Category Archives: City Life

Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

The first alarm sounded just after midnight on April 28, 1924. Lowell’s firemen arrived soon after to find tendrils of smoke wafting from the Associate Building’s fourth floor windows. Inside, the Portuguese Club was ablaze. By the time firemen gained access to the downtown Lowell landmark, they found the fire well underway inside and quickly sounded a second alarm. As one o’clock in the morning approached, a general alarm was sounded and help was called in from Lawrence and Dracut.

The Associate Building was well worth saving. Built more than thirty years earlier, it was set on the corner of Merrimack and Worthen Streets, in the heart of Lowell’s downtown, overlooking City Hall and Monument Square. By 1924, its five stories of yellow brick housed the Brockton Shoe Store, the City Hall Drug Store, Freeman & Co. Clothiers, as well as several dentists, tailors, and chiropractors. Its basement even had its own bowling alley.

In this excerpt from a 1924 Lowell City Atlas, the lot where the Associate Building stood is marked with “J. Bateman”.

As the hours wore on during that late April morning, Lowell’s Monument Square was filled with clouds of sparks and smoke as the Associate Building burned. Lowell’s fire department fought the flames from the ground, from ladders hoisted against the building, and from inside the building. Lowell’s Engine 3 streamed water from inside the Associate Building’s fourth floor dance hall. Lowell’s Engine 6 fought the flames from ladders outside, far above Worthen Street. They were making progress. The fire was coming under control.

Captain Edward Cunningham

Until the massive hot air explosion. In that flash, firemen inside were blown back into a hallway, against walls. Some were thrown flat on their backs. Outside, Hoseman John W. Gray, atop the ladder at the time of the explosion, was hurled, ladder and all, across Worthen Street into the brick wall of the opposite building. His life belt saved his life, but still left him with multiple injuries, including a broken nose. He was sent to St. John’s Hospital for treatment. His Captain, Edward Cunningham, didn’t fare as well. The explosion crushed Captain Cunningham under a falling wall of bricks. His fellow firemen risked their lives as they pulled him free from the rubble. He was still conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance bound for the Lowell Corporation Hospital. His comrades later learned that he died before he ever got to the hospital.

In the wake of the explosion, all men were recalled from the building. Moments after their escape, the walls and floor of the hall where they had been failed. The truck that had hoisted Capt. Cunningham’s ladder was split into two from the force of the explosion. Its engine had been crushed into its front wheels. Some men were temporarily trapped in the building. Others had to be pulled from the rubble in the street. The explosion also spread the flames far beyond the Associate Building. In moments, the Academy of Music building and Sparks’ Stable were now seriously threatened.

Soon, the fire threatened the entire area bounded by Merrimack, Dutton, Market, and Worthen streets. It became clear that the Associates Building was a total loss. The Sparks’ Harness Shop was declared a lost cause not long after. Despite the early hour, crowds began to gather and saw that the Academy of Music building, the Kennedy Building, and the Knights of Columbus Building were starting to smolder. Sparks’ Stable and the Mongeau Building weren’t far away from the flames either.

Another wall of the Associate Building collapsed and hit Sparks’ harness shop. A gasoline pump outside Sparks’ blew up in a burst of flame, but the tank stayed intact. Another wall collapsed and destroyed Kennedy’s Building. Soon after, the Academy of Music, all three of its wooden stories, caught fire, and burnt quickly. H. P. Hood’s offices, on one floor of the building, were completely lost. Soon after, the flames jumped Dutton Street, from the Academy of Music to the wooden Knights of Columbus building, which had once been the First Trinitarian Congregational Church. Firemen fought to save the building. In the end, they did succeed in saving the building’s stained glass windows. The firemen from Lawrence finally stopped the flames from advancing any further toward Market Street.

The firemen directed their streams at the Mongeau Building, which was starting to smolder. Ladder 4’s Herbert Cogswell fought valiantly before collapsing on the building’s top floor. George Hurley was later overcome in the same battle. Both were sent in clanging ambulances toward St. John’s Hospital. As the Mongeau Building was saved, the YMCA building across Dutton Street started to receive its own showering of sparks. Lodgers were drafted right out of the line of those removing their belongings to form a temporary brigade to wet down the building. Their efforts saved the YMCA from certain destruction.

