Category Archives: Boston

The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source:  Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source: Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

In the years following the US Civil War, roller skating really came into its own.  As the design of the roller skate improved over the second half of the 19th century, so did its popularity.  Many became fans of the new hobby.  Many others viewed it as immoral and a threat to the order of things.

By the 1880s, a craze had developed, and roller skating rinks began opening in many US cities.  Boston had three.  The largest, on the corner of Clarendon and St. James Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood, featured a roller skating surface some 180 feet long by 70 feet wide.  Two others were in Boston, at the time, one on Washington Street, near the intersection with Dover, in the South End.  Another stood on Shawmut Avenue.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a December 1884 editorial in the Lowell Sun took aim at the Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, stating it was ” the cause of more and worse immorality . . . in the city.”    It went so far as to claim that the city’s theaters, themselves often criticized for contributing to society’s immorality, were a “Sunday school” compared to the roller skating rinks.  While the editorial acknowledged that some of the city’s most “moral and estimable” people visited the rink, it questioned whether the rink also attracted some of the city’s most immoral citizens, like “prostitutes” and “libertines”.  And, the editorial went on to insinuate that it was much more likely that the immoral would corrupt the moral classes, rather than the other way around.  The 1884 writer wondered:

“Does it improve a young girl’s modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor, in the gaze of hundreds, with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head?  Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?”

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source:  The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source: The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink was located on Gorham Street, and opened each year in November, right before Thanksgiving.  The season extended through April and sometimes until the middle of May, when the rink closed and skaters took to skating on the smoothest sidewalks and roads to be found in the city.  Sometimes, the rinks were also used for bicycles, bouquet parties, and competitive skating competitions.  For a while, the Lowell Skating Rink even hosted the games of Lowell’s polo team.  Despite its popularity, many saw the skating rink as a “bad institution” even it all it did was keep society’s most vulnerable, the young, out too late at night, or provide them with a plausible cover when they went elsewhere.

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s.  (Source:  Scientific American Supplement - February 24, 1877)

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s. (Source: Scientific American Supplement – February 24, 1877)

Inside, the rink was known not only for its yellow birch skating floor, but also for its ornamental railings that separated the skaters from the fifteen-foot-wide promenade.  From the promenade, spectators watched skaters from their rows of camp chairs.

The editorial concluded by claiming that roller skating could not “help having immoral effects” even if the management of the rink was sound.  The long-ago writer also claimed that roller skating was the “most mischievous form of public amusement ever introduced” and believed that it would soon be “suppressed as a dangerous evil.” In the end, roller skating was not suppressed, and actually evolved into being seen by later generations as good, clean fun.  The Lowell Skating Rink would not live to see the vindication of roller skating among the masses, though.  It closed its doors in early 1885, and was sold and torn down soon after.


New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends

This engraving from Wikimedia Commons shows the assassination of President James A. Garfield, with Secretary of State James G. Blaine standing at right. (Engraving originally published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” on July 11, 1881.)

In summer’s waning days in 1881, New Englanders read about hope for President Garfield‘s recovery from a gunshot wound suffered two months earlier, an imminent rising of the Apache Nation in the West, and a baseball game between the “Bostons” and the “Worcesters”, where unfavorable weather “kept away all spectators” and worries that Pike, the center fielder for the Worcesters, must have been “sold out” since the errors he made had given a win to the Boston team.

That all changed when the skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states.  In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads.  This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue.  New Englanders worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a hurricane coming.  They began to talk about their “Yellow Day”.  The name stuck.  Those among the more superstitious remembered Mother Shipton‘s apocalyptic prophecies with apprehension and hoped that they were not witnessing the end of the world.

By noon, the skies had darkened to the point that birds were seen roosting, and people, so accustomed to relying on natural light during their nineteenth-century days, reached for “artificial lights” to light their offices and homes.  Early afternoon trains left Boston with lamps lit, and the railroad men were seen leaving the depots with their lit lanterns in-hand, a scene usually only seen on evening and night trains.  People began to compare Yellow Day with Black Friday, New England’s darkest day, that had occurred in 1780, more than a century earlier.

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Massachusetts, in Fall River and in Lowell, students left school early.  Mills throughout New England either lit their ‘artificial lights’ or followed suit, sending their employees out into the oddly darkened streets.  Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day.  Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day.  Outside, lamplighters lit street lamps on the cities’ main roads. In agricultural communities like West Barnstable, farm work stopped for the day, as farmers watched cattle stop feeding and hens roost early.  Witnesses began to describe the Yellow Tuesday skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on.  Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues.  Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light.  Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly.  People in the street looked sickly and yellowish.  Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.

Boston's Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source:  Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

Boston’s Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source: Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

So many Bostonians rushed to the Equitable Building to view the strange day from its high roof that the roof had to be closed to further visitors in the afternoon.  People sought explanations for what they were witnessing.  The calmest theories blamed forest fires raging in Canada or Michigan, combining with fog and overcast skies in New England.  Surely, the “saffron curtain” blanketing New England’s skies was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, people reasoned.  But, no one smelled smoke.  Others attributed the yellowish hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees.   Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand.  Some took this even further.  Groups of Second Adventists in Worcester, Woonsocket, and Hartford were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end.  More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.

