Category Archives: City Life

Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967

On a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in early May 1967, two men simultaneously spotted the billowing smoke escaping from the first-story windows of Sacred Heart School’s “new building” on its Moore Street campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.  John J. McWilliams, an off-duty police officer, ran and activated the fire alarm at a nearby fire-box.  John Sickles, a Tewksbury resident who happened to be driving past the scene, drove to the nearby Lawrence Street firehouse and notified the firefighters inside.

Marked with a black arrow above, Sacred Heart School's "new" building once fronted Lowell's Moore Street.

At 58 years old, the “new building” was the newer of Sacred Heart School’s two school buildings on the corner of Moore and Andrews Streets in the city’s South Lowell neighborhood.  Its cornerstone had been laid on October 9, 1909 by Lowell native and then-Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who later became a Cardinal.  By 1967, the school, which served the children of parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish located across Moore Street, had grown to include the “old” and “new” buildings that served some 600 students, from grades 1-8.  The building now burning housed the younger children, through Grade 4.  The older children attended classes in the “old building”, which standing just 25 feet away, was threatened by the raging fire too.

By the time the first firefighters arrived, a few moments after 2 PM, the fire had spread past the first-floor boys’ lavatory near where it had started, through an air shaft, across the school’s gleaming oil-treated floors, and up the stairwells into its third-floor auditorium.  The first alarm company to arrive on the scene, led by Deputy Chief Mulligan, quickly determined that the three-story brick building could not be saved.  They soon called for more alarm units.  Sacred Heart School’s new building was entirely engulfed in flames before the second alarm units even reached the fire.  Five more companies arrived to fight the blaze, and to protect the surrounding neighborhood, tightly packed in the city’s South Lowell section.  They also worried for the school’s remaining building, the old building, nearby, but still untouched by the flames.

The firefighters called in two more engines.  At 2:43 PM, help was called in from surrounding communities outside Lowell.  Firefighters from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Bedford, and Lawrence all answered the call.  Some assisted Lowell firefighters at the fire.  Others manned Lowell’s fire stations, while their firefighters fought the Sacred Heart School fire.  The inferno was declared a general alarm fire.  Veterans on the city’s fire department remarked it was the worst fire they had seen since the 1941 fire that had claimed the Bartlett School, more than 25 years earlier.

Firefighters directed the department’s pump-fed, high pressure lines at all four sides of the building.  They threw up a water curtain to protect the old building.  A few minutes after 3 PM, the fire began poking through the school’s roof.  Seven minutes later, firefighters were ordered out of the school when the top of its west-facing wall began to fail, spilling bricks, plaster, and other debris into Andrews Street.

Sacred Heart School's "New Building" - Lowell, Massachusetts

Police pushed back the crowds that had gathered along Andrews Street as firefighters risked death and severe injury to remove their equipment from the failing wall.  For the next hour or so, firefighters worked to contain the flames while they raced unchecked through Sacred Heart School’s new building.  Eight classrooms, an auditorium, the offices of the principal and of the school nurses, and the lavatories were all destroyed.  At 4 PM, the roof above the third-floor auditorium failed and fell into the building.  Its weight caused the floor of the third story to sag, forcing firefighters to abandon their efforts inside the building and escape using the nearest ladders and fire escapes.  More sections of the school’s roof soon failed, allowing firefighters atop aerial ladders clear access to aim their deck guns at the flames.  The fire was finally declared under control by 4:30 PM.  Smoke towered some 75 feet above the doomed school building as firefighters began to re-enter the building’s first floor and subdue any leftover trouble spots.  Chief Gendron left three companies on the scene overnight to prevent any additional outbreaks.

One firefighter lost his life fighting the blaze.  While helping fellow firefighters raise a 45-foot extension ladder on the school’s Moore Street side, John J. Wojitas, a WWII veteran and a 24-year veteran of the Lowell Fire Department, fell victim to a fatal heart attack.  He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John’s Hospital (now Saints Memorial).  Rev. W. Irving Monroe, the fire department’s chaplain, was on the scene of the fire and left with Wojitas when he was stricken.  Rev. Monroe returned to the scene of the fire later, delivering the news that Wojitas had died to his saddened fellow firefighters.