One close call occurred when Sparks’ Stable, which housed some 30 horses belonging to the H P Hood Company, started to spark and smolder. An ambulance driver and a patrolman battled pandemonium as they removed the horses from the burning stable. Nervous store owners watched the sparks shower down across the downtown. As far away as Shattuck Street’s Lowell Electric Light Company, an awning caught fire. One man, never identified, was saved from a wall of falling bricks when he was pulled into a doorway by Lowell Patrolman John Mahan.

The Ruins of the Associate Building, as shown in an ad from the Brockton Shoe Store

In the end, ten firemen in all were sent to city hospitals with injuries from the blaze. Even more suffered minor injuries. The fire was then the largest in the city’s history. Every available piece of equipment in Lowell, two companies from Lawrence, and two from Dracut arrived to fight the fire and each was fully needed. Despite their efforts, the fire changed Lowell’s streetscape forever. The Associate Building, the Academy of Music, and Sparks’ Stable were all total losses. The Knights of Columbus building and the H P Hood Building were both considered beyond repair.

At one point, the blaze grew so hot that the glass on City Hall’s clock cracked. The damage was so complete that the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway would not run its cars past the ruins of the Associate Building until its ruined walls were taken down that day after.

Captain Edward Cunningham of Engine 6 lost his life fighting the fire. Appointed to the force in 1911, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1918, and to Captain in 1922. He had earned the respect of Chief Saunders, who described him as a “splendid young man, of a clear and sterling character”. He was remembered as a fearless and courageous firefighter, who had headed the movement to educate school children on fire safety. In his final minutes, Capt. Cunningham was offered religious solace from the popular Rev. Appleton Grannis, of St. Anne’s Church. Cunningham, a Catholic, was comforted by the Episcopal clergyman until Rev. Dr. McGarry of St. Patrick’s Church arrived to administer last rites. Captain Edward Cunningham left behind a wife, Helen, and three young children, Leo, Helen, and Pauline, all under ten years old.

The Cunningham Family, as shown in the 1920 census. Their youngest daughter Pauline had not yet been born.


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.


The Rise and Fall of Shorthand in Victorian-Era America

Shorthand experienced its heyday in the years immediately following the Civil War.  As the end of the 19th century approached, many reporters began to swear off its usefulness, saying that shorthand’s time had passed, and that it was no longer worth the significant effort required to learn it.  By the early 1890’s, the century’s practice of producing verbatim speeches in the newspapers was on the wane, and this reduced the need for the most skilled stenographers.  Readers preferred more interpretation of great speeches and the happenings of Congress, rather than just reading the proceedings verbatim.  And, speeches were beginning to be transcribed from their prepared written copies rather than the shorthand notes of those who actually witnessed them.

Teach Yourself Shorthand

Teach Yourself Shorthand (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

Often called the ‘wiggling art’, shorthand, or stenography, first emerged as a skill learned by men, hoping to advance their reporting careers in courtrooms or for newspapers.  Many underestimated the time required to learn the art of stenography and overestimated the number of well-paid positions available for those who mastered it.   In the early 1890’s, authorities on the subject estimated that, of the 100 young men who took up shorthand, 90 lost interest within the first six months and lacked the discipline to see their studies through.  Another 5 persevered through 18 months – and became able to write about 130 words per minute, if they were of everyday use on easy topics. Another four reached the verbatim speed of 180 words per minute, as long as the topics were familiar and routine, like political addresses or sermons, or interviews with famous people on famous topics.  It was estimated that only one of those 100 men ever achieved verbatim speed, regardless of the topic.

As the typewriter came into more widespread use in the late 19th century, women began to find work in dictation, or recording their bosses’ memos and letters in shorthand, as amanuenses.  The 19th century world saw the two types of shorthand as so different that it was said that even the best amanuensis would find recording court reporting in shorthand very difficult while the best court and newspaper reporters would find the dictation work performed by amanuenses nearly impossible.

The dictation work performed by amanuenses was said to require much less skill and brought lower pay.  Most amanuensis work involved recording letters and memos while they were dictated by a boss or other executive.  Unlike recording speeches, letters and memos were often spoken more slowly than talking speed.  And, in the one-to-one meetings that often accompanied dictations, amanuenses could ask their speakers to repeat their words, or even to slow down.  Also, over time, amanuenses developed professional relationships with their subjects, making it easier to record what they said, even at higher speeds.