As the afternoon wore on toward 5 PM, the smoke began to dissipate, and by 8 PM, stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England.  New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780.  Black Friday of 1780, as it was known, followed an odd and severe winter of 1779-1780 where New Englanders frequently saw auroral displays and large spots appearing on the sun.  Snow, four feet deep, lasted from mid-November until April.  After that cold, long winter, a vast blackness opened the day on Friday, May 19, 1780, across New England, and extended beyond its borders into northern Pennsylvania and well into Canada.  The Massachusetts Spy reported that sunlight at high noon was about as bright as clear, bright moonlight.

A Map showing Damage in Michigan from the Thumb Fire of 1881. (From: State of Michigan: Department of Natural Resources)

In its aftermath, 1881′s Yellow Tuesday joined the 18th century’s Black Friday in lists of oddly memorable New England days.  The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had travelled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area (Pictured, at left) all on one day, the day before.  Yellow Tuesday long lived on in regional lore, but left everyday conversation soon after with President Garfield’s death on September 19.


Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

This 1852 drawing, from Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion, shows ice harvesting on Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the days before refrigeration, ice was a valuable winter cash crop for enterprising businessmen.  Ice was a year-round staple in most households, and many families would give up food before they would give up ice.  As a region, New England was well-known for its quality ice.  The region’s severe cold coupled with its deep ponds produced hardy, compact ice that became quite valued for the 19th-century ice trade.

During heat waves, people depended on the harvested ice to cool lemonade and make cocktails even more appetizing, as a retreat not only from the life’s concerns, but from the heat too.  Also, iced water flavored with lemon peels had long been a 19th-century staple of Sunday school picnics.  There were other uses of ice too.  Ice was used to protect food and drink from spoiling, and it was also used to preserve bodies before burial.

Ice, due to its nature and its weight, was expensive and difficult to transport.  The ice of New England was viewed as among the purest and clearest ice available, and the region frequently produced ice crops that were thick, and as clear as crystal.  Even middle-class families considered regular visits from the ice man within their means, along with calls from butchers and grocers.  During the summer, restaurant owners and barkeepers needed steady deliveries of ice.  Private citizens did too.  Students were known to take small pieces of ice to suck on as they walked to school.  When local supplies fell short in terms of quantity or quality, the expense to bring ice in from Western Massachusetts or from New Hampshire was considerable.

The best ice for harvesting was thought to be between nine inches and one foot thick.  If the ice was to exported long distances, the recommended thickness grew to about 20 inches.  Before harvesting the ice, any snow was cleared off its surface by a wooden scraper dragged across the ice by a horse.  A second scraper was then drawn across the ice, which used a steel blade to scrape away the ice’s porous upper layer, which averaged about three inches.  After the snow was cleared, and the porous layer of the ice was removed, another horse then dragged a plow across the ice to cut a set of three-inch deep grooves across its surface.  Soon after,  a series of cuts was made in the opposite direction, thus creating a checkerboard pattern across the ice.

A stereoscopic view showing a scene from the Minnesota ice harvest (Source: Robert N. Dennis collection via Wikimedia Commons)

After the squares were marked off, the manual labor started as men took out hand saws and sawed out rows of ice blocks, each about 30 feet square.  After the first block was removed, the subsequent ones would either be taken out or thrust under the others.  Once the first few blocks were removed the work became easier as an ice spade could be dropped into the grooves to wrest the remaining  blocks of ice free.

The blocks of ice were sometimes floated through the canal, where, at the shore, they would be hoisted out.  Sometimes, they were hoisted free from the river, jerked with a hook at the end of a pole.  All blocks were then slid on sleds, which carried them away to the ice houses.

The ice blocks were then taken to ice houses, where they were cut into smaller ice cakes and raised up into the houses by steam-powered elevators.  At the top of the elevator, men then pushed the ice cakes into their final resting positions within the ice house.  As long as the ice kept moving, its weight could easily be managed by one man.  If the ice stopped, though, its weight of nearly one-half ton could require as much as four men to get it moving again.  The ice house itself was a huge wooden building with no windows that typically stood near a pond or riverbank.  Ice houses measured from 100 to 200 feet long, and were wide too.  The largest boasted capacities of some 20,000 tons of ice.  To better insulate the ice during warmer weather, the walls of ice houses were filled with sawdust.

Today, the once-familiar scene of ice cutters harvesting ice on area lakes, ponds, and rivers has gone the same way as the vision of the ice man delivering his blocks of ice along city streets.  Gone too are most of the ice houses where the ice was once stored.  What remains are the images and memories of the ice harvesting trade in history books, and in the family histories of those who count these men among their ancestors.

A late-19th century view of an ice house in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Photograph by H. P. McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)


Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883

Was Thanksgiving dinner different during Victorian times? If you were to sit down at a Thanksgiving table in 1883, you would see the familiar turkey and cranberry sauce and pies. But, what might surprise you would be, first, macaroni and cheese, and next, the meal that arrived when the Victorians called for macaroni and cheese.

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing turkey and football player. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Macaroni and cheese in a white bowl.

What Victorians called macaroni and cheese, we would more readily recognize as a sort of lasagna.  Above, a photo of macaroni and cheese, the present-day variety.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1883, macaroni was said to be an acquired taste, and was still unfamiliar to many. To make macaroni and cheese, housekeepers were advised to boil the macaroni, then mix in a tablespoon of canned tomatoes, and then add a layer of freshly grated cheese.  On top of this, successive layers of boiled macaroni, canned tomatoes, and grated cheese, were added until the serving dish was filled.  When the resulting meal was delivered to the Thanksgiving table, it might be more familiar to us as a sort of lasagna instead of the macaroni and cheese we know.

