Category Archives: City Life

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.”


All in the Same Building: A Jail, Catholic School and later Condos

City Jail, Lowell Massachusetts – (Credit: Library of Congress)

Many in Lowell recall the vast granite and brick buildings at Thorndike’s intersection with Highland as the Keith Academy building.  Before Keith Academy, though, the buildings housed the Lowell Jail.  The Lowell Jail was the city’s second, replacing the first which had been located at the corner of Dutton and Cushing streets, and dated from 1838.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the new jail was designed and built.  Ninety cells were constructed for men, and 12 for women who were housed in the building’s northern wing.  The jail boasted two hospitals as well as four cells for solitary confinement.  A chapel was added a few decades later, around 1900.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Lowell jail housed some 124 inmates.  Most were men who were serving short-term sentences of less than three years.  Men who were convicted of more serious crimes were kept at the Cambridge Jail.

Jail Life

Entering the prison, new inmates were showered, given a prison uniform and underwear.  Some inmates worked in the kitchen.  Some worked in the boiler or engine rooms or as launderers.  Others, those deemed most trustworthy, worked in the barns, gardens, or with the chickens.  These inmates with greater liberties were known as “trusties”.

It was important to prison officials that inmates were kept reasonably busy, and that they weren’t allowed to be too idle or too overworked.  Each morning, the men showered with the soap and towel given to them by the jail.  Showers were followed by breakfast.  At breakfast, each inmate received a cup and plate when they passed by an opening that connected the line of inmates to the kitchen.  Through that opening, they received their food, however much they wanted, and took it back to their cells to eat their breakfasts.  The food, while wholesome was not fancy at all and was cooked “under the most sanitary procedures”.  The men were served desserts once weekly on Sundays.  Each evening, the men received enough tobacco for a smoke after supper.  All smoking ceased when lights went out at 8 o’clock.

English: Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Old post card showing the Lowell Jail

Women prisoners, though few, experienced a similar life.  They spent their days doing laundry, sweeping, and doing general housework throughout the jail.  Women were kept separate from men.  All inmates were kept on one of the jail’s three floors.  Men, who had earned the trust of prison officials, were allowed to share their cells with roommates.  The lowest floors of the jail housed the storerooms, kitchen, and laundry.

The Lowell Jail housed just two cells that were used for solitary confinement.  The most frequently used cell was used only a couple of times a year.  Most often, the cell was used for men who arrived to the prison and refused to acknowledge and accept the rules of the jail.  The solitary confinement jail cell contained a bed, which was basically a hard board, and a blanket.  The cell contained no window, and for ventilation, had a few small holes punched through the iron door.  And that was the ‘nice’ solitary confinement cell.  The other, never used, was in the facility’s basement, and described as a dungeon.  Padded cell were available to hold those who were suffering from ‘wild delusions’.  The need for this cell was quite frequent, apparently.  The padding, in long strips, stretched from floor to ceiling.

Jail Diversions

On each Sunday, Rev. N. W. Matthews, the jail chaplain, held a service in the chapel.  Inmates were obligated to attend.  The jail also had a library, which had about 500 books, in the areas of fiction, history, and travel.  All of the jail’s vegetables were grown in its garden, and tended by the inmates.  The vegetables were stored in the jail’s vegetable cellar.  Hothouses were also on the jail’s grounds.

Some inmates at the jail were vagrants too poor to afford their own housing during the cold winter months.  Knowing well the sentences for a long list of crimes, they plotted carefully to receive a sentence long enough to protect them from the winter.  Upon release, prisoners were given a suit of clothes and shoes, if they were too poor to afford their own.  Some returned, occasionally, looking for a night’s shelter.

After the Jail Closed 

Keith Academy

Keith Academy (Photo credit: uzi978)

The building remained a jail until 1919, when it was closed due to concerns related to rising fuel costs, as well as a lower incarceration rate brought on by the increase in men being recruited into the military to support US involvement in WWI.  When the jail closed, its nine remaining inmates were moved to the jail in Cambridge.

