The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts and Fire’s Constant Threat

Image of 1904 Fireman

1904 Fireman - Lowell, Massachusetts. From: Lowell Sun. 14 Jan 1904; 7.

Fire was a danger never far from the minds of our ancestors at the turn of the last century.  In 1904, Lowell, Massachusetts, then a manufacturing city of 95,000 residents and the 39th largest city in the United States¹, suffered a record-setting year in terms of fires, alarms, and losses suffered.  Before the year would end, just over 700 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department; five of those alarms included a fatality.  The year’s largest fires claimed Lowell’s iconic Huntington Hall and one of its largest department stores – O’Donnell & Gilbride’s.  The Old City Hall – dating from 1830, St. Patrick’s Church- the city’s first Catholic church, and even the Central Fire Station were nearly lost as well.  Through this post, and a series of posts to come, I will cover each of the grand fires of 1904 in detail.

All five of the city’s fire-related deaths during 1904 were women and girls who had passed too closely to open flames in an age when hemlines swept floors.  Mrs. Celia Green died in February after stepping on a match.  Two others, Mrs. Rose Churchill and Miss Alice Sullivan, just four-years-old, died after passing too closely to burning leaves.  Another woman, Mrs. Marion Ainsworth, died on September 23 after suffering from burns caused from her oil stove the day before.  The last, Mrs. Ellen Leary, 75, died on Christmas Eve after her clothes caught fire from a falling oil lamp.

What’s surprising is that there were not more far more deaths in Lowell.  707 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department in 1904, and those were fairly well-distributed throughout the year, averaging about 60 alarms each month.  What caused these fires?  Chimneys were the most common cause in 1904, constituting about 17% of the alarms for that year.  Grass fires were a distant second at 7%.  Improper use of matches resulted in a good number of calls to the fire station during that year, as well, and resulted in about 5% of the year’s alarms.  However, the causes of the alarms truly were varied – ranging from sparks setting a roof on fire to failed attempts to thaw frozen pipes.  A wooden spittoon was blamed for one fire and rats’ nests in wall partitions were blamed for five others.

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

St. Patrick's Church - Lowell, Massachusetts; Image via Wikipedia

1904 began with three disastrous fires before January was even half over.  The first, on January 9, sparked in the Odd Fellow’s Building on Merrimack Street, and threatened to spread across a narrow alley and burn down Lowell’s Old City Hall Building, even then a valued part of Lowell’s early history.  The Fire Department responded quickly and effectively and protected the Old City Hall Building, which still stands today on Lowell’s Merrimack Street.  The damage from that fire was contained to the top two stories of the Odd Fellow’s Block.  Just two days later, on January 11, an overheated smoke pipe in the boiler room of St. Patrick’s Church (the city’s first Catholic church, dating from 1853²) started a fire that quickly spread throughout the landmark church, and grew so large that it threatened the nearby St. Patrick’s Home, a five-story women’s boarding house and Notre Dame Academy, a day and boarding school for the daughters of the city’s mill workers, housed in another five-story brick building.  In the end, the boarding house and the Academy were saved, but the fire caused losses of $160,765³ and major damage to the church’s interior, which would not be completely rebuilt until two years later, in 1906.

Lowell's Central Fire Station - Taken by Author

The worst fire, however, occurred on January 12, the night after the St. Patrick’s Church fire.  That fire resulted in an even larger loss of $161,422 and shut down one of the city’s largest department stores, O’Donnell & Gilbride.  The fire started late in the evening at the Fellows Block near the intersection of downtown Lowell’s Middle and Palmer Streets and quickly spread to three other large brick buildings on Middle, Palmer, and even Merrimack Streets.  Before it was extinguished four hours later, the fire threatened the Central Fire Station itself and even the entire downtown area.  Together, the three fires (all occurring prior to the middle of January) resulted in more than 80% of the city’s annual fire-related losses (4).