The school’s loss weighed heavily on the local community that had gathered to watch the efforts to save the building.  Most were graduates of, or otherwise connected to, the school.  The school’s nuns, of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, stood stricken with the priests of the school’s church, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In its aftermath, the school announced that its classes would be cancelled for a few days following the fire.  Rev. Frederick Higgins, OMI, acting as the church’s pastor while Rev. John T. McLaughlin, OMI, was recuperating in Florida from an illness, announced that plans to place students in other schools would be discussed.  By Sunday afternoon, the day after the fire, a crane had been already put in place to take down the charred ruins of the school.
The top two floors of the school were soon condemned and the city’s deputy commissioner of lands and buildings ordered that students not attend class in the school’s old building until those floors were leveled.  Some talk was made about saving the school’s first floor, but ultimately, this was leveled too.

The Rev. Bruce M. Lambert, pastor of the First United Baptist Church soon reached out to Rev. McLaughlin to offer the church the use of their facilities at Central Plaza at 99 Church Street in Lowell, which included, in his words, “a modern educational wing, with 10 classrooms, accommodating up to 300 pupils, an office and a large open basement recreation room.”  Sacred Heart officials ultimately chose to use their old building on a double session basis, for the few weeks remaining in the school year.

The school did rise again.  On September 22, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,500 people gathered to watch the dedication of the new Sacred Heart School building.  Its student body of 500 began classes there on the following day.  The Sacred Heart School band provided the crowd with a concert as dignitaries, parishioners, students, alumni, and friends looked on.  After the concert, a tour of the new building was given.  The cornerstone was laid during the ceremonies by Rev. John T. McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and the Very Rev. Thomas Reddy, OMI, Oblate Provincial of the Eastern Province.  The school’s principal, Sr. Mary Kevin, SSMN, proudly looked on.

Sacred Heart School's new "New" building, dedicated in 1968. Photo from The Lowell Sun, 9/17/1968

As part of the ceremony, Fathers Reddy and McLaughlin passed through the rooms of the new school building, blessing each one, and finished by hanging a crucifix in the principal’s office.  After giving thanks to all those who helped in the rebuilding effort, Father McLaughlin told the crowd about the contents of a box which had been sealed into the new school’s cornerstone.  The box contained all of the keepsakes that had been sealed in the cornerstone of the 1909 building: copies of The Lowell Sun and the Lowell Courier-Citizen detailing the construction of the first school and its groundbreaking ceremony.  In addition to the 1909 items, new keepsakes were added to the cornerstone box:  Lowell Sun articles describing the 1967 fire that had destroyed the former school building and the new school’s groundbreaking ceremony, a Miraculous Medal, a Sacred Heart Badge, and a list of all the current priests and teaching sisters.  The priests had also added a list of parishioners, a medal of Pope Paul, a Kennedy half-dollar, and a picture of John Wojitas, the fireman who died while fighting the fire that had claimed the old school.

By the time I began attending Sacred Heart School more than a decade later, people still spoke of the great fire that had claimed the “new building”.  During my first few years at the school, we still attended classes at Sacred Heart’s “old” building, with its quaint coat rooms and ornate woodwork.  The building was eventually demolished, ten or fifteen years ago.  The school itself closed a few years later.

Do you have memories of the fire, or of Sacred Heart School or Church?  Please share them here!

Note to readers:  The Fires of Lowell series includes several other articles, including one detailing the 1904 fire of Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Church.  This post marks the fifth installment of the series.


1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.


The Great White Hurricane – New England’s Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888 in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast.

A wet, swirling snow began to fall around dawn on Monday, March 12, 1888, in Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of about 65,000 residents.  Many of Lowell’s residents, workers in the textile mills, gingerly picked their way along slick sidewalks as they began their workweek.  Most did not know that a blizzard was approaching and that it would drop increasing amounts of snow in Lowell on that day and the next.  As they took their places behind their spinning machines and warpers, the morning’s light breezes intensified into winds and then gales.  Temperatures, near freezing in the morning, never warmed.  Outside the mills, milkmen shoveled passages through drifts that had grown several feet high.  Patrolmen struggled through blinding snows before being forced to suspend their rounds later that afternoon.  Most agreed that they had never before seen such a storm.  Almost all had thought these kind of storms only happened in the “west”, which had suffered through the Schoolhouse Blizzard just two months before.

Windows, and even their buildings, rattled in the howling winds as heavy, wet snow began to blanket Lowell, Massachusetts.  Communication with other cities was soon lost as strong gusts brought down telephone wires and telegraph poles, already heavy with snow and ice.

Travel to, from, and around Lowell soon devolved into chaos.  Snow drifts grew to ten, or twenty feet high on some train tracks.