The building remained closed and unsold for seven years before it was purchased by the Catholic Church and converted into a boy’s preparatory school.  The remodeling did little to change the exterior, but completely gutted and remodeled the interior.  Keith Academy remained in the building until 1970.  Today, the building that formerly housed the Lowell Jail and Keith Academy had been divided into 56 condominium units and still stands on Lowell’s Thorndike Street.


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.


The Story of Lowell’s Rogers Hall

Rogers Street,today, is one of Lowell‘s main gateways into the city, providing access from Tewksbury, the city’s southern neighbor.  Known by many outside Lowell simply as Route 38, the road has a long past that is deeply connected to Lowell’s history, and to the history of its Belvidere neighborhood especially.

Rogers Street gets its name from the Rogers family, who were early landowners in the area during Lowell’s first years.  Members of the Rogers family later went on to found the Rogers Hall School for Girls, a prestigious school that remained in operation for over 80 years before it closed in 1973.  Though its white-columned facade is its most familiar characteristic to Lowell residents, the school actually consisted of four buildings:  Rogers Hall, Rogers House, Rogers Cottage, and the Gymnasium.   The gymnasium was famous in its own right for its pool.  Built in 1922 in the basement of the gym, it was the first of its kind for a private girls’ secondary school in the country. 

Rogers Hall, circa 1919 – (Credit: History of Lowell and its People: Vol 2, Page 460: Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

The private girls’ high school accepted both day and boarding students, with the day students sharing in all of the privileges of boarders.  Boarders lived in the “Hall”, the original school building, or “the house”, a nearby Victorian mansion.  Girls participated in activities like hockey, basketball, swimming, glee club, and drama.  And they attended dances and proms at other schools and then invited the male students of other schools back to similar events at Rogers Hall.  An account linked below recalls a 1950 prom, told from the perspective of a visiting male student . . . who tells a rather truthful account that reminds us that alcohol use among prom-goers didn’t really emerge with ‘today’s kids’.

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that Rogers Hall was fading from the scene.  Even though the administration was tight-lipped about the conditions leading to the school’s imminent closure, it was obvious that its financial health had suffered for several years before its closure was announced.  Enrollment had fallen to 47 girls by 1973, less than half of its 100+ peak enrollment reached just 18 years before.

At the time of the 1860 US Census, the Rogers Family had lost its patriarch, Zadock Rogers, Sr. Emily and Elizabeth were among the youngest siblings.

The history of the school’s majestic buildings stretched back beyond the school’s 1892 founding.  Its main building, the Zadock Rogers House, dated to the 1830s when it began as part of a vast farm of almost 250 acres.   By 1880, Zadock Rogers and all but two of his children had died, leaving his considerable holdings to his two surviving daughters, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers.  Emily, who had attended the famous Miss Grant’s Girls’ School in Ipswich for two years during her youth, conceived of the idea to convert the Rogers home into a school after both sisters had died.  She died of pneumonia in 1884.  Carrying on the plans she had discussed with her sister, Elizabeth lived to realize their plan.  In 1892, just a few years before she died, Elizabeth donated her own home to the future school.

The sisters’ original plan had called for the donation of their estate to charity after both had died, but Elizabeth had a change of heart after meeting Mrs. Underhill, who had opened a girls’ school in Belvidere in 1891.  That school, lacking appropriate facilities to board students, was failing when Elizabeth began to look into founding Rogers Hall, while she was still alive.  She approached Mrs. Underhill, asking her to run the new school if Rogers were to provide the appropriate grounds.  Mrs. Underhill agreed, and remained the school’s first principal for its first 18 years.

By the time of the 1880 US Census, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers were the sole remaining members of the Rogers family. They began to discuss the future of their estate once they were gone.