Not surprisingly, if you were to venture into the kitchen, the meals most familiar to us would be somewhat unfamiliar in their preparations.  Soon after arriving home with the Thanksgiving turkey, housekeepers were advised to dress the turkey, and then bathe it several times in a mixture of salt and water.  After washing it a few times, and after preparing a brisk, healthy fire, the turkey was roasted.  Two hours was the suggested roasting time for a ten-pound turkey.  The dressing was made of bread crumbs, butter, salt, pepper, thyme, sage, sweet marjoram, and one egg.  It was kept moist by adding in some hot milk.  Many liked chopped onion or sausage to be added.  As the turkey roasted, it was basted with butter,water, and later, pan drippings.  Before bringing the turkey to the table, many added fried oysters to the plate.

Before the advent of canned cranberries, the preparation of this Thanksgiving tradition was a source of anxiety for many.  One writer claimed that there was no fruit that was “more widely abused.”  To prepare a quart of cranberries, housekeepers were advised to have a pint of cold water and a quart of sugar at hand.  After washing the berries, housekeepers were advised to add them and the pint of cold water to a granite saucepan, and begin cooking them slowly.  Hard boiling would ruin them.  As the berries cooked, the sugar was to be added in slowly.  As the berries, water, and sugar melted into a syrup, more sugar was added.  The mixture was never to be stirred and took about 45 minutes to prepare.

As they are today, pies were a Thanksgiving Day staple too.  Two varieties, mince and pumpkin, were the most popular.  Most advice of the time assumed that just about everyone knew how to make a good pie crust and that any country woman worth her salt could make a top-rate mince or pumpkin pie.  In the country, mince meat would need to be made long before the Thanksgiving Day holiday.  In the city, it could always be purchased, whenever needed, at the grocery store.  To make a pumpkin pie, a housekeeper needed a pint of stewed pumpkin, strained through a sieve.  To this, four eggs would be added, along with a quart of milk and some spices and sugar.  After baking, the pie was sprinkled with powdered sugar and brought to the table.  Other familiar sights filled out the Thanksgiving table of 1883.  Mashed white potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, celery, pickles, and bread were all there.  So were sweet cider, raisins, nuts, and black coffee.  Cole slaw was another popular component of the Thanksgiving Day meal.

Like parents today, Americans living in Victorian-era Massachusetts, worried about how to entertain the little ones.  One Boston Globe writer advised involving the children in making their very own Thanksgiving Day creation.  The writer advised providing the children with a large moulding board and a tin pan, far away from the kitchen.  With the pan on the moulding board, the children were to add 12 tablespoons of white flour, some water and a handful of raisins.  After this, they added four tablespoons of sugar , some molasses, vanilla flavoring, cinnamon, and allspice. One egg later, the concoction was ready to cooked on the stove for two to three hours.  The writer advised saving the eggshells for ornamentation.  The smell of burnt pastry was the sign that the children’s creation was done.  It wasn’t edible, of course, but children could then be escorted outside to the woodshed, where a helpful adult would dismantle their concoction with a sledgehammer or axe.

Thanksgiving Day — Arrival at the old home, 1858

One look at Thanksgiving Day advice for 1883 shows that the Thanksgiving meal hasn’t changed much in the last 130 years, even if the preparation of the meal, and diversions for those not involved in the preparations, have.  Sure, Thanksgiving dishes of macaroni and cheese and cole slaw might seem strange to us today, but the turkey and cranberry sauce were still the mainstays of the Thanksgiving meal even then.  And, hasn’t the Thanksgiving meal always been about the turkey and cranberry sauce?


The Men of the Boston, Lowell and Nashua Line – Train Life in the 1870s

The former Boston & Lowell railroad station on Lowell’s Central Street.

My two-year-old son loves trains.  One of his first words was “train”.  And, he likes to announce the arrival and departure of trains, with the word “train”, repeatedly, while pointing.

The fascination people have with trains can be traced back much further than today’s living generations.  In fact, before planes and automobiles, trains, or iron horses – as they were sometimes admiringly called, captivated young people in cities, towns, and out on country farms.  In the years following the close of the Civil War, young men on rural farms looked with fascination at the trains that passed through their New England towns.  They looked to the trains to deliver them from the boredom they had come to associate with farm life.  For young rural women, a trip to the depot to watch the train come in allowed them to break up the monotony  of farm life by seeing who was arriving from Boston, the ‘big city’.

In the 1870s, young people everywhere saw railroad life as offering a certain charm and urban sophistication.  Men who were able to land positions with the railroad could count on steady employment and a solid career.  And, they would travel through the city and surrounding countryside once or maybe even twice daily.

Men landing railroad jobs started off as brakemen, who brought trains to a stop at approaching stations.  From there, with time, experience, and some politicking, they were elevated into baggage-master positions.  Baggage masters were charged with caring for and delivering the bags and suitcases to traveling passengers. All young men on the railroad hoped one day to become conductors, who held the awe of all.  Conductors wore gold-laced caps, and were the ones who announced the ‘all aboard!’ at each stop along the line.

Railway men, and those who loved them, knew that a job on the railroad meant many hours away from home, but most of the men wouldn’t trade the job for any other, and often, a man who started his career as a brakeman retired decades later after a lifetime of employment on the railroad.