The Lord's Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19...

The Lord’s Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19th-century systems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was said that the stenographic work of newspaper men and court reporters was more difficult to learn than that of dictation shorthand.  Stenographers were judged by their ability to take notes precise enough that they could then be reconstituted later into first class reporting.  This, of course, required good note-taking and an understanding of the material sufficient enough to fill in the gaps.  After six months of diligent study and practice, a dictation shorthand writer might be able to write 120 to 150 words per minute.  During that same time, a person studying court or newspaper reporting might have just begun learning practical shorthand.

The mark of a good court reporter was to avoid becoming ‘rattled’ by rapid, nervous speakers, or speakers who used unfamiliar words or phrases.  Shorthand also required a good vocabulary, which aided stenographers in deciphering and recomposing their messages from their notes later.  Even the most professional reporters could become rattled.  Transcription of a speech also required specialized knowledge of its contents.  One story well-known among 19th century shorthand men told of a reporter who recorded “Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed major veritas” and then transcribed “I may cuss Plato, I may cuss Socrates, and Major Verrytus”.

The pay was best in the government positions, which were few and hard to land.  After that, the most lucrative work was found in the taking court cases and the pleas of lawyers.  This work was mostly reserved for firms who employed shorthand men.  In the early 1890’s, these men, serving as court and general reporters, could earn incomes ranging from $2000 to $1000 a year.  Some earned as much as $5,000.  Salaries of the average shorthand reporter usually topped out at about $40 a week; in smaller cities, these salaries topped out at $25 a week in 1892.

In general, women stenographic amanuenses could command about $12 a week in the northern and eastern cities of the United States, about $8 a week in others.  The best earned salaries of approximately $15 a week.  Some men took work as amanuenses in hopes of advancing into roles of private secretaries and confidential men.  In the 1890’s, shorthand was still seen as a valuable skill in business to be used as a stepping stone into more lucrative and influential positions.

The study and use of shorthand has waned during the last several decades, as more modern recording devices have been introduced.  It is still used in some medical circles for writing notes on medical correspondence or in charts, probably for the privacy that writing in a sort of code provides.  And, that was actually one of the characteristics that led to shorthand’s rise.  Before the Civil War, writers of shorthand mostly used it to write down their thoughts or to secretly record the discussions of others.  Many used shorthand to write their own diaries and journals.


In Search of Good Sleuths: A Downtown Lowell Treasure Hunt, 1912

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

“Are you a good sleuth?”  The headline teased, from the Lowell Sun’s front page.  One hundred years ago, on Saturday, September 21, 1912, the newspaper invited all would-be sleuths to Lowell’s Merrimack Square (today’s Kearney Square) that night, at 8 PM, ‘sharp’.  One lucky sleuth, they claimed, would win $100 ($2300 in today’s dollars) if he or she were the first to find a money order hidden somewhere within Lowell’s city limits, within the following 24 hours.

Hundreds turned out for the contest, which was overseen by three men:  a Lowell Sun representative, Lowell Commissioner of Finance James Donnelly, and Henry Savage, proprietor of “The Million”, a comedy set to open at the Lowell Opera House a week later.

1912 Buick Model 43 – Touring four-door, by New York Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 8 PM, the three men would race their Buick out of Merrimack Square to find a place to hide the $100 or, more precisely, an order that the lucky finder could convert into $100.  The only rule:  the $100 order had to be hidden somewhere within the city limits.

Admittedly, finding a piece of paper that could be hidden anywhere within Lowell’s 14.5 square miles is a pretty tall order.  The Lowell Sun placed some conditions that made the contest a little bit easier.

The $100 order would speed away, at 8 PM, with the Buick leaving Merrimack Square.  Contest rules mandated that the men flash the order from the car before leaving.  Anyone participating in the contest was free to follow them, for as long as they could.  Those on foot and bicycles lost the Buick first.  Pursuers on motorcycles lasted only slightly longer.  The other cars lasted the longest.

After the contest leaders in the Buick lost their pursuers, they would hide the $100 order . . . just about anywhere.  Contest rules teased that the money could be hidden in a tree, behind a chimney, on the roof of a house, in a manhole, on an abandoned wagon, or perhaps in an awning on a public street.   The $100 order had to be found within the first 24 hours, before 8 PM on Sunday, or its value would decrease to $75.  Twenty-four hours after that, the value would drop to $50.