The school was situated on about five acres of the original Rogers property.  In her last years, Elizabeth donated another 30 acres of land across the street from their farmhouse to the City in 1886; this later became Rogers Fort Hill Park.  The rest, over 200 acres, was sold for development and today forms the neighborhood surrounding the park and former school.  Elizabeth died in 1898 of pneumonia, just five months shy of her 80th birthday.

Rev. John M. Greene, pastor at the Eliot Church in Lowell, helped Elizabeth Rogers found the school.  He had also helped found Smith College.  In 1892, the school opened with 11 faculty and 50 students.  All but nine were day students.  The Rogers sisters lived a strict, austere life governed by Christian ideals, which they incorporated into the education provided to the students attending Rogers Hall.  Students lived by a rigid schedule, which left ample time for studying as well as rest.  Lights had to be put out by 9:30 each night.  Appearances were considered very important too.  Nightly, before formal dinners, staff would check the seams of students’ stockings for straightness.  Once dinner began, table manners were carefully monitored and evaluated.

In its earlier years, Rogers Hall was known for enforcing a strict, orderly lifestyle. Prior to admission into formal dinner each night, girls were inspected to ensure that they exhibited proper posture as well as straight seams on their stockings.

English: Collection of U.S. House of Represent...

Edith Nourse Rogers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rogers Hall produced many distinguished alumnae.  Among them, Anne Harvey Sexton, a 1947 graduate, was later awarded the Pulitzer price for poetry.  Dr. Mona Meehan went on to become the first female chief of staff appointed to a US hospital at St. John’s Hospital, now part of Saints Medical Center.  And, Edith Nourse Rogers, no relation to the founding Rogers family, served the Massachusetts Fifth District as a congresswoman for 35 years after her husband died in office in 1925.

At its peak enrollment in 1955, Rogers Hall had more than 100 students.  In its waning years, the percentage of day students soared, from 10% in 1968 to 50% in 1970, and 75% by 1973, when it closed.  Rising tuition prices and the advent of co-educational schools were both blamed for the school’s declining enrollment.  Today, Rogers Hall still sits on Lowell’s Rogers Street and serves as elderly housing.


The Story of Lowell’s Shedd Park

The gates are familiar to all who pass Lowell’s Shedd Park at the intersection of Rogers Street (Route 38) and Knapp Avenue in the city’s Belvidere section.  And they tell a story of some of the greatest generosity ever experienced by the city of Lowell.

The Shedd Park Gateway, as it was envisioned in 1910. (Source: Lowell Sun: 7/16/1910)

Today, Lowell’s Shedd Park is home to fifty acres of  tennis courts, baseball diamonds, picnic areas, and a water spray park.  Its pavilion is often used as a stage for public events and concerts.  In the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, however, the land that eventually became the park was a combination of open fields and dense forests, and it was privately owned.

Field and forest covered the land that would become Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

The land wasn’t always destined to become Shedd Park.  As late as 1896, it was considered for subdivision and development into housing lots.

An 1896 plan showed a subdivision consisting of Hoyt, Belrose, and McAlvin Avenues traversing the core of what later became park grounds.  (Source:  1896 Lowell City Atlas)

But, in the end, Freeman B. Shedd, the owner of the land, gave it as a gift to the City of Lowell, with no strings attached.  On July 14, 1910, Freeman B. Shedd sent a letter to Lowell’s mayor at the time, John F. Meehan.

Freeman B Shedd, (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

He said:

“I have acquired title to a tract of land containing fifty acres, more or less, which is situated south of Knapp Avenue and adjoining Fort Hill park, that I offer to the City of Lowell for its acceptance under the following conditions:

“First:  That it shall forever be used as a park and recreation or playground for the citizens and children of the City of Lowell, and for no other purpose.

“Second:  That no building or structure shall be erected on the land except such as is adapted and required for use in connection with said park and playground.

