Category Archives: Disasters

From the Curator’s Desk: Odd Old Things – The Box of Cinders

At the Lowell Historical Society, we sometimes get the question:  “Hey, what’s the strangest thing you have in your collection?”

That’s a tough question to answer. The Lowell Historical Society has been around for a long time. I’m reminded of this each time I visit our archive. Just this morning, I found a book, one of those old official-looking volumes with the word ‘records’ embossed on its side, that contains minutes from a few decades of our board meetings, starting from 1943.  And then, just next to that, was a stack of correspondence with donors from 1973.  All of this is impeccably preserved.

But the Society’s collection is much older than that.  Its history dates back to its founding in 1868.

That’s a lot of time to collect odd things, that have since become old.

When I stumble upon these, I often think of the question: ‘If you didn’t know to ask for it, how would you ever find it? Or even know it exists?’

This is exactly the case with our Box of Cinders.

The Box of Ashes, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

The Box of Cinders, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

Yes, the cinders, or ashes, are in a heart-shaped box.  As we’re currently in mid-February, I suppose that’s sort of seasonally appropriate.  The note attached to the top of the box, which probably accompanied the donation some ninety-ish years ago, identifies the remains within the box not as . . . some long-lost loved one, but as what one Charles C. Swan, a retired shoe dealer, found on his lawn one Friday morning on June 4, 1926.  The note actually provides a lot of information, which is great.  What’s sadly lacking is some explanation as to why the ashes were put, and kept, in a heart-shaped box, for these last 88 years.  This informational  gap is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in our collection.  Some questions just don’t have a satisfying answer.

The Box of Ashes - Top, with Explanatory Note

The Box of Cinders – Top, with Explanatory Note, which reads:  “CINDERS – Found on lawn on 452 East Merrimack St. Friday morning June 4th 1926.  Came from Pollard Fire June 3rd 1926.  Charles C. Swan

Most folks, after finding something on their lawn one morning, probably wouldn’t think of donating it to their local historical society, but Charles C. Swan must have been a bit of a visionary.  And he was the treasurer of the Lowell Historical Society at the time.  So, he understood the significance of historical events when he saw them unfold.

pollard 1944Charles C. Swan probably saw the flames consuming Pollard’s Department Store the afternoon before, maybe from his home a mile away, at 452 East Merrimack Street.  Or maybe he was downtown as the chaos unfolded late that afternoon.  Maybe he saw the firemen arrive, first from the Lowell Fire Department, then from the surrounding towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.  Firemen from as far away as Lawrence came to join in the fight to save one of Lowell’s largest department stores.  No one died, but several firemen were overcome by the billowing smoke or cut by flying glass.  Four hours later, the fire was history.  But, so was Pollard’s Department Store, which traced its roots in Lowell to 1836.  Only its walls remained.  In the eyes of many, including Charles C. Swan, it truly was a Lowell institution, whose loss would be keenly felt.  Mr. Swan probably couldn’t imagine Lowell without it.

Charles C. Swan must have been overcome at that moment, the next morning, when he found a piece of that history on his lawn.  When he picked it up, and held it – maybe even as the smell of the smoke that had consumed Pollard’s still hung in the air.  So, he found a box in his home on East Merrimack, the heart-shaped box, and saved that little bit of history for posterity by donating his find to the Lowell Historical Society.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph.  Photo by Author

Merrimack Street – Lowell – in Fall 2011. Pollard’s was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. Photo by Author

And it worked too.  Those ashes, which otherwise would have likely blown away in the next spring breeze, or melted into his lawn with the next spring rain, way back in June 1926, are still carefully held and preserved by the Society today.  They’ve survived Charles C. Swan, who died a few years later in 1929, and even the great Pollard’s Department Store, which subsequently rebuilt and reopened, but then closed its doors for good in 1969.

Sometimes the most fragile relics are those which survive the longest.


The Day North Billerica’s Hospital Nearly Burnt Down, 1938

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane:  Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane: Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

In the wake of the New England Hurricane of 1938, Oscar Grenier found work with the W.P.A. cleaning up storm damage near the Farnan Private Hospital for the Aged on North Billerica’s Mt. Pleasant Street.  Grenier first noticed the smoke rising from the hospital just after 10 AM on September 30, 1938.  He, George Lindsay, and Robert Louvering, all W.P.A. workers from Billerica, rushed into the burning hospital, up to its second floor, and discovered flames engulfing a bedroom.  The men began pulling the patients, all between 60 and 92 years old, through the smoke and flames to the safety of the hospital’s porch.