On that Saturday night (and the following Sunday), hundreds searched every corner of Lowell for the money.  And it did, indeed, remain hidden.  By Monday, the Sun stayed true to its word, retrieved the order from its hiding spot, and again flashed it from the Buick as it sped away from Merrimack Square that night in pursuit of the next hiding spot.

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

The inspiration for the contest came from “The Million”, a comedy that would come to the Lowell Opera House a week later. Coming off a wildly successful run at the Majestic Theatre in Boston, “The Million” featured “a bunch of cops, a struggling young doctor, an artist’s model, a young actress, a burglar, and others” all pursuing a million dollar prize.

In ten short minutes that Monday, the Buick had again lost all pursuers, and within 45 minutes, the order was hidden in the steps leading up to the Kasino dance hall, to the side of the fourth step, to be exact.  And, again, it was never found.  The reporter who hid the $100 order, from the Sun, watched as a man sat on those stairs that afternoon, running his foot along some grass, but never finding the order.

By Tuesday, the $100 order still hadn’t been found, and the automobile had eluded the pursuers twice.  The pursuers again attempted to follow the Buick in their own autos, motorcycles, bicycles, and even afoot.  The Buick first sped down Central, and over Prescott, along Merrimack, and up Central.  One car vigorously pursued the Buick longer than the others.  But, as the Buick climbed the hills, its driver noticed that their pursuer lost ground on the inclines.  The Buick’s driver exploited this advantage by taking hills until it had lost even this last car.

After the $100 order remained hidden through Tuesday, the Sun printed its best clue yet.  The clue promised that “the money is in the very heart of the city and in an exceedingly easy and simple place of concealment.”  The order, now worth $50, was written on pink paper and, according to the clue, hidden on Central Street, between Merrimack and Tower’s Corner.  The clue continued to say that the order was enclosed, so that it would be safe from the weather, and hidden in a ‘very open spot’, but in an “inaccessible crevice”.

Lowell Opera House – September 24, 1912

In the end, the $50 prize was eventually found.  The winning sleuth was a Marshall Street resident named Nelson La Porte.  Nelson had arrived in Lowell just two weeks earlier, looking for work. On the night of Monday, September 23, he went to the Kasino dance hall and waited with the rest of the crowd for the Sun reporter who carried the money order.

His searching efforts were not fruitful that first night.  But, he returned the following night and began his search of Central Street.  After what he thought was a thorough search, he called the Sun’s office and claimed that the whole search was bogus and that there was no hidden money order.  The Sun told him to keep looking.  He did, and searched all of Central Street again, from Tower’s Corner to Merrimack Street.  He searched the sewers, the cigarette boxes, and even all of the signs.  When he reached the sign belonging to Joe Haley’s barber shop (in the Central Block), he found the order, now worth $50.  He rushed to the Sun Office and claimed the reward.  La Porte claimed he was ‘dead broke’ and welcomed the $50 as a ‘godsend’.  La Porte received his $50, at the performance of “The Million”, from a member of the company.

The contest, which drew the interest of hundreds in the Greater Lowell area succeeded in drawing interest to “The Million”, which opened little more than a week later.  In retrospect, it seems genius in not only its concept, but its close tie with the plot of the comedy.  It’s hard to imagine such a contest happening today, with cars, motorcycle, bicycles, and even people racing through downtown streets in pursuit of a piece of paper worth something north of about $2700.


Lowell’s Riverside School: The Lowell Parents’ Strike – 1971

Things have to get fairly dire before your entire student body, well, 97% of your student body, boycotts your school due to “dangerous conditions”.  But, that’s precisely what happened at Lowell’s Riverside School on a Monday morning in late March, 1971.  Of the school’s 205 students in Grades K through 5, just six showed up for school.  Instead, starting at 8:15 AM on March 22, their parents – mostly their mothers – began showing up to picket in front of the school, at Woburn Street’s intersection with Eugene Street.

Robert Healy, Jr., Assistant City Manager, soon arrived at the picket line, which had been announced and expected before that Monday morning.  He arrived with little to offer.  Of the city’s $2.2 million school renovation budget ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), precisely nothing was destined for the Riverside, or any of the city’s other older ‘wooden schools’.  The picketing parents listed and responded by giving Healy a list of no less than 24 problems that they had identified at the school.