Front Page Headlines from the Boston Globe - March 13, 1888

Those lucky enough to arrive from surrounding towns and cities came late.  Some unfortunate souls ended up stranded with their disabled trains in a dark, white wilderness.  The heavy, wet snow just proved too much for the steam engines.  To make matters even worse, downed telegraph wires meant that the stalled trains had lost all means of communication, leaving the stranded passengers and crew completely cut off.

For those relying on horse-cars to travel within Lowell, the situation was hardly any better.  Snow had settled into the horse-car tracks far more quickly than the plows had been able to remove it.  This, and the increasing number or passengers seeking refuge on the city’s horse-cars, began to overtax the city’s work horses.  Newspaper accounts recorded the concern expressed over the horses’ welfare.  When one of the horses dropped dead from overexertion early in the evening, the horse-cars were called back into the stables for the night and any attempts to keep the tracks clear of snow was given up.  Those stranded in Lowell remarked at the city’s oddly quiet streets, deserted without a single horse-car, or even any visible horse-car tracks for that matter.  Sleighs gradually claimed the streets, no longer needing to be mindful of the usual risk of overturning in the horse-car tracks.

City officials fretted that an electrical surge would take out the city’s fire alarm system.  At 5:30 that afternoon, officials shut down the city’s electric light system, after sending a notice to shopkeepers advising them to convert to their gas lights.  Most closed at dusk instead, sending their employees out into the evolving chaos that had been the city’s transportation system.  City officials tried to light their way using the old gas light lanterns that still hung along most streets.  They soon abandoned the effort, however, when they learned that the glass was missing from most of the lantern panes.

The increasing weight of the wet snow proved too much for telegraph wires too.  Communication with Boston was lost by 3 PM on March 12; New York fell silent several hours earlier.  New England Telephone Company suffered extensive damage to its telephone lines as well.

The sun finally reappeared by the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, but failed to melt much as temperatures failed to hit even 30ºF.  Throughout the day and evening, teams of men picked away at the deep drifts covering the horse-car tracks with their picks and shovels.  Horse car service began to be reinstated on the following morning.  By dusk on March 14, nearly all horse-car service was available.

Train service, too, began to return to a state of normalcy.  Trains that had spent the storm trapped within deep drifts began arriving during Tuesday, March 13.  A train that had left Fall River, Massachusetts at 5:45 AM on that day arrived in Lowell almost 12 hours later, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  By Wednesday, March 14, train service too had returned to normal schedules, even though even a passing snow squall had dropped even more snow on the area.

Western Union and New England Telephone remained hard at work in the days following the storm.  Although Western Union began work on felled telegraph poles after the storm ended on March 13, it was several days before service was restored.  New England Telephone had restored most of its service by Thursday, March 15.  Electric light service was restored to Lowell by dusk the night before.

As repairs were completed in the days following the storm, the Blizzard of 1888 faded from local newspaper headlines.  And as communication was restored with Boston, New York and beyond, news of the extent of the damage in New York City became known, where deaths and much more serious damage had been recorded.  Lowell, Massachusetts, recorded several injuries related to the Great White Hurricane of 1888, but escaped the greatest brunt of the storm.  The Blizzard of  1888 remained the benchmark for all other snowstorms, however, for nearly a century until the Blizzard of 1978 swept across New England and became the storm of record.


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s North Union Station, 1895

A view of Boston's North Union Station on Causeway Street, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Any discussion on “Lost Boston” has to include Boston’s North Union Station, which once stood on Causeway Street, on the current site of the TD Garden (better known locally as “the Boston Garden” and by some as the “Fleet Center”).  North Union Station, which consolidated the operations of four different railroads into one building, was completed in 1893  and demolished in 1928.  Traffic through Boston’s North Union Station came mostly from Boston’s north and northeastern suburbs, although some traffic also originated from central and western Massachusetts, and even further afield from places like Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada.  Soon after it opened, the Boston Sunday Globe stated that a number of people equal to the then-population of the United States (62.6 million) passed through its entrance once in every two years.

Boston, Massachusetts. Boston and Lowell Railr...

Lowell Station, Image by Boston Public Library via Flickr

North Union Station, actually three adjoined buildings, was completed in 1893 and included the former Boston & Lowell Station, which dated from 1873 and was known as just ‘Lowell Station’ to the locals.  Lowell Station, the left-most building in the photograph above (almost lost in the haze), had over 200 feet of frontage on Causeway Street and was 700 feet long.  Built by General Stark, it replaced an even earlier station, the first on the location, which dated from 1857.  The Lowell Station housed the head offices of the railroad and boasted some of the largest and most accommodating waiting rooms in the country.  Opened in December 1873, the Lowell Station quickly became known, simultaneously, as one of the finest stations in the country, and  as “Stark’s Folly”; many Bostonians thought it too grand and expensive for Boston’s needs.  Even after its absorption into the larger North Union Station, Lowell Station remained somewhat distinct, retaining its own waiting rooms and toilets.  The station also housed the inward baggage room.

