as Little Canada. Later French Canadian immigrants included the parents of famed Beat generation writer Jack Kerouac, a native of the city. At the end of the 19th century, Greeks moved into the sections of the old Irish Acre. Other Europeans such as the Portuguese, Polish, Lithuanians and Swedes as well as Jews came to work in Lowell and settled their own neighborhoods in Back Central and Lower Highlands. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, approximately 35 percent of Lowell's 100,000 residents were foreign born.[11]

In the late 19th century, new technologies changed Lowell. The electric streetcar allowed the city to expand creating new neighborhoods on the outskirts. Tyler Park and Lynde Hill in Belvidere were home to many of Lowell's wealthiest residents, who could now live away from the noisy and polluted downtown industrial area. The prosperous city built a massive new Romanesque city hall made of granite with a clock tower that could be seen from the millyards. A new library with a hall dedicated to the Civil War, a post office, and ornate commercial buildings replaced the puritanical mid-century structures.

Steam power was first used to supplement the fully developed hydropower sources in Lowell in the 1860s, and by the mid-1870s, it was the dominant energy source. Electricity allowed the mills to run on hydroelectricity, instead of direct-drive hydropower. These improvements allowed Lowell to continue increasing its industrial output with a lesser increase in the number of workers. However, the move away from pure hydropower was leading to Lowell being eclipsed by cities with better locations for the new power sources. For example, in the 50 years after the Civil War, Fall River, Massachusetts and New Bedford, Massachusetts both became larger factory towns than Lowell based on output. The reason was largely because their seaport locations made the importation and exportation of goods and materials, and particularly coal, more economical than the considerably inland, and therefore only accessible by train, Lowell. By 1920, it was being seriously suggested that the Merrimack be dredged from Newburyport to Lowell so that barges could access the city.[12] However, the events of the 1920s ensured that would never happen.

Panorama of the city in 1918


Commuters waiting for a bus, January 1941, at the old main train station, where the Lord Overpass is today.

By the 1920s, the New England textile industry began to shift South and many of Lowell's textile mills began to move or close. Although the South did not have rivers capable of providing the waterpower needed to run the early mills, the advent of steam-powered factories allowed companies to take advantage of the cheaper labor and transportation costs available there. Labor strikes in the North became more frequent, and severe ones like the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike in neighboring Lawrence were driving up costs for investors. Many textile companies changed to a policy of disinvestment, running the mills with no capital improvements until they were no longer capable of producing profit that could be used to build or improve new factories elsewhere. In 1916, the Bigelow Carpet Company, which had previously purchased the Lowell Manufacturing Company, left Lowell. This was the first of the major corporations to move operations to the South or go bankrupt. World War I briefly improved the situation, but from 1926 to 1929, most of the rest of the companies, including the Lowell Machine Shop (which had become the Saco-Lowell Shops) left the city: The Great Depression had come to Lowell early. In 1930, Lowell's population was slightly over 100,000, down from a high of 112,000 a decade earlier. The textile industry employed 8,000 in 1936, it had been 17,000 in 1900. By the onset of World War II, 40% of the city's population was on relief. World War II again briefly helped the economy, since not only did demand for clothing go up, but Lowell was involved in munitions manufacturing. After the war, things cooled again. In 1956, the Boott Mills closed, and after over 130 years, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company closed in 1958.

Bottoming out[edit]

View of the former "Mile of Mills" along the Merrimack River. From left to right, the white tower is the former Lowell Sun offices in Kearney Square, below that is Apartments at Massachusetts Mills. At the point where the smaller Concord River joins the Merrimack, these crumbling buildings formerly belonged to the Massachusetts Mills. Heading upriver, crossing the Merrimack is the Bridge Street Bridge, followed by the largely rehabilitated Boott Mills, then on the site where the Merrimack Manufacturing Company once stood are the River Place Towers. The Tsongas Arena is hidden next door, and in the distance, the smokestacks of the former Lawrence and Suffolk Manufacturing Companies.

By the mid-1970s, Lowell's population had fallen to 91,000, and 12% of residents were unemployed. The industrial economy of the city had been reduced to many smaller scale, marginal businesses. The city's infrastructure and buildings were largely over one hundred years old, obsolete and decaying, often abandoned and in foreclosure. Urban renewal demolished many historic structures in a desperate attempt to improve the overall situation in Lowell. In 1939, the Greek Acre was the first district in the nation to face "slum clearance" with Federal Urban Renewal money. In the late 1950s, Little Canada was bulldozed. In 1960, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company's millyard and boardinghouses were demolished to make way for warehouses and public housing projects. Other neighborhoods like Hale-Howard between Thorndike and Chelmsford Streets, and an area between Gorham and South Streets, were cleared as well. Arson became a serious issue, and crime in general rose. Lowell's reputation suffered tremendously.

As the car took over American life after World War II, the downtown, which already was facing problems due to a drop in expendable income, was largely vacated as business moved to suburban shopping malls. The theatres and department stores left, and much smaller enterprises moved in if anything. Many buildings were torn down for parking lots, and many others burned down, and were not replaced. Others had their top floors removed to reduce tax bills and many facades were "modernized" destroying the Victorian character of the downtown. Road widening and other improvements destroyed a row of business next to city hall, as well as the area that has become the Lord Overpass. The construction of the Lowell Connector around 1960 was surprisingly unintrusive for an urban interstate, but that was only because plans to extend it to East Merrimack Street by way of Back Central and the Concord Riverfront were cancelled. Talk began on filling in the canals to make more real estate.