“Third:  That the city will, within a reasonable time, proceed to develop and prepare the ground for such uses on the lines indicated by accompanying plan furnished by E.W.Bowditch, civil engineer of Boston.

“Fourth:  That I shall have the right to erect, subject to the approval of the park commission, a suitable gateway and entrance, with a tablet or tablets thereon with the following transcription:  “Shedd Playground.  A gift to the City of Lowell by Freeman Ballard Shedd, A.D. 1910.”

And, with that he closed the letter, and awaited the city’s response to his offer.  Real estate experts of the day valued the land at $50,000.  There were really no strings attached.  Freeman Shedd, a lifelong resident of Lowell, and was simply and in the words of the day, an ‘ardent lover’ of his city.

The vote to accept Shedd’s park was unanimous, and a rising vote of thanks was offered to Freeman Shedd.  An appropriation of $10,000 was voted by the City Council on November 4, 1910 to clear the land and build a roadway to the entrance.  Work commenced quickly.  A roadway was built to grant better access to the future park.  Ground was cleared;  trees were felled.  The skating rink was created.   The Council intended, within 10 years to make the park one of the best outside Boston.  Freeman Shedd again stepped forward to make that happen.  Shedd’s will left $100,000 to the city for the development of the park, provided that his daughter, Mary Belle, left  no descendants when she herself died.  Mary Belle Shedd did, indeed, died childless in 1921, but was survived by Freeman Shedd’s wife, Amy.  When Amy Shedd died in 1924, the $100,000 reverted to the City of Lowell and Shedd Park was further developed.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park called for an open air theater, roughly where the little league baseball diamonds sit now along Knapp Avenue, a pond with a beach roughly where the Senior League baseball diamond sits now, and gender-specific gyms and tennis courts.  A field designated for baseball and football was to reside further down Boylston Street, where the current picnic area is.  Original plans also called for an underground tunnel to pass under the B&M railroad to connect the park with Wigginville, now better known as South Lowell.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park – 1910 – Lowell Sun, 7/16/1910

In the last days of November and into early December 1910, a 6″ inch service pipe was laid into the park, and from it approximately four million gallons of water were let onto the land to flood about five acres of land for a skating rink.  City residents loved it.  The Water Department wasn’t so thrilled.  Although the Park Department paid for the pipe and its installation, they refused to pay the water bill.

The skating pond at Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

Outside downtown Lowell, there are few Lowell landmarks as universally well-known as Belvidere’s Shedd Park.  At over 50 acres, the park is among the largest in the city.  Its story, enhanced by generations of memories among Lowell residents, traces its origins to one of Lowell’s most generous sons, who grew up to leave Lowell’s one of its greatest gifts ever.


Hot Spells of Long Ago – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910

Like today, the summer months of a century ago were no stranger to hot spells in the Greater Lowell area either.  One particular hot spell, during the middle of July in 1910, was said to be ‘hotter than the hobs of Hades’, as it was reported by Oscar, a popular downtown Lowell personality who worked at Putnam’s restaurant in Merrimack (now Kearney) Square.  By the hot spell’s second day, on July 11, 1910,  Lowell residents rejoiced as they were cooled by a gracious, if not refreshing, northwest wind that brought the temperature down a few precious degrees.

Group of bathers at Hanlan’s Point. (Toronto, Canada), 1913 – City of Toronto Archives (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But, even though the northwest wind had brought the 100°F temperature down a meaningful 8°F, it was still an oppressive 92°F in the shade at Lowell’s Pawtucket Boulevard.  At the height of the spell on the day before, the temperature had reached a hot 96°F at the Concord drug store in Belvidere.  The city farm near the Chelmsford town line recorded a temperature of 98°F.  That heat, recorded on July 10, 1910, was said to be the hottest in 30 years.  And, the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Lowell up to that time, 102°F, were noted on that day at two spots, Gallagher’s Tobacco Store on Merrimack Street and the Merrimack Woolen Mills at the Navy Yard.