On the other end of North Union Station was the “office tower” (the right-most and closest building in the photograph above).  The top two stories of the structure served mostly as offices.  Its ground floor contained the outward baggage room and space that had been leased to the express companies.  The Causeway Street frontage of the building included a 45-foot tower; the reminder of the building measured over 300 feet in length.

North Union Station, Boston, Mass.

Boston's North Union Station - Main Entrance, via Boston Architectural Club Catalog, via Wikimedia Commons

Connecting them was a central building sporting a rather elaborate set of stone columns, which had been designed by the architecture firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, the same firm that designed Boston’s first skyscraper, the Ames Building, which also dated to 1893.  In other photographs, the name “Union Station” appears, prominently carved above its entrance.  Connecting these three main buildings were two corridor structures, known as ‘midways’.  The view from the interior of one of the midways appears below:

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

The Causeway Street facade of the entirety of North Union Station spanned 586 feet and boasted as its main entrance an archway of cut granite some 80 feet wide and 70 feet high.  Upon entering North Union Station through the arch, one would find the main waiting area, some 98 feet square, and filled with benches (or settees, as they were called) that could accommodate several hundred people.  The men’s and women’s lavatories were provided on each end of the waiting area.  Each boasted Italian marble, the latest innovations in plumbing, and were quite spacious – they could accommodate nearly 100 people.  To the right of the waiting room was the parcel room, where up to 1000 pieces of luggage could be checked at once.  To the left stood the ticket office, an elaborate system of sorting, processing and selling railroad tickets for the B&M railroad as well as other railroad companies.  The ticketing system was so large and complex that it took 18 men to run it in 1894.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station, Boston, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

The scene outside Boston’s North Union Station wasn’t entirely unlike today’s.  Foot traffic and vehicle traffic clogged Causeway Street and pedestrians needed to take care crossing the street to catch their train or meet their friends arriving from points north and west of the city.  The scene above, from the Detroit Publishing Company’s photograph collection, dates from 1895. To arrive to, or depart from, North Union Station most relied on public transportation, i.e., electric cars, if they lived beyond a comfortable walking distance.  The station’s hack stand was designed so that its waiting area was under the station’s roof, to protect waiting travelers from the elements, a luxury that was much appreciated by Boston’s masses.

Of course, if you were “of means”, you might arrive in your own personal horse-drawn buggy, such as this gentleman appears to be doing:

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station - Gentleman arriving, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like today, people rushed to and from Boston’s North Union Station.  The station’s train shed was said to be the largest in the world, covering nearly 6 acres and boasting over 20 tracks.

Union Station, Boston - 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Below, passengers disembark from an electric car outside Boston’s North Union Station.  The station had an extensive newsstand just inside the main entrance to the left, as well as its own barber shop and restaurant.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals , via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, Boston’s North Union Station stood only for a few decades before it was demolished and replaced with the Boston Garden (and a new North Station) in 1928.  The Boston Garden, itself demolished in 1997, and replaced by the TD Garden, saw many celebrities perform under its roof, including The Beatles (1964), James Brown (1968), the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead (multiple times).  The Garden also saw many championship seasons from the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.  Today, the TD Garden stands at the site, with yet another North Station underneath.   Even in its day, the North Union Station had its detractors, who claimed the building’s beauty was too extravagant and came at too great a price.  Others claimed its incorporation of three very different buildings was incongruous, and well, just plain ugly.  Seen today, more than 80 years after its demolition, North Union Station is seen in a much kinder light.  It becomes a part of the lore of “Lost Boston” and elicits a certain sense of nostalgia for a part of Boston that no longer exists.


The Ebbing Excitement Surrounding the Opening of Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, 1897

Have you visited Boston?  Do you have ancestors who lived or visited here?  Since you’re reading a blog called Forgotten New England, chances are good that you, or someone on a branch of your family tree, has ridden Boston’s subway.  Boston’s subway, or ‘the T’ as its locally known, makes a very walkable city even more accessible.  The T is also the first, and oldest, subway system in the United States.

Much fanfare heralded the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, now part of the T’s Green Line route, during the months leading up to its opening on September 1, 1897.  Prior to its opening, Tremont Street had been so thick with horsecars and foot traffic that residents of the city quipped that you could make better time walking across the tops of the electric cars and carriages than by trying your luck battling elbows, feet and horse traffic at street level.  Residents of Boston were justifiably excited by the prospect of pushing all of that mess underground.

