First settled by Europeans in the 17th century, East Chelmsford (later renamed Lowell in honor of the founders' deceased business partner) became an important manufacturing center along the Merrimack River in the early 1820s. It was seen as an attractive site for the construction of a planned industrial city, with the Middlesex Canal (completed in 1803) linking the Merrimack to the Charles River, which flows through Boston, and with the powerful 32' Pawtucket Falls. The already existent Pawtucket Canal, designed for transportation around the Pawtucket Falls on the Merrimack, became the feeder canal for a 5.6-mile long system of power canals based around the falls. Unlike many other mill towns, however, Lowell's manufacturing facilities were built based on a planned community design. Specifically Lowell was planned as reaction to the mill communities in Great Britain, which were perceived as cramped and inhumane. Initially the factories of Lowell were built with ample green space and accompanying clean dormitories, in a style that anticipated such later architectural trends as the City Beautiful movement in the 1890s. Lowell attracted both immigrants from abroad and migrants from within New England and Quebec (including a large proportion of young women) who lived in the dormitories and worked in the mills.
The textile industry in New England experienced a sharp decline after World War II and by the 1960s, many of the Lowell's textile mill buildings were abandoned. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, several important forces came together from which emerged the Lowell National Historical Park. Congressman F. Bradford Morse assisted in the city's selection for "Model Cities" status; Brendan Fleming, UML, Math Department, faculty member, after his election to the Lowell City Council proposed the first Historic District “The Mill and Canal District” which was approved in 1972; Gordon Marker, Executive Director of Model Cities and an urban planner, was instrumental in designing the concept for an Urban Park based on Historic Preservation and Economic Revitalization; Patrick Mogan, Education Administrator and later Superintendent of Schools, was primarily interested in Lowell's children and strongly advocated the preservation and sharing of their cultural experiences; and the Lowell Historical Society which opened the Lowell Museum in 1976. Together these circles of interest became a collaborating force led by United States Senator and Lowell native Paul Tsongas to enact legislation for a national park. In 1978, the United States Congress established the Lowell National Historical Park, the Lowell Historic Preservation District, and the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission.
The park includes a visitor center, as well as many restored and unrestored sites from the 19th century. The visitor center provides a free self-guided tour of the history of Lowell, including display exhibits such as the patent model of a loom by local inventor S. Thomas.
A footpath along the Merrimack Canal from the visitor center is lined with plaques describing the importance of various existing and former sites along the canal. The Boott Mills along the Merrimack River, on the Eastern Canal, is the most fully restored manufacturing site in the district, and one of the oldest. The Boott Mill provides a walk-through museum with living recreations of the textile manufacturing process in the 19th century. The walking tour includes a detour to a memorial to local author Jack Kerouac, who described the mid-20th century declined state of Lowell in several of his books. A walkway along the river leads to several additional unrestored mill sites, providing views of restored and unrestored canal raceways once used by the mills. Additionally, the park includes the Patrick J Mogan Cultural Center, which focuses on the lives of Lowell's many generations of immigrants. Other exhibits include a working streetcar line, canal boat tours exploring some of the city's gatehouses and locks, and the River Transformed / Suffolk Mill Turbine Exhibit, which shows how water power, the Francis Turbine, ran Lowell's textile factories.