Lowell depot, by Leander Baker

Lowell depot, at the current site of Boston’s North Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The conductors of the railroad were known by their uniforms.  Made of distinctive dark blue cloth, each man wore a sack coat and vest with pants, decorated with stripes.  The men fastened their uniforms in place with brass buttons, which bore the date of the railroad’s incorporation.  As part of their compensation, conductors received a stipend of $200 annually to buy their uniforms.  Strict regulations were enforced to ensure that conductors always appeared in uniform, and that they were neatly dressed.  Upon each completion of five years of experience, conductors added a black velvet stripe with gold trimming to their right sleeves.

Life on The Boston, Lowell, and Nashua Line

In 1874, the vast network of railroad lines connecting Boston with the outside world included the Boston & Providence, the Old Colony, the Fitchburg, the Boston & Albany, the Boston & Maine, the Eastern, and the Boston, Lowell & Nashua.

Ad for Boston & Lowell Rail Road, from the 1861 Boston City Directory (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

During the years following the Civil War, the Boston, Lowell, and Nashua line was known for its austere, direct conductors.  Most of the men who ran the line had grown up in the towns of New Hampshire where, as boys, they dreamt of one day becoming conductors.  In 1874, sixteen men served as conductors for the Boston, Lowell, and Nashua line on its “Boston End”; three more served as additional help when collecting and punching tickets on the trains when they ran their short trips.  Forty-six men supported the conductors’ efforts in the roles of and baggage masters.  The line prided itself on hiring men who had the ability to grow into the conductor role.

On the Boston, Lowell & Nashua line, men working the Lowell, Concord and Greenfield routes averaged 120 miles daily.  Men who worked the Woburn, Lexington, and Stoneham routes averaged some 60 or 80 miles, daily.  It was said that the more frequent stops on the shorter routes were more exhausting.

Conductors earned monthly salaries between $70 and $85.  Brakemen and baggage masters earned salaries around $50, monthly.  The men of the Boston, Lowell & Nashua line were described as a “steady-going” set, and almost all were married.  Those who had seen the conductors’ room described scenes of “high, low, jack” or backgammon.  The conductors on the line included some of the railroad’s longest-serving veterans.  One, John Barrett, had run the first train to ever make the route some forty years earlier, on June 26, 1835.  Barrett had held his conductorship through 1860, when he became a depot master for several more years.  By the 1870s, Barrett was still serving the railroad, even at the advanced  age of 74.  Another veteran of the line, Josiah Short, had served the railroad some forty years; by the mid-1870s, he had become a ticket agent at the Lowell station.  Another conductor, Albert Carter, had served for so long on the line’s Woburn branch that generations of schoolboys had come to know him as “Old Carter”.  Old Carter had developed no small part of his reputation by catching and reprimanding train stowaways who tried to steal rides between stations in the Winchester area during the years surrounding the Civil War.

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority GP4...

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority entering the Porter Square Station (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fascination with the iron horse and its personnel continues to this day, and many children announce the coming and going of the commuter rail train during its many runs bringing commuters into and out from Boston, daily.  The Boston, Lowell & Nashua line lives on in today’s MBTA commuter rail, which extends from Boston’s North Station through Lowell’s Commuter Rail station at the Gallagher Transit Terminal.  For some time, an extension of the commuter rail as far north as Manchester, NH has been proposed and debated, which would include stops in North Chelmsford, Tyngsboro, Nashua and at Manchester’s airport.  While the decision of extending the rail continues to be debated, today’s commuter rail stations force commuters from cities and towns north of Lowell to drive deeper into Massachusetts in search of one of the currently open commuter rail stations.


Jailbreak at Rainsford Island – Boston Harbor: August 1899

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, ...

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A steady stream of ten boys, each jumping from the classroom windows of the Rainsford Island House of Reformation, sprinted for the shore under the cover of the night fog on August 19, 1899. They found their way through the brush by the light of the fire that raged through their prison behind them.  As the boys reached the shore, a boat appeared and several of them  crawled into it.  The rest found another boat nearby, belonging to a lobsterman, and stole away in that.  From there, the boys escaped first to Moon Island, and then into Boston itself.

While the boys slunk off into the darkness, the prison’s superintendent, John C. Anthony, was the first to notice the flames issuing from the north wing of his House of Reformation.  Just days earlier, the same building had been set afire.  And the day before, a boy named Joseph Sullivan escaped by jumping off the island’s gangplank and swimming over to Hull, across Boston Harbor.  Sullivan had told his fellow inmates that, if his escape was successful, he would return to help the others.

Superintendent Anthony issued the alarm.  Within moments, his sixteen officers directed the House’s remaining inmates as they took the fire hose and began their efforts to fight the raging fire.  It proved little use.  The poor quality hose kept splitting. Whatever little water pressure they had was leaking away before the water even had a chance to hit the flames.

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston...

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the fire raged, Superintendent Anthony called Superintendent Hopkins of Boston Harbor’s Long Island for help.  Their ship, the John Howard, soon arrived.  The men from the Howard found the north wing completely ablaze, and the inmates fighting the blaze with their single line of hose that had burst in many spots.  The crew of the Howard aimed two streams of water at the fire while Superintendent Anthony put in a call to Boston, which also sent a ship of firefighters to the island.  Their ship arrived, and their crew fought the flames alongside the crew of the Howard, and the inmates.  The fire was gradually brought under control, but not before the North Wing’s top two floors were destroyed.