So, what did people do, in an age before air conditioning, to escape the heat?  Whatever they could.  The Lowell Fire Department helped in the effort to keep people cool, by wetting down the roads twice per day, flushing the unhealthy dust from the air.  The 7 o’clock wetting each evening was the most popular.  While wetting down the roads, the fire department was known to also wet down the roofs and sides of houses too.  As they dispersed through the city to spray down the streets, they were greeted in a variety of languages.  Children followed the watering cart, to keep their legs wet.  Wearing little more than a smile, they played in the muddy streams that had replaced the hot, dusty roads.  The bravest among them approached the firemen’s hoses even though the streams of water emerging from them were capable of knocking a small child a great distance.

Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910

By Tuesday of that week of the hot spell, the weather began to cool, to 88°F.  When the street-wetting visits by the firemen were still hours away, people waited (and prayed) for passing showers.  During the mid-July 1910 heat wave, Tyngsboro was the only Greater Lowell community visited by a shower.  Portsmouth, NH was also visited by a strong thunder shower.  Both had attracted so much attention that they were recorded in the Lowell Sun the next day.

Not everyone hated the heat waves.  Lowell’s soda fountains and ice cream shops did a brisk business with those seeking a brief respite from the heat.  And the street railway welcomed the extra fare-paying passengers who could not or would not walk.  All sought to escape the unhealthful city air during the hot spell.  Many who could escape fled to the beaches on the north or south shores.  Those who were too poor to afford travel swarmed the beaches of the city’s Merrimack and Concord Rivers.

Others sought out the amusement parks along the street railway – Canobie Lake, Lakeview and Willow Dale, all of which were heavily visited.  Salisbury beach, Hampton Beach, Lynn beach, Revere, Marblehead, Nahant, and Nantasket were all popular destinations too.    Lowell residents often found their neighbors and co-workers at the beach.

To escape the city and get to the beach was difficult.  Some relied on the electric cars to get to Salisbury Beach or Hampton Beach, but the ride was cumbersome, lengthy, and not well-loved.  On Sundays, no train ran from Lowell to Salisbury or Newburyport.  Instead, Lowellians needed to take a car that would get them to Lawrence in time for the 8:20 AM train that left there for Salisbury, a trip that cost 55 cents.  Even on an 8:20 AM train, you wouldn’t expect to arrive at Salisbury until 80 minutes later, at 9:40.

Meanwhile, those trapped in Lowell’s tenements would often find themselves on their doorsteps, unable to withstand the heat inside their buildings.  Others would crowd the city’s commons or Fort Hill park, jockeying for prime positions on the park’s limited benches.  And they had to contend with one of the era’s most annoying pests, the brown-tail moth.

The brown-tail moths congregated on the lightposts so closely that passersby sometimes mistook the black posts as white, the color indicating stopping points for the electric car lines. (Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910)

Brown-Tail Moths were associated with the hot spells of a century ago. The moths were an invasive species accidentally introduced from Europe  only a few years earlier.  By the time of the 1910 heat wave, the moths were a common pest who invaded at times of high heat.  Often seen on the Chelmsford Street electric cars, the pests would fly into the faces of the motormen and the passengers, causing the cars to run more slowly.  Contact with the brown-tail moth caused an irritation similar to poison ivy and could be particularly severe in some people.

Hot spells were dangerous.  In the two-and-a-half days from Saturday to noon on Monday, 30 deaths were recorded in the Lowell area due to heat.  A significant amount, 11, were infants and children under 5 years of age.  One day later, by noon on Tuesday, 11 more had died, for a total of 41 deaths due to the heat wave.  Four more of those deaths were children under 5.  The others were older patients who doctors said would have lived, if not for the extreme heat.