Historical Marker on Downtown Lowell's Merrimack Street

Historical Marker telling the story of Huntington Hall/Merrimack St. Depot

Although not the largest fire of 1904, the Huntington Hall blaze of November 6, 1904 left the longest-lasting scars on the downtown Lowell landscape.  Rebuilt from a previous fire of just seven years earlier, Huntington Hall was jointly owned by the Boston & Maine Railroad and the City.  Since 1853, Huntington Hall had served downtown Lowell as its main train station and public hall at the intersection of Merrimack and Dutton Streets.  The Hall was not rebuilt after the 1904 fire, but the arches that stand today in its place on Merrimack Street replicate the Hall’s first floor entrance to the train station, which was also known as the Merrimack Street Depot.

Over a series of posts during the next few weeks, I will be covering each of these fires in detail.  Each has its story to tell and, in the case of the Huntington Hall and Fellows Block fires, has left a lasting scar on the downtown Lowell landscape we see today.  The firemen fighting these blazes fought bravely and amid significant peril to their own lives.  Fire was an ever-present danger to our ancestors who were alive in the first years of the 20th century.  Stories have survived to show that citizens banded together to help each other through this fear, to escape the fires as they raged, and to recover from the losses they suffered.

Footnotes:

1.  To put this in perspective, consider that today, Atlanta is the nation’s 40th largest city, with a population of 420,000.

2.  It should be noted that the original St. Patrick’s Church was built in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1831.  The stone structure that suffered the 1904 fire was constructed a generation later, in 1853.  It still stands today in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood.

3.  This is quoted in 1904 dollars.  For perspective, consider that the annual payroll for Lowell’s entire department of 176 firemen was $110,000 that year.

4.  This excludes the damages caused by the Huntington Hall Fire, which occurred in November and was still being valued at the end of 1904.  The total valuation of that fire’s losses approximated $70,000.

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9 responses to “The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts and Fire’s Constant Threat

  • Karen K

    Hi Ryan,

    Found your blog via a link Julie at GenBlog gave in her weekly “Friday Finds” post. I’m very glad I came upon it, it’s really neat. My roots are in New England, and that’s where most of my genealogy research is concentrated.

    This article about the fires… I’m sure that firemen were never bored back then, with so many fire hazards about. I have a great-great uncle (great-grandfather’s brother) who was a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Dept. Found an article about him, and his obit (he died a few years after retiring).

  • Karen K

    You also have a great-great uncle who was a fireman? Wow. :-)

    I don’t know much about the Boston Fire of 1872, but I should probably learn more about it. My great-great Uncle James (James F. Ryan) didn’t join the Boston Fire Department until 1894 (I don’t think he was born till 1873, a year after the great fire).

    His parents, my Irish immigrant great-great grandparents, probably witnessed or were affected by it.

  • The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts – The Rise and Fall of the O’Donnell and Gilbride Department Store | Forgotten New England

    [...] share of fire risks, especially in its downtown area. Before January was even half over in 1904, Lowell had suffered three substantial fires, one of which claimed the O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store, the city’s [...]

  • Corey

    As a downtown Lowell resident and local history buff, Great series! I look forward to reading the rest.

  • Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967 « Forgotten New England

    [...] The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts and Fire’s Constant Threat (forgottennewengland.com) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted on Sunday, February 12th, 2012 at 12:35 am and tagged with Lowell, Lowell Fire Department, Lowell Massachusetts, Sacred Heart Church, Sacred Heart School and posted in City Life, Disasters, history, lowell, Massachusetts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. « 1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History [...]

  • Colleen

    my great great grandfather was lowell fire chief at one point or so i hear and i’m trying to find out more about him! His last name was McCafferty and he had kids in the 1890’s ..anything anyone knows would be helpful :]

  • Barbara Dinerman

    I’d like to find some information about the Calvary Baptist Church fire in 1945 or so. I watched this raging fire from my mother’s lap as we sat in our living-room window directly across the street (Liberty St.) from the church. I was a baby, born in 1944. And speaking of firemen, we had two neighbors, the Connaughton brothers, who were with the Lowell Fire dept. One Connaughton (Jim?) was fire chief when I was a little girl in the 1950s.

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