A scene showing the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, in 1896 (via Wikimedia Commons)

From the Boston Daily Globe, Front Page, September 3, 1897

Soon after the Tremont Street Subway opened, the novelty of this change to the daily commute quick wore off.

And that excitement appears to have lasted . . . one day.  Like anything, the novelty soon wore off.  As early as September 3 – two days after the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, a Boston Daily Globe reporter wrote that the number of passengers had already dropped on the subway.  This development wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  The crowds of curious “pleasure riders” hitching rides on the new subway cars had already begun to chafe at the evening rush-hour commuters just wanting to get home.

By the afternoon rush of the second full day of subway operations, the Boston Globe writer reported that subway cars coming through the Park Street station actually had room for people wishing to get on, and get off.

Perhaps hastening this “cooling off” in pleasure riding interest in Boston’s subway system were the cooling temperatures outside.  As early September greeted Boston in 1897, temperatures dipped both outside, and in Boston’s subway system, which he described as ‘chilly’.

Oddly, another reason might have been the system’s exit turnstiles, which were called out as one of the system’s greatest inconveniences.  Although they stood some seven or eight feet in height, no one could figure out their purpose.  Fares were paid to conductors aboard the subway cars or through tickets that had already been purchased.  The only purpose that the turnstiles seemed to serve, riders guessed, was to slow people’s exit from the subway, and to make the platforms even more crowded.  With their considerable height, they obstructed the view past the exit and apparently resulted in some passengers being struck in the face by the revolving bars as they struggled to escape.  In addition, at the Boylston Street station, the turnstiles at the Tremont Street side reached almost to the edge of the platform, leaving little room for passengers to negotiate their exit, as others were jockeying for prime positions for boarding the next incoming subway car.

By Boston Daily Globe (Sign at Park Street station) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A copy of a newspaper page from the day of the Tremont Street Subway's opening, (via Wikimedia Commons)

One other confusion persisted into the first week of subway operations.  No one seemed to understand where the subway cars stopped on each platform.  Riders waiting at the Park Street station lined the entire platform, not understanding that the incoming subway cars pulled as far ahead as possible.  As the slowing cars pulled ahead of the waiting passengers, they then scurried down the platform to board their cars, not ‘paying much attention to any who happened to be standing in their way.’

Maybe the subway experience of 1897 isn’t so much different from that of a modern-day commute.  Boston’s Green Line route, even today, still retains a lot of its Victorian-era charm – some intentionally, through the placement of posters showing scenes of the Victorian-era city, and some not so intentionally, like the stop-and-go lurching of an electric car trolley that likely feels quite similar to what our ancestors experienced for the first time, more than a century ago, under the streets of Boston.

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Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.

Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to Lowell, 1848

If you spend a considerable amount of time reading turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century editions of the local papers of Lowell, Massachusetts, you’ll soon come across the name of Samuel P. Hadley, who presided as a Justice for the Lowell Police Court for close to three decades.  In fact, I think a few of the people I’ve researched for columns . . . and even genealogy, might have met Justice Hadley in his courtroom once or twice.  Justice Hadley was very active in local history too, and was a president of the Lowell Historical Society.

[Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illin...

Abraham Lincoln, Congress-elect from Illinois - Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Justice Hadley spent a good amount of his later years recording his memories.  As the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approached just over 100 years ago, Lowell’s historical society took note that they knew of just one man who still recalled Lincoln’s visit to Lowell some sixty years before, in 1848.  At the time, Hadley was just 16 years old, but already quite interested in politics.  He and his family considered themselves democrats, but Hadley recalled being intrigued by the rival Whig party and wanting to know more.

Hadley remembered walking up Lowell’s Central Street on September 14, 1848, and pausing when he saw a sheet of white paper, a yard long and two feet wide, with large black block letters inviting passersby to City Hall two days later, on a Saturday evening, to see the Hon. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

