New East Campus Exhibits Celebrate Lowell’s French Canadian Immigrants

A person reads a panel about Little Canada Image by Ed Brennen
A passerby reads about the history of Little Canada on the informational panel that the university recently installed in the Northern Canal overlook park.

By Ed Brennen

Standing with her camera on the Northern Canal bridge on East Campus, Meagan Timmins ’20 couldn’t imagine someone cooling off on a hot summer day by leaping from the roof of a three-story tenement into the canal below.

But that’s one of the stories that Timmins heard while working on her Honors College capstone project: a “then and now” video about the Little Canada neighborhood that once stood on UML’s East Campus.

“Stories like that really stuck out to me,” says Timmins, a history and world languages double-major from Tewksbury, Massachusetts. “It was so interesting to learn about the day-to-day lives of the people that were living right where students are today.”

One of the images Timmins used in her project — a 1964 photo of tenement buildings hugging the Northern Canal, where the Fox Hall parking lot now stands — is prominently featured in a series of new informational panels that the university recently installed to celebrate the life and times of Lowell’s French Canadian immigrants.

The four panels, which draw on the research of History Prof. Robert Forrant and several students, are a collaborative project between the university’s Facilities Management and Community Relations offices, the Center for Lowell History, Lowell National Historical Park and the Lowell Historic Board.

The wayside panels are located in the new Northern Canal overlook park (at the corner of University Avenue and Pawtucket Street), on the still-under-construction Northern Canal bridge, and outside the entrances of the Campus Recreation Complex and LeLacheur Park.

“As a historian, one of the things I’m always interested in is finding ways for people to bump into history in unlikely spaces,” says Forrant, who began thinking about the project three years ago while working with students to create the online Library of New England Immigration. “If they bump into something unexpected, it piques their curiosity. And hopefully they’ll want to find out more.”
“The more we can understand and share immigrant stories, the better. People can see similarities in those stories and connect in ways they might not otherwise.” -History Prof. Robert Forrant

From 1860 to 1900, around 31,000 French Canadians migrated to Lowell to work in the city’s textile mills, making Le Petit Canada one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the United States. Residents preserved their Canadian Catholic culture through the tradition of “La Survivance,” participating in social clubs and civic and religious organizations.

“There was a strong sense of cultural identity in the French Canadian community,” says Sophie Combs, a senior history major (and French language minor) who is writing a paper on the city’s Franco American Orphanage for her final Honors College project. “There was a great sense of solidarity, of helping each other out and assisting your neighbor.”

Most of Little Canada’s buildings were lost to urban renewal projects beginning in the 1960s, although the culture has survived through social organizations such as Club Passe-Temps.

As a third-generation French Canadian born in Lowell in 1960, Dave Ouellette has faint memories of the old neighborhood. He was delighted to see the new Little Canada panels on campus.

“They are absolutely incredible,” says Ouellette, founding president of ACTION (Acre Coalition to Improve Our Neighborhood), a group that has worked with the university on projects like the Decatur WAY art space. “Chancellor (Jacquie) Moloney has always been a great partner, and this is another wonderful success by UMass Lowell.”
A view of a Little Canada panel on the bridge over the Northern Canal Image by Ed Brennen
The new panel on the Northern Canal bridge, looking toward the Wannalancit Business Center, shows the Little Canada tenements that once lined the waterway.

Forrant, who leads neighborhood walks focused on immigration and labor for the Lowell National Historical Park, says it’s important for the university to invest time and resources into telling the stories of the city.

“The more we can understand and share immigrant stories, the better,” he says. “People can see similarities in those stories and connect in ways they might not otherwise.”

Laurel Racine, chief of cultural resources for Lowell National Historical Park, agrees.

“These panels will help us remember the people, stories and structures of Lowell's historic French Canadian neighborhood and the important role this community plays in our city,” Racine says.

While they didn’t play a direct role in creating the panels, Combs and Timmins are happy to see that their research work with Forrant on the city’s diverse tapestry of immigrants can help enlighten future River Hawks as they walk to class from their East Campus residence halls. 

“The plaques are a great way to acknowledge that, hey, you’re on this historic land in a city that is easily one of the most important in industrial history,” Timmins says. “As a student, it’s nice to know the history of where you are.”

“We’re very lucky,” adds Combs, an Andover, Massachusetts, native who will graduate in December. “Not every undergraduate gets a chance to do this kind of in-depth research into something that’s so important.”