The Riverside School – South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910. (Credit: Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

The Riverside, built in the years leading up the twentieth century, had once been a gem of Tewksbury’s school system in the years before Lowell’s annexation of the Wigginville neighborhood of South Lowell.  With its eight rooms (luxurious by period standards), the school was – spacious -; so, spacious, in fact, that two of those rooms were specially designated for its students’ recreation.  A 1910 Lowell Sun article lauded the school’s playrooms and greatly admired the dollhouse and doll tea set that had been built by the students.

Sixty years later, by the early 1970s, things had clearly changed.  The parents’ 24 problems included: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, dim and missing lights, a failing oil heater, shoddy wiring, and a shortage of school supplies.  That wasn’t all.  The school was actually unsafe; the parents charged.  The roof leaked so much water that the wiring in the school’s attic was submerged in puddles.  These were the days before parents worried about mold exposure.

Healy, representing the city manager’s office, wasn’t unsympathetic.  He just had a really tough position to support.  He listened to the picketing parents.  He then explained that the damage to the school’s roof had been a result of maintenance to the school.  An air raid siren had to be removed, and it was – just a month earlier.  The weight of the siren had damaged the roof.  In fact, he said, as the picketers amassed on that March Monday, public works crews had arrived for their second day of work to fix the leaks.  And, a wiring inspector would arrive later that day to review the electrical problems.  The city would fix the Riverside.

Parents picket the Riverside School, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1971.  Credit: Lowell Sun – 3/22/1971

Parents quickly pointed out that maintenance workers wouldn’t fix all 24 problems on their list.  “History is not being taught in the fifth grade because we have no books.”  One parent said.  “Geography is not being taught in the fourth grade because we have only seven books and they have pages missing.”  Another contributed.  One Riverside teacher later confided that she had been forced to use spelling books that dated from the 1920’s.

School officials responded by denying they knew that there was a problem.  The parents insisted that they had contacted the superintendent’s office.  They also reminded school officials about their promise regarding the Joseph G. Pyne School.     When the J. G. Pyne had been built, a few years earlier, the plan had been to move the Riverside children there.  In fact, the School Committee, in 1970, had voted 5-2 to move the Pyne’s seventh and eighth graders to the Moody in order to free up space for the Riverside students.  There was one problem, though.  No one made sure that the Junior High students at the Pyne minded going to the Moody.  They did.  To accommodate the “almost unanimous” wishes of the South Lowell citizenry, school committee officials left the J. G. Pyne students at the J. G. Pyne, and the Riverside students at their crumbling Riverside.

And this led to a mid-March strike where parents kept 199 of the school’s 205 students out of school for a day in protest.    The parents’ list continued.  During the previous winter, classes had been held in classrooms where the temperature hovered near 40 degrees.  With no heat, the students stayed in their coats all day.   As Assistant City Manager Healy listened to their list, he acknowledged that the parents “had a case”.  He promised to fix the school’s supply problems almost immediately, saying that he would talk with the school’s principal and central office.  All they have to do, he said, is call downtown and they’ll get new supplies.

Credit: Lowell Sun – March 22, 1971

Healy knew that the DPW had been addressing the school’s plaster issues, but also acknowledged that he knew it to be only ‘band-aid work’.  Superintendent of Schools Wayne Peters also responded to the picketing parents, saying conditions at the Riverside weren’t really any better or worse than any other old school in the city.  “We could close the Riverside tomorrow if parents and members of the PTAs would be willing to transfer junior high school out of the J. G. Pyne school and bus some students to the Reilly.”  Peters said.  Asked about the school’s extremely low attendance on the morning of March 22, 1971, Peters dismissed it, saying that they would teach the six students.  They would teach just one student.  “It’s only the students who are suffering”.

“The school is not in very good condition, but the city council voted not to include the wooden schools in the $2.2 million renovation program.  I feel for these parents.  I know the situation, but the City of Lowell cannot afford to put good money after bad and renovate these old wooden schools.”

Officials did not perform their investigations into the school’s dismal conditions publicly.  However, over the following four weeks, Superintendent Peters held two meetings with parents to iron out differences and also met with the school’s principal and her teachers.   The principal’s resignation and retirement followed one month later, in mid-April, reportedly at the superintendent’s request.  Repairs came, and the school remained in use, up through the 1981-1982 school year, when its students were, indeed, moved to the J.G. Pyne School.  From personal experience, I can say that I have fond memories of the school, and can still remember its huge classrooms, with long, shiny wood floors, and old woodwork.  I was a member of the school’s final kindergarten class.