In the commotion caused by the fire, twenty-five Boston City policemen arrived to guard the island’s shores trying to prevent the boys still missing from escaping the island.  They found boys running about the island “as they pleased, like Fijis”.  Some tried constructing rafts and floating away into the harbor.  One boy, named McNulty, nearly drowned about 50 yards off the shore of Hull, before he was rescued from his floating log by a reporter named Frank Sibley.  Two other boys were later found crawling through a cornfield in search of driftwood that they too hoped to use for a Hull-bound raft.

As midnight approached on that Saturday night, Boston police had rounded up nearly all of the boys who hadn’t managed to escape the island’s shores.  The boys were gathered on the House of Reformation’s recess yard and spent the night in the chapel, which had not been destroyed in the fire.  Sleeping atop mattresses that had been pulled out of the burning building, some of the island’s more unruly boys caused trouble for the guards, yelling, hollering, and calling them names.  The guards tolerated the abuse, owing to the boys’ agitated state of mind, but after some time, they adopted ‘extreme measures’ to restore the peace.

A few ‘knock-down’ battles ensued between police, prison officials, and prisoners.  Eventually, the law got the upper hand.  With the unruliness reigned in, the officials picked out eight of the worst offenders and subjected them to “the administration of the rattan stick” the next morning, when they were made to bend over a bar and were flogged.  As for the boys who escaped, they remained at large for weeks before law enforcement was able to recapture them.

In the investigations occurring in the weeks and months following the fire, cases of prisoner abuse were unearthed, and Superintendent Anthony resigned his position.  Four of the ten escapees were later charged with setting the fire.  Their names were not immediately released by authorities, but were known to the local press soon after the arson.  James McNulty, the boy later rescued while adrift on a log several hundred yards from Hull was among their number.

The investigation found that the boys used shavings, paper, and oil that they had hoarded during the months before the fire.  Escaping to the attic on that Saturday night, the four boys lit several spots in the attic at once, and watched as the fire rapidly gained ground.  McNulty, after his recapture, was later implicated in the August 1900 burning of a barn at another reformatory school, in Westboro, Massachusetts.

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. For more in...

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island, an 11 acre island in Boston Harbor, is named for Edward Rainsford, one of the island’s earliest settlers.  In its history, Rainsford Island has been known by a number of names including Hospital Island, Pest House Island, and Quarantine Island.  Since 1996, Rainsford Island has been a part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area.  A municipal institution, the House of Reformation at Rainsford Island housed boys between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who had been sent there for all sorts of crimes, ranging from serious crimes like assault with intent to kill and larceny to the crimes that were substantially less serious like stubborn child and ‘playing ball on the Lord’s day’. The House of Reformation, later named the Suffolk School for Boys, operated on the island from 1895 to 1920.  The school housed a three-and-a-half story building with two wings, known as the North and South Wings.  At the time of the fire, 140 boys had been incarcerated there.  Most were housed in the House’s North Wing, which held 115 boys.


Oh, The Many Queer Lights of Franklin Park! – The Advent of Bicycle Lights in Boston, 1899

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

Blue lights, green lights, and red lights rose out of the dusky fog.  Men emerged carrying bright Japanese lanterns; women held dim electric bulbs.  As summer waned in Boston during the last days of August in 1899, a new regulation came into effect.  Starting on the night of August 21, 1899, bicyclists in Boston were to carry lights as they rode.  No longer would the 19th century darkness of Boston’s streets, paths, and byways yield unseen horrors like speeding bicyclists.

The only issue was that no one had thought to define exactly what kind of light the law should require for bicycles, or how many would do, or even where or how they should be mounted.  And this seemed perfectly daft to a populace accustomed to a world of darkness after twilight faded into night.

The patrolmen charged with enforcing the new law suffered for that vagueness; some suffered the abuse more amiably than others.  On the night of the 21st in that enlightened August of 1899, patrolmen were made aware that the regulation had gone into effect, but were asked not to enforce it until the following night.  Instead, for the night of the 21st, they were to ‘remind’ bicycle riders of their new responsibility.

English: Franklin Park, Boston

Franklin Park, Boston (Photo credit: Wikipedia).  In 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo would be founded, thirteen years after the passage of the bicycle lighting law.

Andy Cramm, a Franklin Park patrolman well-known for his joviality and affability, took his orders to heart.  On that Monday evening, the last before the new law took effect, Andy promised that violators would be ‘pinched sure as faith’ if they didn’t carry lanterns on the following evening.  Said he:  “I have only warned them tonight and lots of ‘em have sauced me, but I just want to see ‘em do it tomorrow night.”

Patrolman Cramm, whose beat included the part of Franklin Park known as the ‘roof garden’, saw one bicyclist who had attached a big reflector lantern to a pole extending from the front of his bicycle, much like what he had seen hanging in a “country doctor’s doorway”.   Andy called after the bicyclist as he pedaled off into the darkness, amid the cheers of the spectators and pedestrians who had assembled to watch the unexpected fun brought on by the new regulation.

Many of the bicyclists taunted Cramm and other patrolmen with their varying interpretations of the new vaguely-worded regulation that only required that they carry a light.   Some came carrying Japanese lanterns. Others carried bullseye lanterns.  Still others, like the bicyclist above, carried a huge reflector.  A few carried small, dim electric lights that were barely visible.  The lights spanned all of the available colors.  And then there were the bicyclists who hadn’t even heard of the new law, and who had come as they always had, in the dark, without any lights whatsoever.