Oliver Damon, of Mt. Pleasant Street, saw the commotion, ran 500 yards to the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Billerica Avenue and pulled the alarm box.  Rushing back to the fire, he helped the other men carry patients, some against their will, from the burning hospital to his house across the street.   Some were in their beds, others in their wheelchairs.  Some were blind or suffering from shock.  One had no legs.

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas.  At the time, the future Farnan Hosptial was owned by F. Clarke

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas. At the time, the future Farnan Private Hosptial was owned by F. Clark.

Meanwhile, Billerica’s fire department answered the alarm, from the Billerica Central and North Billerica stations.  Chief Bartlett arrived to find flames shooting from the hospital’s eaves.  He immediately sought help from Lowell, which sent five more engines to the two-alarm fire.  Hose lines were laid from every hydrant.  Ladders were raised to every section of the roof.  For a while, the fire threatened to engulf the entire building.

Hundreds watched the firemen’s progress from Mt. Pleasant Street.  Inside the Damon home, Louise Saber, the nurse-in-charge, directed the care of the patients, and ensured that the beds and cots were set up.  First aid was administered.  Quickly, the nurses  determined that the patients had suffered no serious injuries.

The "Red Gables", as it appears today.  (Image Credit:  Google Maps - May 2009)

The “Red Gables”, as it appears today. (Image Credit: Google Maps – May 2009)

In the end, the firemen extinguished the flames, and Merle Farnan promised to quickly rebuild her hospital.  Even in 1938, North Billerica valued the historic building, which had been built as the Red Gables estate of Frederic Clark, a Talbot Mills treasurer, superintendent, and president.  Investigators later traced the cause of the fire to the open flame of a first-floor fireplace, which had shot up the partitions, and burst into the second-floor bedroom entered by the W.P.A. men.  At the time of the fire, the fireplaces were being used for heat because the building’s electrical service was out due to the recent hurricane.

Merle Farnan did rebuild her hospital.  During the rebuilding, North Billerica showed its generosity and hospitality when the Damon family and other neighbors took in the hospital’s patients.    The following Independence Day, in 1939, Farnan treated hospital patients, and their gracious neighbors, to an elaborate display of fireworks.  The building still stands today on Mt. Pleasant Street and is an apartment house.


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

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

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

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

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

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Day a Cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts – 1890

On a summer morning in July 1890, the cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts suddenly and without warning.  What we would today call a tornado or microburst began as soft showers advancing across the city as people made their way to work on Saturday, July 26, 1890.  As nine o’clock approached, the clouds thickened and darkened the sky.  The rain intensified.  Fifteen minutes later, a funnel cloud appeared in the skies above Lawrence.  The wind picked up.  Then, the noise started.  Later, survivors learned that those sounds were nearby houses being torn apart.

Most Lawrence residents confused the commotion for noise coming from the city’s textile mills or from the city’s busy streets.  Chaos emerged as they realized a cyclone was crashing down onto South Lawrence, sending trees, houses, and other debris flying  through the air and across the city.  In just three minutes, twenty-five houses were completely destroyed.  Another 25 received serious damage.  Dozens of people were wounded, and eight people lost their lives.

St. Patrick's Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe - July 27, 1890)

St. Patrick’s Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe – July 27, 1890)

The cyclone struck Lawrence just west of Broadway, a main route connecting the city with Andover.  The houses on the west side of Broadway escaped with minor damage and downed tree limbs.  St. Patrick’s Church, the Catholic Church at the corner of Salem Street on Broadway’s east side, wasn’t so lucky.  It suffered broken windows and a lost roof on one of its transepts.

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy:  Illustrated American, 1890)

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy: Illustrated American, 1890)

Far worse, though, was the damage to the neighborhoods off Broadway.  Among the first casualties of the 1890 Lawrence cyclone was the saddest.  Mary Lyons, 24, was outside as the cyclone approached her Emmet Street home.  Fearing for her child, she ran inside her home just moments before the winds dashed her house from its foundation and broke it apart.  Her husband, James, was just a few feet further away, in a neighboring field, and just steps behind his wife.  The winds proved too much for him and he was blown aside, never reaching the house.  Outside, pinned to the ground just feet from his home, he was forced to watch it break apart with his family inside.  When the winds died down minutes later, he regained his footing, ran for his home and, with other rescuers, found the body of his wife, with a beam that had fallen across her forehead.  As they pulled her from the wreckage of the house, they found the Lyons’ young daughter underneath her, very alive and clasping her mother’s body while crying “mamma, mamma”.