Riverside School’s Final Kindergarten Class – Spring 1982. In the years since, I helpfully marked myself with initials that are floating above my head.  Although my five-year-old self enjoyed my time at the school, the maintenance occurring between the time of the Parents’ Strike and this photo ten years later, didn’t quite extend to repainting the main entrance doors.

Today, the Riverside School houses the B.R.I.D.G.E. (Beginnings Respect Independent Diversity Guidance Education) Program at the McHugh Alternative Middle School, a partnership between Middlesex Community College and the Lowell Public Schools.  Established in 1997 for 24 Lowell public school seventh and eighth graders, the program today has grown to serve 50 students.  The B.R.I.D.G.E. program serves students who have experienced past behavioral or attendance problems in traditional school settings.


Lost Stories and Found Mysteries: Old Group Photographs

If you’ve spent any time researching ancestors, or the history of your town, or even history in general, you’ve likely come across old group photographs.  A workplace outing from long ago, an annual gathering of some institution or society, or maybe a family gathering.  If you’ve stared into the faces of those who gathered for the photograph, you’ll likely come across a familiar face of a grandparent or long-lost cousin and you’ll soon determine the likely connection that brought the photograph into your collection.  Sometimes, old group photographs provide a wealth of insight into your ancestors’ lives; sometimes, they create more questions.  Often, they do both.

The mystery you didn’t know you had 

Sometimes, you get lucky.  Sometimes, someone made the effort to identify the people in your old group photos.  And, sometimes, yes, they were wrong.  Among the photographs I inherited from my grandmother was this one, showing a group of school age children, with their teacher, outside their school.  On the back of this photograph, someone helpfully wrote that this photo showed my grandmother’s Colburn School class.  Given that she was born in 1904, that would date this photograph to about 1910-1912.  And, so it became family lore.  It was perfect, my grandmother (identified as the third from the right, in the top row), grew up only a few doors down from the school, on Lowell’s Lawrence Street.

A group of Lowell schoolchildren, with their teacher, in front of their schoolhouse

It was perfect, until I researched it – and tried to verify the description on the back of the photograph.  There was a problem.  The Colburn School, one of Lowell’s first and built in 1848, was certainly old enough to be my grandmother’s childhood school.  But . . . it was made of brick, as seen below.  My photograph clearly shows light-colored wooden siding covering the school’s exterior.

Lowell’s Colburn School – Lawrence Street

And so the mystery endures.  Among the followers of this blog, I know there are a lot of experts in Lowell history.  Does anyone have any ideas on when and where (in Lowell) this photograph may have been taken?  There is a chance that it’s much older than the 1910-1912 date I had originally assigned to it.

Only Half of the Story

Among the treasured stories in one’s family tree research are the tales explaining how your ancestors met – those sometimes chance encounters that seem to drive destiny – or at least the existence of entire families today.  As my family’s story goes, my maternal grandmother met my grandfather while she was performing in a Portuguese musical group, based in Lowell, Massachusetts.  As rumor had it, she was on the rebound from a bad break-up and my grandfather happened to be in the right place, at the right time.  Someone helpfully circled my grandmother’s head on the photograph I have to prove the story, included below:

A Lowell-Area Musical Group, Tied to the Local Portuguese Community, ca. 1930

The group, which may have had ties to Lowell’s St. Anthony’s Church, remains nameless in my records – which has thwarted my attempts to learn more about them and their members.  Is there anyone out there who has heard of any Portuguese musical groups, based on Lowell, Massachusetts, from the late 1920’s?

Photographs are windows into the past.  But, the details of the past become fuzzy with time, and often are lost as those who remember them leave us.  Even without knowing the full story behind old group photos, they make for interesting browsing – showing life as it was in those days now reflected in our family trees.  And, with a little bit of luck, sometimes, you can add some insight into your ancestors’ lives by learning about the groups they belonged to, and the friends and associations that they had.

Readers, do you have any old group photos that have added insight, or mysteries, to your family trees?