On the evening of September 16, 1848, a pleasant evening as Hadley recalled it, he walked into Lowell from his home in Middlesex Village.  As he turned the corner of Carleton and Hovey’s, he realized he was late, and could hear applause and laughter already escaping from the hall. He entered City Hall, and found a seated crowd, listening, entertained, to a man telling a story.  Even the ladies in the gallery had joined in the laughter.  Hadley noted that many prominent members of the local Whig party, Lincoln’s then-party, were present on the platform. Hadley later learned that the man speaking to the crowd was a young Abraham Lincoln, who would have been less than 40 years old at the time.  Hadley described him as a tall man who was dressed in dark clothing and wore a collar turned over a black silk cravat.  He noted that the man, who stood well over six feet tall, stooped somewhat and had long arms, that moved animatedly as he spoke.  He also noticed Lincoln’s dark complexion and nearly black hair.  Lincoln’s eyes, he described as bright, humorous, but reflecting a quiet sadness.   He found him forceful and candid, rather than eloquent.  While Hadley listened to him speak, Lincoln added amusing illustrations to his stories, and had a peculiar way of laughing that included shaking his sides, which caused the audience to laugh even more.  He also noted Lincoln’s strange way of pronouncing his words, “in a manner not usual in New England“.

Hadley listened to Lincoln for nearly 45 minutes, laughing at his stories.  He lamented that he couldn’t recall the details of the stories when he set down to record the memory some 60 years later.  Lincoln ended the speech to rounds of applause that filled the hall, and went to take his seat.  Before he could sit, though, Mr. Woodman stepped forward, and whispered in Lincoln’s ear.  Lincoln needed to stoop to hear Woodman, but nodded and came back to address the audience on the candidacy of General Zachary Taylor as the candidate of the Whig party for the presidency.

It’s interesting to read and consider the newspaper coverage that Lincoln’s appearance received the next day.  In his paper, Hadley provides the articles as they appeared in the Lowell Courier on the following Monday, September 18, 1848:

Alfred Gilman's report on Lincoln's Visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, September 1848

The second half of Alfred Gilman's report, 1848

Justice Hadley finished his recollection, stating that he was fairly certain that Lincoln had stayed in Lowell that Saturday night – since the trains to Boston ran no later than 6:30 in the evening during those days.  He did not know where Lincoln had stayed, but speculated that he most likely stayed with the Chairman of the Central Committee, Linus Child, or with another Lowell dignitary, Homer Bartlett, who both lived in the same block on Kirk Street in Lowell’s downtown section.


Unexpected Family Tree Finds – Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works

Sometimes, you need to work really hard to land the latest find in your family tree discoveries.  Sometimes, family history finds just fall in your lap.  Before going to work yesterday morning, I stopped at the barber shop, and checked Facebook while waiting for my turn in the chair.  And I found – quite a find.

A while back, I wrote a post about the Lawrence History Center, a small-city archive dedicated to preserving and sharing the  history of the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  For a few weeks now, I’ve been following their Facebook feed, which today delivered the find that made my genealogical day – a link to a video from 1959, showing Western Electric‘s manufacturing plant in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Western Electric eventually became AT&T, which spun off into Lucent Technologies, which today is Alcatel-Lucent.  Growing up in northeastern MassachusettsMerrimack Valley, Western Electric always played a large part in my life.  Most kids in my class had parents or relatives who worked at the Merrimack Valley Works plant, as it was called.  At its peak, 12,000 people worked there – including my parents.

My dad started there in 1960, my mom a year later.  A year after that, they met.  Many years after that, I visited the plant – during annual open houses.  But, I’ve always been curious what working there was like, especially in those first years, which today seem so long ago.  Sure, there’s the show Mad Men, which provides some great fictional insight into the life of ad men on New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960′s.  But, I’ve been fairly certain that life at a Western Electric plant that was manufacturing equipment for the Bell System was quite different.  And after watching the video, I think I was right.

The video, from the AT&T Archives, lasts about thirteen minutes and shows views of North Andover, Massachusetts where the plant was located, as well as nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts.  The idea behind the 1959 video was to emphasize the relationship between the plant, the larger community, and its employees.  Even if you don’t have a family connection to the plant, the video shows some interesting views into the Merrimack Valley of 1959 as well as what a mid-century working environment at one of the region’s key employers was like.


Boston’s Immigrant Experience in 1900 – Anticipation & Hope Amidst Confusion & Exploitation


Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

SS Canopic lands in Boston on October 17, 1920

Imagine the anticipation of these folks aboard the SS Canopic as it docked in Boston over 90 years ago.  Were your grandparents or great-grandparents among these immigrants, who had perhaps spent more than a week aboard ship traveling to a new life?  How long had these families planned, sacrificed, and prepared for this moment as they watched Boston come into view?