One of the groups most seriously at risk was the men who worked the streets, cleaning and maintaining them.  Most had grown accustomed to the weather over the course of their lives.  One key survival trick?  They would wear wet cabbage leaves under their hats so that “sun won’t affect the brain”.  They also drank oatmeal water to “keep their stomachs in order”.  Advice of the day warned against drinking ice water or swimming in very cold water when overheated.  The shock to the system was unhealthy.  Women in the mills, too, were frequently overcome at their work and had to be carried outside to the open air.  And, lastly, the children who carried lunch pails to their parents and relatives in the mills were frequently overcome by the unforgiving midday heat.

One hundred years ago, hot spells were a matter of life or death, literally.  Much advice was provided for avoiding the perils of ‘heat prostration‘, which is today better known as ‘heat exhaustion’.  In July 1901, The Western Druggist advised its readers to eat a light, nutritious diet.  That meant no sweets, no pastry, no fats, and no heavy dinners.  Instead, readers were to eat lean meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish.  The Western Druggist admonished its readers to pace themselves and take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day for a siesta, like those in the ‘hot countries’.  Also, readers wishing to avoid heat prostration were told to avoid alcohol and other stimulants.  Most sunstroke, it was reported, was caused by those who had become drunk on beer, whiskey, or other alcoholic drinks.  And last, milk was to be sterilized and kept on ice before it was given to children.

The Western Druggist then went on to advise city-dwellers to spend time in the public parks.  The air, it was said, had been cleansed by the trees of ‘carbonic acid’ and purified with oxygen.  And, according to the common knowledge of the time, the air in a wooded area was actually colder, due to the average mean temperature of growing trees being just 54°F.


Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860′s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents


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)


Doors Open Lowell – 2012

Downtown Lowell sure has come a long way since the early 1980′s.  My earliest memories of Downtown Lowell involve weekend visits to my grandmother, who once lived in the large apartment building at the corner of Middle and Central streets.  During those visits, we would walk up Central Street to Merrimack Street, follow Merrimack up to the left onto Palmer, and come back down Middle.  We might have walked all the way to Shattuck on a particularly nice day.  One of my favorite games was to run ahead and try the doors of all of the storefronts.  Each had a unique doorknob or handle.  And each was locked, the stores behind them closed and dark.  I never got a chance to see what lay within the stores behind those ornate door handles and darkened windows.

Years later, Doors Open Lowell comes along.  What a wonderful idea!  Finally, I got to see what lies within some of Lowell’s grandest structures and homes.  I only wish I could have arranged to see more.  For no more than the cost of a tasty lunch at Abu Nawas (and the gas to get there), we visited Doors Open Lowell.  First, we saw Tremont Yard, a system of underground tunnels created by engineer James B. Francis in 1855 as part of his turbine experiments.  Today, the tunnels lie under the new and modern home of the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.  Outside downtown, we next visited the Franco-American School, once the elaborate home of Frederick Ayer.  The mansion dates from 1876, is one of the most ornate in the city, and is well-preserved by the school.

After the visit to the Ayer mansion, we next visited the Spalding House, a Georgian-style house dating from 1761, and the third-oldest home now standing within city limits.  The Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust is refurbishing the building, located on Pawtucket Street just a few doors down from the Ayer mansion.  Our tour of the building was self-guided, but many members of the Trust were on hand to enthusiastically and generously offer information on the house’s history and its significance to the area.  Of all of the historical homes I have visited, these folks definitely win the award for being the most welcoming.  I look forward to visiting again when I have even more time to explore.

Doors Open Lowell satisfies that curiosity that’s lingered within me from those days when I first peered into closed stores to catch a glimpse inside.  There were so many other great doors that were opened as part of Doors Open Lowell that I didn’t get a chance to see.  I hope to visit these next year.  Not only does Doors Open Lowell succeed in satisfying my curiosity about some of Lowell’s most storied institutions and homes, it also serves to showcase just how far Lowell has come from the streetscape of closed doors and empty storefronts I remember from the early 1980′s.