The Billerica Car Shop Murder of 1918

As news of World War I and Spanish flu filled the local papers, the first headlines related to Billerica’s car shop murder almost could have gone unnoticed.  In fact, the murder itself went unnoticed for several days.  The last anyone had seen of Fred Soulia, an employee at Billerica’s Boston & Maine car shops (today’s Iron Horse Park), was when he began walking home from work on a Thursday evening in early November.  Somewhere during the two-mile walk to his home on Oak Street, Soulia disappeared.

Front Page Headlines – Lowell Sun – November 5, 1918

His coworkers noticed his absence on Friday morning, grew concerned, and went to his home that afternoon.  No one answered the door.  Then, Fred Soulia didn’t come to work on Monday either.  His two friends walked to his home again and knocked.  Again, no one answered.  Soulia lived alone and had no family in Billerica; maybe he had gone home.  One of the men noticed blood on his walkway.  The men followed the blood stains out to Oak Street.  A half-mile away, the trail ended in a mound of loosened earth.  The men called the authorities.

Officers O’Brien and Livingston responded and investigated the loosened earth.  They soon found Soulia’s lunch pail.  Then, they found his spectacles and hat.  When they discovered the blood stains on his hat, they scoured the area.  They found another patch of loosened earth, further from the path.  The officers didn’t have to dig far before they found Fred Soulia’s body, still clad in his work clothes, so bloodied that they couldn’t determine just what had killed him.  The killing marked the town’s first in almost 25 years.

The officers summoned Lowell’s medical examiner Dr. Smith, who soon found another spot, a quarter-mile away, where the ground had been trampled.  He found more blood there – and a path of blood, showing where Soulia’s body had been dragged past his house, and to its shallow grave.  Dr. Smith surmised that the body had been buried first, the hat, pail, and spectacles later, when they were found – to hide any evidence of the crime.  An autopsy later revealed that Soulia had been shot three times and stabbed fifteen.

Finding a motive for the murder stumped Lowell and Billerica authorities.  Soulia, 50, lived alone, in a quiet little house he had built himself on Oak Street, in what was then a sparsely populated area of Billerica.  Of French descent, he had lived in Billerica only a few years – working a while for the Tewksbury constable, and then the most recent two or three years at the car shops in its scrap reclamation department.  Everyone liked him, though no one knew if he had any relatives in the area.  He was a faithful attendant of St. Andrew’s Church.

Theories soon emerged around potential motives for the killing.  Soulia was found with one of his pockets turned out, and without money.  Perhaps he was killed for his cash.  Or, some news was emerging from the car shops that a large theft of brass had occurred from his scrap reclamation department.  Maybe he knew something about that.

Days before he died, Soulia had been walking to work, on a forest path between Oak Street and the car shops, when he came across a culvert and some men who were contractors at the car shops.  Soulia struggled to see past them into the culvert.  The men tried to obstruct his view, but he saw enough to spot some of the brass that had gone missing at work.  He left, but later brought the foreman of his department to retrieve the stolen brass – over a ton of stolen brass, in fact.  The car shops retrieved the brass and didn’t involve the police – until Solia turned up dead a week later.

Lowell Sun – November 6, 1918; Page 1

Investigators soon found three sets of footprints leading away from the murder scene, to a road nearby.  Billerica Police began looking at the men Soulia had turned in for the brass theft, contractors from a Reading construction company.  Billerica police visited the home of Joseph Cordio, who lived on Oak Street near Soulia.  A search recovered a long knife and a revolver.  When police found his shovel coated with the same type of sand found in Soulia’s shallow grave, Cordio grew nervous and his story fell apart.  Investigators next identified the other two men, Lawrence brothers Francisco and Luigi Feci.  At Francisco Feci’s home, they found a shoe matching the footprints found at the murder scene.  A gun found in his coat had recently fired three shots.  And a Zira cigarette box found in the woods near the body matched the many cigarette boxes found in Feci’s home.  Police arrested Francisco Feci;  his brother Luigi fled before he could be captured.

The trial lasted six weeks, ending on May 18, 1920, when Francisco Feci was found guilty.  His brother Luigi, having fled, was not tried.  Due to a lack of evidence, Joseph Cordio was found not guilty.  Francisco Feci was sentenced to death, and, despite a somewhat credible last-minute appeal to Governor Coolidge, died by electrocution on August 16, 1920.  He went to the chair smiling, professing his innocence, and insisting that it was his brother Luigi who had killed Soulia, not him.