I find photographs like this one, from the Boston Public Library’s Flickr Photostream, particularly inspiring.  A good number of my ancestors immigrated through Boston’s ports between 1869 and 1909.  In fact, my own second-great-grandparents came across the Atlantic on that same SS Canopic eleven years before the photograph above was taken.  Some relics from my family’s immigrant experience remain – a diary entry from July 25, 1869, written in my 2nd great-grandfather’s elaborate hand, recording his arrival into Boston; and a Victorian-era trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings from the Azores when she arrived at Boston in 1907.  Relics like these help us imagine their immigration experience, but don’t really provide a lot of detail.

Surviving records like censuses or ships’ manifests tell us where, whence and when they arrived; they will even tell us who they arrived with.  And later records will tell us where they intended to settle and what they did for occupations.  But, unless stories have been passed down the generations, or otherwise recorded in diaries (or maybe even in rare newspaper accounts), we can only guess at the lost tales which might have told us what they experienced in that time between when their ship docked and when they “got settled”?

From Ancestry.com, this ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands.

This ship's manifest lists immigrants arriving to the port of Boston from Portugal's Azores Islands. The ship, the SS Canopic, is the same that is pictured above. Lines #14 & #15 contain the registries for my second-great-grandparents.

To learn more about the immigrant experience for my ancestors, I first came across the website of the Ellis Island foundation.  So much is available about the Ellis Island experience in New York, which is important to me too.  My four-year-old grandfather, his parents, and younger brother all came through Ellis Island in 1913.  He never spoke of the experience (and probably didn’t remember much of it), but the records available do provide meaningful insight into what he and his family might have experienced there.

What’s sometimes forgotten is that Boston was also a major immigration port during Ellis Island’s active years.  Unlike Ellis Island, Boston’s immigration inspections were not concentrated in any one place.  Immigrants passed through the East Boston, Charlestown, and Commonwealth (South Boston) docks.  Each had a room equipped for immigrant inspections, which were carried out by federal US immigration officials.  These inspections could be quite daunting.  In my mind’s eye, for comparison, I imagine myself passing through an immigration checkpoint at a foreign airport in a non-English speaking country.  Like an immigration checkpoint today, the public was not allowed in the inspecting room or even on the docks.  This was designed to prevent the coaching of arriving immigrants.  While immigrants awaited the entry inspections,  they waited in general waiting rooms, which were segregated according to the class of service by which one arrived.

Arriving in Boston in 1890, my great-grandfather, Matthew McNamara, and his three brothers (all aged between eight and fourteen years old) were to continue to New York to meet their parents and younger siblings who had immigrated in 1888. The family was reunited after my second-great-grandparents managed to save the funds to purchase the four additional trans-Atlantic tickets.

Family members were never allowed within the waiting rooms, but people holding custom passes – generally those “favored” by immigration officials – were allowed into the waiting rooms to “advise” the immigrants amidst what was frequently a sea of hopeless confusion.  These favored individuals were mostly employees of transfer companies and had a reputation for bilking immigrants out of their money under false pretenses.  Many were representatives of immigrant banks, who helped immigrants coordinate onward travel by converting prepaid travel into valid stateside tickets.  Officially, they charged no additional fees for these services.  Unofficially, this wasn’t always the case.

Many arriving immigrants spoke little English and were unfamiliar with the cultures and even the geography of Boston.  The very young, or those who gave suspicious addresses and who seemed to be arriving to see friends in or near Boston might be detained until their friends were notified to call for them.  But, most were released after primary inspections cleared them and their baggage. Upon release, arriving immigrants walked into the same crowds as any cabin passenger, which could prove to be quite bewildering.

The option did exist for immigrants to wait within the waiting rooms.  However, eventually, they would have to leave and they had no way of knowing whether their own friends or relatives would be among the many people in the crowds outside.  Sometimes, a representative from one of the humanitarian private societies, e.g., the North American Civic League for Immigrants or the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) among others, would be available to search the crowds for them, calling out the names of persons given to him by the arriving immigrants.  This helped some, but the experience of leaving the immigrant inspection area and meeting one’s loved ones on the other side must have been daunting and disorienting.  A lot of concern was voiced for the safety and well-being of the immigrants.  The Commission on Immigration was created to look into these concerns.  The Commission was particularly concerned about the situation of young women, of whom there were many and who were considered to be especially vulnerable.

Published in Harper’s Weekly - November 7, 1874.

Emigrants board an America-bound steamer in Hamburg, Germany

Many immigrants arrived with addresses given to them by someone in their villages; often, these addresses were incorrect or outdated.  In 1913, the Commission on Immigration learned of a Polish girl (in the parlance of the time, this could have been any unmarried female under 25) in 1913 who arrived on the Cleveland and reported her father’s address at 51 Beckford Street in Roxbury.  Commission investigators, later looking into her well-being, learned the man did not live at that address, and no one there had ever heard of him.  What happened to his daughter after she arrived at the address was never learned.