The cyclone next crossed Salem Street’s overhead railroad bridge where Michael Higgins, who was working the bridge’s switch house, was blown more than 150 feet away.  His body was later found with a broken neck.   He was 23.  The winds next hit the house of Deacon William Cutler, who lived on the corner of Salem and Blanchard Streets.  The four people in the house at the time survived with just minor injuries.  One daughter narrowly escaped death by hiding under the family’s piano.  Another of Deacon Cutler’s daughters, Helen, just 11 years old, wasn’t so fortunate when she was carried down an embankment by the cyclone and struck by debris.  She died a few hours later.

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone.  (Courtesy:  The Illustrated American, 1890)

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone. (Courtesy: The Illustrated American, 1890)

Soon after the cyclone bore down on the Cutlers’ home, the wind shifted, sending the cyclone spiraling toward Springfield Street, where the heaviest devastation was recorded.  The houses there were either torn down entirely, blown over on their sides, or had entire walls torn out.  There, Elizabeth O’Connell, 32, died when she was crushed to death by the debris of her collapsing house.  Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, affectionately known as Mamie, died with her.  After Springfield Street, the cyclone flattened a grove of trees on Union street, before demolishing another six houses on Portland Street.  On Portland Street, among the debris, Elizabeth Collins and her six-year-old daughter, Annie, were found inside their house.  Hannah Beatty, 10 years old, was also found nearby.  All died of suffocation after being trapped under debris.

Some stories of miracle cases were told where death had been averted.  A bundle of rags blowing down Springfield Street in the aftermath of the cyclone turned out to be the baby daughter of Mrs. Elizabeth O’Connell, covered in dust and plaster, but otherwise unharmed.  Another Springfield Street resident, Mrs. Lizzie Holdeworth, was sitting in her house as the winds bore down upon South Lawrence.  She heard a crash, but lost consciousness before she could react.  When she came to, she was trapped under a pile of beams, unable to move, or to even make a noise.  A rescuing party, arriving hours later, chopped her free.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Lawrence set upon the ruined district around Springfield Street and started clearing the debris, and planning funerals for the dead.  Half of the cyclone’s victims were parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church.  Owing to the fact that cyclones are somewhat rare in the New England region, thousands of sightseers were reported to have descended upon South Lawrence in the days following the cyclone to view the damage.  Many remarked that the loss of life was very low for such a damaging storm.  This, of course, was no solace to the family and friends of the eight victims who lost their lives during the Lawrence Cyclone of 1890.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

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

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

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

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

Captain Edward Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Climate Change: Is Massachusetts getting warmer and wetter?

English: Blue Hill Observatory, Milton Massach...

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

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

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

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

So, what does the information tell us?

Massachusetts is getting warmer.  Period.  No question.  

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

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

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

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

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

But the snow keeps falling – even on Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pollard’s Department Store – Lowell Born . . . Lowell Owned . . . Lowell Managed

Arthur G. Pollard, Founder of A G Pollard Department Store in Lowell, Massachusetts and Native of Plaistow, New Hampshire

Late on a Thursday afternoon on June 3, 1926, every available firefighting resource raced to Pollard’s Department Store on Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell.  All of Lowell’s fire department was joined by men and equipment sent from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Lawrence in the fight to save Pollard’s from a raging fire.  Pollard’s, also known as A.G. Pollard Co., traced its beginnings to 1836 when Hocum Hosford founded a dry goods store on Lowell’s Merrimack Street, in the same location that would one day house the much larger Pollard’s Department Store.

The fire did not result in any deaths, but many firemen were temporarily overcome by the billowing smoke and illuminating gas.  Others were cut by flying glass or hit by falling debris.

The fire had been discovered at 4:40 PM by workers from the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company.  Four hours later, despite firefighting efforts, only the walls remained of the 90-year-old institution known as the A G. Pollard Department Store on Merrimack, Palmer, and Middle Streets.

With his entire store gutted by the city’s worst fire on record, many expected 83-year-old Arthur Gayton Pollard to retire from retailing after what had been a lengthy and successful career.  Instead, barely a month later, he opened a temporary store, at the Number Six mill of the Bigelow-Hartford plant on Market Street.  Just months later, in 1927, he reopened his full store, at its historic Merrimack Street location.

Arthur Gayton Pollard lived long enough to oversee the return of his store to full operations.   He died on June 4, 1930, just one day after the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire.  So great was his reputation among the Downtown Lowell community that the merchants division of the city’s chamber of commerce voted to close downtown stores for one hour on June 6, during Pollard’s funeral.