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

And it fell to Andy Cramm and two other policemen to inform all of the bicyclists in the nearly 600-acre Franklin Park of the new regulation and to evaluate their sometimes half-serious attempts to comply with it.  Cramm, who was stationed near the Blue Hill Avenue entrance that night, was said to have suffered the worst of the abuse.  Known for his jovial, approachable manner, he handled the pranksters with ‘kid gloves’, but promised to bring his ‘boxing gloves’ the next night after the regulation really went into effect.

As Andy Cramm stood in the middle of the path leading from Blue Hill Avenue, prankster bicyclists rode past him, taunting the new law, their bicycles bedecked with red, green, and blue lights, of every variety.  Efforts had clearly been made to be the bicyclist with the most ridiculous light set-up.  Some bicyclists carried the lights in their hands; some attached them to the rear of their bicycles.  Others affixed them to long poles and attached these to the fronts of their bikes.

One young couple, riding a tandem bicycle, hadn’t heard of the coming regulation and drove without a light, wheeling around Patrolman Andy Cramm as he kindly, but firmly berated them.  They eventually wheeled off into the darkness as the man called back: “Ta-ta Andy, I’ll see you in church.” Another man, attempting to make a good faith attempt to comply with the law, showed up at Franklin Park with a well-lit corncob pipe in his mouth.  A light?  Surely.  But, Patrolman Andy Cramm still told him the error of his ways.

Cramm and his two fellow patrolman eventually found the very darkest section of Franklin Park – at ‘Lovers’ Lane’, where they found many bicycles lacking lights – and riders.  None of the riders, had they even been found, were arrested, the patrolmen said.  To do so would leave their beats unprotected for too long, they reasoned.  An arrest cost the patrolmen about an hour, the time it took to bring the perpetrators to the police station and then to return to the park.

Said one of the men, “I never saw such carrying’s on in my life.  I suppose they wanted to make the most of the last night without lights.”


A Train Accident in Lowell – 1928

Few people living today remember the 1920s – let alone the specifics of travel during the era.  Luckily, New England‘s commitment to preserving its history makes it relatively easy to envision the region as it appeared in decades past.  This becomes obvious during any ride through many of its cities.  The YouTube video below shows the Boston streetscape as it appeared in the 1920′s.  In watching it, you will see many familiar sights, and some sights, period cars and fashions, that have faded with the passage of time.

Like today, travel on the roads and rails of the 1920s carried its risks.  Auto and train accidents occurred and, at many times, were more serious than today’s accidents, given the era’s lack of safety equipment and regulations to minimize accidents and their impacts.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

At one o’clock during the afternoon of November 19, 1928, two passenger trains of the Boston & Maine railroad crashed head-on just beneath the Hale Street bridge.  Fifteen were taken to local emergency rooms at St. John’s, Lowell General, and the Lowell Corporation hospitals in ambulances, private cars, and trucks.

Three cars of the two trains derailed and overturned.  Train 10, which was travelling southbound to Boston from Woodsville, NH, had received a clear signal to enter the northbound track.  Moments later, as it was passing through the crossover and back onto its southbound track, a northbound express, Train 9, which had left Boston to travel to Woodsville struck the lead car on the 10 train.  The impact was so great, the southbound train overturned and derailed.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

By the next day, one man had died.  John J. Hart, a Boston & Maine brakeman on the southbound train, died on the night of the accident at Lowell General after a blood transfusion had failed to save him.  A Stoneham resident and a 25-year employee of the railroad, he left a wife, and two children.  Another brakeman on the same train, Frederick  H. Lucas, of 786 Merrimack Street, was in serious condition.  He survived, along with 10 others who were also seriously hurt.

B&M officials ultimately concluded that the train accident was a result of the failure of the engineer of the north-bound train to control his speed and obey a block signal that had been set against his train.

Like today, travel in the past carried its perils and was sometimes visited by tragedy.  Unlike today, many of the regulations and laws that now prevent accidents, or at least mitigate their effects when they occur, did not yet exist. Train accidents, like the Lowell accident exhibited in this post, occurred frequently, and sometimes resulted in fatalities that affected the lives of our ancestors.


Climate Change: Is Massachusetts getting warmer and wetter?

English: Blue Hill Observatory, Milton Massach...

Blue Hill Observatory, Milton Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is Massachusetts getting warmer?  Wetter?  There has been a lot of talk about global warming, climate change, its causes and its implications for our future.  But, how has climate change affected Massachusetts?

To really identify climate change, one needs a consistent set of data, taken reliably, continuously, and consistently at the same location over a number of decades.  For our post today, we consider the data set collected by the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory, based in Milton Massachusetts, which owns the oldest continuous weather record in North America.

The Observatory dates to its founding by Abbott Lawrence Rotch in 1885.  Located atop the Great Blue Hill in Milton, Massachusetts,  the Observatory, from its vantage point 635 feet above sea level, offers great visibility.  On clear days, New Hampshire’s Monadnock region, some 60 miles away, can be seen to the northwest.  And, the Blue Hill is the highest US peak on the east coast where the Atlantic Ocean can still be seen.  What’s even better is that the Blue Hill Meteorological Observation provides free access to the weather it has observed and recorded atop the Great Blue Hill since 1891.

So, what does the information tell us?