In November 1913, the Commission learned of another Polish girl who arrived on the docks at Boston’s Commonwealth Pier, on the ship Hanover, and gave a South Boston address.  An immigrant banker took her to his Salem Street establishment in the North End, charged her 75 cents and then put her on a street car leaving her to find the South Boston address alone.  The Commission never learned anything more about her.  In another case, during the same month, the Commission looked into the case of a Lithuanian girl, 21 years old, who had arrived on the ship Laconia and gave an address of 164 St. Clair Street in Boston.  One of the Commission’s investigators later tried to find that address to verify her safe arrival only to learn that no such street existed within the city.

The Commission did not only look into cases of young women.  In one investigation, they placed one of their own investigators in a cab with four immigrants – two men and two women.  An immigrant banker at the docks demanded $1 each from each of the immigrants “for the fare” of the cab he located for them.  The cab driver later demanded 50 cents each from the immigrants as he reached their respective destinations.  The legal fare for the ride was 50 cents in each case.  To add to the overcharging, the investigator, the last to be in the cab, provided the driver with an address he could not find.  After a cursory attempt, the driver gave up and left the investigator on the road amidst a “crowd that gathered around him”.  Frequently, cabmen became responsible for the welfare of immigrants who became lost in a sea of people, unable to find their friends and relatives.  Some proved to be trustworthy; some didn’t.

Many immigrants with final destinations outside Boston came with orders for railroad tickets that had been purchased abroad or sent from relatives and friends in the United States.  What wasn’t widely understood was that these orders needed the approvals of steamship company officials and also needed to be exchanged at the railroad ticket office.  One man, from Poland and with an ultimate destination in Michigan, arrived in Boston with his ticket already purchased and managed to get his ticket stamped and signed on the dock, which was two of the requirements, but did not realize he needed to exchange that ticket for another on the dock.  On the train to Michigan, without the right ticket, he was charged $11 by the conductor.  The average wage for a working man at the time was about 25 cents an hour.

Even if they managed to find a reliable ride to their final destinations, concerns existed around luggage handling and even getting food.   Confusion abounded about luggage requirements and fees.  In a complex fee structure (not unlike today’s airline fees), immigrants with continuing tickets were allowed one piece of baggage free of charge, but the procedures for additional pieces of luggage and for checking luggage through to its final destination were complex and far from uniform.

Immigrants continuing on from Boston most often bought food from the lunch counter on the dock.  Investigators from the Commission on Immigration found that hot food, or even hot coffee, could not be found on the docks.  They came across one vendor, who had a contract to sell food to immigrants awaiting additional questioning, selling 10-cent bottles of sarsaparilla for 25 cents, 10-cent packages of canned meat for a quarter, and 5-cent loaves of poor quality, stale bread for a dime.  Without much competition, immigrants had little choice but to shell out the exorbitant prices.

Armenian-Americans in Boston, 1908; Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library's Photo Collection via WikiMedia Commons

Reading through accounts of immigrants’ first moments in the United States provides some interesting insights into what my own ancestors might have experienced as they arrived in Boston and prepared for their onward journeys to other destinations within Massachusetts.  Regardless of which port your ancestors came through, each had a story.  Some have been preserved in official records or family diaries – or maybe through the oral history passed down through the generations within a family.  In our lives, so much is influenced by our surroundings – our schools, towns, states, and even the country where we spend our childhoods.  It’s interesting to ponder that someone so long ago sought to seek a better life amidst more opportunities, and that this choice, from decades before we were born, influenced our own lives to such a great extent.


If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906

Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850?  It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song.  Why “jingle bells”?  Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence.  The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.

By Timmis, Reginald Symonds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Two-Horse Open Sleigh - in Toronto, 1913

But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”?  In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads.  In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them.  On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.

He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports!  All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities.  On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses.  When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.

From Lowell's Municipal Records - 1906 City Forester's Report

From Municipal Records of Lowell - City Forester's Report - 1906

Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses.  When they didn’t, people improvised.  In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk.  City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below.  One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.

Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then.  Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act.  By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees.  It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.

From Municipal Records - Lowell City Forester's Report 1906

Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago?  Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene.  Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses.  According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night.  Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.

As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:

A day or two ago, the story I must tell. 

I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.

A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh. 

He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”

I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond.  I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.

Happy Holidays, Readers!  And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!