Officials described the city as looking like Europe after World War II. However, the demolition and decay of much of what had made Lowell a vibrant city led some residents to begin thinking about saving the historical structures.

National Park[edit]

The Boott Mill complex now converted to a museum.

Lowell, even as far back as the 1860s, was described[13] as a city with little civic pride. At the time, Crowley attributed it to a large percentage of the population being foreign born and therefore having no real roots there. Post its industrial collapse, that sentiment intensified, even if the reasons had changed. Many residents of Lowell viewed the city's industrial history poorly - the factories had abandoned their workers, and now sat empty and in disrepair. However, some city residents, such as educator Patrick J Mogan, viewed the city's history as something that should be preserved and capitalized on. In 1974, Lowell Heritage State Park was founded, and in 1978, Lowell National Historical Park was created as an urban national park, through legislation filed by Lowell native, congressman, and later senator Paul Tsongas. The canal system, many mills, and some commercial structures downtown were saved by the creation of the park and the visitors it brought.

The Massachusetts Miracle brought new jobs and money to the city in the 1980s. Wang Laboratories became a major employer, and built their world headquarters on the edge of the city. After the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia, many Southeast Asians, and particularly Cambodians moved into the city. Lowell became the largest Cambodian community on the east coast, and second nationally to Long Beach, California.[14] Combined with other immigrant groups like Puerto Ricans, these newcomers brought the city's population back up to six figures. However, this prosperity was short-lived. By 1990, the Massachusetts Miracle was over, Wang had virtually disappeared, and even more of Lowell's long-established businesses failed. Around this time, the last large department store left downtown Lowell, largely blamed on suburban factors,[15] including a large mall built a short drive away in tax-free New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. Additionally, gang violence and the drug trade had become severe.[citation needed] The HBO special, High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell was filmed in 1995 which tended to emphasize the reputation of the city as a dangerous and depressed place to be.[citation needed]

Modern era[edit]

Aside from the National Historical Park, Lowell is a functioning modern city of over 100,000 residents. Numerous initiatives have taken place over the last fifteen years to re-focus the city away from manufacturing, and towards a post-industrial economy.

Community Development[edit]

New groups have moved into Lowell's neighborhoods, including Brazilians and Africans,[citation needed] continuing Lowell's traditional role as a melting pot.

Lowell has been cited as one of the safest cities of its size in the nation.[16]

A project that will redevelop land once held by the Saco-Lowell Shops and the Hamilton and Appleton Mills was underway in 2009.[17] Numerous projects are being undertaken around the city, to beautify and redevelop decaying areas.[18]

Tourism and Entertainment[edit]

The Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell and LeLacheur Park were constructed in 1998. Lowell Devils hockey and Lowell Spinners baseball farm teams came to the city. National circuit entertainment is performed at the arena and at the old Lowell Memorial Auditorium. The Lowell Folk Festival, the largest free folk festival in the country, is an annual event.

The National Park has continued to expand; many buildings are still being rehabilitated.

After Massachusetts started offering a tax credit to those who film in the Commonwealth, a few movies have been made in Lowell. The Invention of Lying was released in September 2009, and shortly before, filming on The Fighter, about Lowell boxing legend Micky Ward and his older brother Dicky Eklund, was completed.


The University of Massachusetts Lowell and Middlesex Community College are playing increasingly larger roles in the city. In 2009, UMass Lowell bought up the underutilized Doubletree hotel for use as a dormitory, increasing their presence in the city's downtown.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ History of Lowell
  2. ^ Seymour, Camden (Spring 2009). "An Industrial Revolution". National Parks Magazine. American National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-06-14. 
  3. ^ http://www.americancanals.org/Data_Sheets/Mass_RI/Middlesex%20Canal%20overall%20rvsd.pdf
  4. ^ Malone, Patrick M. (2009). Waterpower in Lowell: Engineering and Industry in Nineteenth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 13–15. ISBN 0-8018-9306-2. 
  5. ^ Coburn, Frederick W. (1920). History of Lowell and Its People V1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints. pp. 158, 162. ISBN 1-4326-5975-8. 
  6. ^ Cowley, Charles (1868). A history of Lowell. Boston: Lee & Shepard, reprinted by Michigan Historical Reprint Series. pp. 50–59. 
  7. ^ Weible, Robert (1991). The Continuing Revolution, A History of Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell Historical Society. pp. 142–146. ISBN 0-9631604-0-0. 
  8. ^ Coburn, Frederick W. (1920). History of Lowell and Its People V1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Reprinted by Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints. pp. 218–219. ISBN 1-4326-5975-8. 
  9. ^ Pursell, Carroll W. (2001). American Technology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 42–46. ISBN 0-631-21997-8. 
  10. ^ Gordon, Wendy M (February 2007). Ella Bailey: A Mill Girl at Home-Part 2. Vermont's Northland Journal. 
  11. ^ http://ecommunity.uml.edu/lhs/lowell_history2.htm
  12. ^ Frederick Coburn, History of Lowell and its People V1
  13. ^ by local historian Charles Cowley
  14. ^ http://www.khmerinstitute.org/musings/mu3.html
  15. ^ "Downtown Lowell Strategic Plan: Introduction". Lowell Center City Committee. Lowell Division of Planning and Development. 2000-11-16. Retrieved 2010-01-01. 
  16. ^ Lowell - Did you know? — LowellMA.gov
  17. ^ http://www.hamiltoncanaldistrict.com/
  18. ^ http://www.lowellma.gov/depts/dpd/projects/index_html/
  19. ^ http://www.uml.edu/Media/News%20Articles/UML_Purchases_Double.html


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