Massachusetts is getting warmer.  Period.  No question.  

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

When you first start comparing average monthly temperatures for June, for the years 1995-2011, some variation from year to year emerges.  This is expected.  During those 17 years, however, the average temperature for June was 1.4 degrees warmer than the 109-year average observed from 1891-2000.  And, only two of those years were more than 1 degree colder than the average.  1999 saw the warmest June since record-keeping began at the Great Blue Hill, 4.7 degrees above average.  Just two years later, in 2001, the second-warmest June ever was recorded.  In fact, 2008 and 2010 are also mentioned in the record books.  They are tied for the 8th warmest June ever recorded.  Did we have any cold Junes in those 17 years?  Yes, one – you may remember that cold, damp June of 2009?  Well, it really wasn’t that odd.  That was the tenth coldest June since 1891; nine other Junes were colder.

But, maybe June was just an odd month, for the last 17 years.  So, what happens when you look at full-year data for the same 17 years between 1995 and 2011?  Bad news, it gets worse.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

Not one year during that period fell below the 109-year average for annual temperature.  2003 came the closest, but was still 0.1 degrees above the average.  In fact, the average annual temperature for the 109 years between 1891 and 2000 was 47.4 degrees, while the average for the last 17 years was nearly two degrees warmer, 49.2 degrees.  And, seven of those years fall within the top ten warmest years ever recorded.  Consider that 2010, 1999, and 1998 were the first, second, and third warmest years ever – in that order.  This is consistent with the US Environmental Protection Agency‘s finding that average annual temperatures in the Northeast have risen by 2 degrees since 1970.

But the snow keeps falling – even on Halloween

It still snows; so, it can’t be getting that much warmer, right?  Last year, we had our snowiest October ever in Eastern Massachusetts.  Remember those power outages caused by falling tree limbs?  A look at the chart below shows that average annual snowfalls vary much more widely, yes.  But, maybe that’s the point – snowfall, and maybe precipitation in general is getting harder to predict.  The extremes are becoming more common as the storms grow stronger.  Sorry, meteorologists.

Annual Snowfall Comparisons - Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

In the 18 winters since 1994-95, six have been remarkable in that they have ranked in the top ten snowiest, or least snowiest, seasons ever.  In 1994-95, the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory observed just 17.9 inches of snow for the entire season, which remains the second least snowiest season recorded since 1891.  But, then, during the following winter, in 1995-96, the area saw a whopping 144.4 inches of snow, the greatest amount of snowfall since 1891.  2002-2003 and 2004-2005 were both very snowy seasons as well and remain on the area’s top five ‘snowiest’ lists.  And, then a couple of years later, in 2006-2007, the area saw just 27.6 inches of snow, the lowest amount since Clinton’s first term.   Last winter, 2011-12 was unusual, however.  Officially, it is the fifth least snowy season ever recorded.  This ranking quickly drops to the second-least snowiest if you leave off that odd October storm that dropped more than a third of last winter’s total snowfall before Halloween even came.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

So, if the snow is becoming less predictable, what about total precipitation?  This, too, seems to follow a similar pattern.  The storms, and the precipitation, are becoming more severe, and less predictable.  In the last 17 Junes since 1995, we’ve experienced the wettest June since record-keeping began.  And, it wasn’t that cold, wet June of 2009, which, from a precipitation perspective, was surprisingly average.  The wettest June since 1891 was in 1998, when the area received a massive 17.3 inches of rain.  And, again, back to the extremes – the following year, June 1999 saw almost no rain at all – 0.14 inches, and is recorded as the driest June ever.  Precipitation during the following two years, 2000 and 2001, reversed course to again become the 8th and 9th wettest Junes ever.  More recently, June 2006 dumped a surprising 12.3 inches of rain in the area and is the third wettest June.  Only one year of the last 17, 2005, was among the driest ever – and was just the 10th driest at that.

Chart Produced by Author, using historical meteorological data from the Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory

Admittedly, looking at data from an annual perspective smooths the extremes out some, but not enough to disregard the idea that extremes are becoming the norm.  Since 1995, Massachusetts has seen six of its wettest years on record.  1998 is on record as being the wettest year ever recorded, at 71 inches of precipitation.  And 1996, at 69.4 inches, holds second place.  More recently, 2005 saw 66 inches of precipitation in the area and is ranked the third wettest year since 1891.  Three other years, 2010, 2011, and 2006 are the region’s sixth, seventh, and eighth wettest years, respectively.  None of the seventeen years since 1995 have been among the ten driest years ever.  Indeed, the US EPA even recognizes that precipitation in New England is increasingly falling as rain, not snow.

Obviously, complete year data for 2012 data are still not available.  But, through May, average temperatures for all five months have been significantly above normal.  The average temperature for January was 31.2 degrees, 5.6 degrees above normal.  February and March were the second warmest ever recorded.  April was recorded as the third warmest ever, and May, the sixth warmest since 1891.

So, these data are just that – data.  What impact do these graphs and records have on nature, on something we can see?  Consider the photographs below.   The first shows Lowell Cemetery on May 30, 2005.  The second shows the same location, in Lowell Cemetery, on the same day in 1868.

Lowell Cemetery as it appeared on May 30, 2005. (Photo Credit: American Journal of Botany)

The same location in Lowell Cemetery, as it appeared on May 30, 1868.

Source:  2009 Report issued by the US Global Change Research Program.


Cornhill – Once Boston’s Literary Center, Today Replaced by Government Center

Cornhill (Quincy Market in background, Sears block in foreground), 1901 – (From BPL Flickr Photostream)

It wasn’t Cornhill Street, Cornhill Road, Cornhill Avenue, or even the Cornhill; instead, it was just Cornhill, and in its day, knowing this was just one more way that those in the know had to distinguish locals from those visiting Boston as tourists.

In its history, Boston has had two roads called Cornhill.  The first, named after its namesake in London, ran from Water Street to Dock Square, was laid out in 1708 as part of a winding road between Roxbury and Boston.  Some 80 years later, in 1789, George Washington drove over ‘Old Cornhill’ during his ceremonial visit to Boston as the country’s first president.  As part of the occasion and as part of a larger movement to rename Boston streets after the Revolution, this first Cornhill was renamed Washington Street.  Around the same time, State Street emerged from King Street, and Court Street replaced Queen Street.  Pudding Lane became Devonshire.

A generation later, in 1816, Uriah Cotting planned ‘New Cornhill’.  From Court Street to its terminus with Washington Street at Adams Square, the curving road was initially called ‘Cheapside’, later ‘Market Street’, and ultimately ‘Cornhill’ in 1829, thus resurrecting the street onto Boston maps.

This 1832 map of Boston shows the area that would one day become Government Center. At the time, Cornhill spanned from Court Street to Washington Street.

‘New Cornhill’ was planned in every way, from its curving design to the materials and methods of construction required for any buildings raised along its route.  The new road was admired by many luminaries of the day, including John Quincy Adams, who in 1817, called it an improvement to the city that ‘contributed to the elegance and comfort of the place.’

Burnham’s Bookstore, on Boston’s Cornhill. (From the Library of Congress)

Cornhill quickly attracted Boston’s best booksellers and publishers. With them came the best-known religious, social, and political thinkers of the day.  Cornhill soon became a mecca for Boston’s intellectuals during its mid-19th-century heyday.  Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier met at Burnham’s book store (later the Brattle Book Shop) on Cornhill, in the Sears Crescent Building.  Oliver Wendell Holmes kept law offices there.  And William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator there, as well.   Angry mobs were twice seen dragging him from his office, subsequently tarring and feathering him.

Yet another Cornhill thinker, Horace Mann, became famous for his contributions to American education reform, creating the model eventually adopted by many states for their public school system.  Even the creator of the Graham Cracker, Dr. Sylvester Graham, claimed an office on Cornhill.

J. J. Jewett, also a Cornhill merchant and a supporter of the Underground Railroad, published the first American version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Cornhill, selling 3,000 copies on his first day, and 300,000 during his first year.  During the Civil War, many runaway slaves were hidden in the basement under William Lloyd Garrison’s Cornhill office, a vital link in the underground railroad.  Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there.

Sears’ Block, 72 Cornhill Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA – (Via Library of Congress – Created by Crevin Robinson, 1962). Court Street Tavern is now the site of Starbucks, which today boasts above its entrance a 227-gallon golden kettle, rescued from nearby Scollay Square during its razing.

So the legacy of Cornhill continued through the middle of the 19th century.  As the 19th century came to a close, even Cornhill began to lose some of its luster as the preeminent location for publishers and booksellers, the street was still dominated by the city’s booksellers.  Scholars, casual browsers and even future personalities like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and JFK all frequented the area as students.  The intellectual energy so synonymous with Cornhill may have subsided in the wake of the Civil War, but the days of the area’s booksellers continued until the coming of Government Center.

Intersection of Court Street, Cambridge Street and Tremont Street, at Government Center, today (via Wikipedia, contributed by M2545).  The Sears Block (tan) and the Sears Crescent (red brick) still stand at the intersection, the sole survivors of the location’s pre-Government Center history.

Today, the only surviving remnants of Cornhill are the Sears Block and Sears Crescent.  David Sears built the Sears Crescent in 1816, after being inspired by Charles Bullfinch‘s Tontine Crescent.  The building follows the gentle curve of Cornhill’s original layout.  The Sears Block, right next door and built in 1848, followed, and today houses a Starbucks known for its golden steaming kettle, cast in 1873 for the Oriental Tea Company.  The kettle, which originally hung in nearby Scollay Square (like Cornhill, also destroyed during the construction of the Government Center), became famous when the Oriental Tea Company ran a contest in 1874, encouraging those so-inspired to guess the kettle’s capacity.  Eight winners stepped forward to claim chests of premium tea when they correctly guessed that the kettle held 227 gallons, two quarts, one pint, and three gills.  The kettle was rescued from Scollay Square during its razing, and moved to the front of the Sears Block in 1967, where it remains today.

Cornhill, along with Scollay Square, was destroyed during the construction of Boston’s Government Center during the city’s 1960s-era Urban Renewal Scheme.  Initially, Government Center was lauded as “a model of how urban renewal, when imaginatively conceived and carried out, can bring new vitality and beauty to a city”.  Government Center even captured a special commendation from the American Institute of Architects in 1972.  Today, the aesthetic merit of the area is assigned, at best, mixed values.  Many view the area as a brutalist ‘brick desert’ in the heart of what was once one of Boston’s most picturesque Victorian neighborhoods.

Teapot on the “Sears Block” on City Hall Plaza, Boston, Massachusetts (Via Library of Congress, Contributed by: Carol M. Highsmith)