Even the Bon Marche, one of A.G. Pollard's main competitors, closed in observance of his funeral on June 6, 1930.

Arthur Pollard’s influence stretched far beyond his department store.  During his working years, he was involved many of Lowell’s companies and institutions.  Pollard served as president of Lowell’s Union National Bank, Stony Brook Railroad Company, the Lowell Hosiery Company, and Lowell General Hospital.  He was also a trustee of the Lowell Cemetery Association, Lowell Textile School, the Ayer Home for Little Children, Rogers Hall School, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.  He was also active in the Republican party.  Although he never held or sought office, he served as treasurer on the Middlesex County Republican Committee for nearly 20 years.  In 1900, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which nominated McKinley for a second term.  Pollard had also amassed quite a reputation in free masonry, and attained high honors in the York and Scottish rites, both in Lowell and nationally.

A Pollard's Ad from 1944 touts its Lowell heritage.

Arthur Pollard was a native of Plaistow, New Hampshire.  He was born on January 5, 1843, the only son of Colonel Joseph Smith and Luella Josephine (Tucker) Pollard.  He moved to Lowell at 11 years old, and, five years later, began working, first with Hilton, Keyes & Lewis of Lowell, and next with the Lowell Board of Assessors.  By the time he turned 18, he had found work with Hocum Hosford, a prominent Downtown Lowell dry goods merchant and sometime mayor of Lowell.  (Hosford Square carries his name).  After three years, Pollard became a partner in Hosford’s firm.  Hosford and Pollard continued their partnership for two decades, until Hosford died in 1881.

A WWI-era advertisement for A. G. Pollard's Department Store

Until 1886, Pollard continued the firm as he had when Hosford was alive, but then bought out his interest from Hosford’s estate and became its sole owner.  Arthur Pollard renamed the concern, A. G. Pollard & Co.; his department store was born.  By the 20th century’s first years, the A.G. Pollard Company had become one of the largest stores in Massachusetts, rivaled only by a couple of stores in Boston.  Pollard became so well-known in Lowell circles that hundreds gathered on Lowell’s Merrimack Street to watch him be the first man in Lowell to drive an electric car.  In retailing innovations, Pollard was credited with the invention of the bargain basement.

From the 1943 Lowell City Directory

Despite his many successes in Lowell, Plaistow, Pollard’s hometown, was never far from his mind.  Over the years, he became known as the “father’ of the town.  Some of his many gifts to the town included a tower clock for the Town Hall, a flagpole for the Village Improvement Society, a site for a school building, and an oil painting of his father, Colonel Joseph S. Pollard.  He also funded the creation of a soldiers’ monument erected in Plaistow’s Pollard Square.  Its pedestal was made of granite and topped with a bronze figure, standing some eight feet in height.  The pedestal bears four bronze tablets, containing the names of 102 citizens of Plaistow who served in the Civil War.

Pollard's Logo, circa 1965

Pollard’s Department Store held on long after Arthur Pollard’s death.  During his lifetime, Pollard admitted his son, Harry G. Pollard to the business, who later succeeded his father as its president.  And, in the decades following Pollard’s death, his other descendants played prominent roles in the department store’s management.  By 1961, two of Pollard’s great-grandsons, William Pollard Bartlett and Sheppard Bartlett managed the company as its executives.

A November 1970 Advertisement for Lynch's Department Store (Formerly Pollard's)

After 133 years of existence and 88 years under the ownership of Arthur Pollard or his family, the store eventually came to be sold on August 21, 1969, to Dexter D. Gould of Manchester, who owned and operated a chain of stores spread across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  At the time of the acquisition, Gould controlled the Miss Lynch Shop, located across the street from A. G. Pollard.  He also controlled Lynch Co. of Manchester and Kimball Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As the sale was announced in the local press, promises were made that Pollard’s would retain its name.  Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. The adjacent Hosford Block stands just beyond.


What if . . . the Titanic hadn’t sunk 100 years ago?

Reading newspapers from the morning after the Titanic sank is almost like reading the first page of an alternate history novel.

The first few words are familiar:

From The Lowell Sun - Front Page Headline - April 15, 1912

The next are shocking:

From the Lowell Sun - Page 1 - April 15, 1912

The Lowell Sun, the Boston Evening Transcript, and the Lewiston Evening Journal all reported similar headlines in their April 15, 1912 editions.

Just imagine, though, that as the newspaper headline reads, those 1,517 people didn’t die on the morning of April 15, 1912, nearly a century ago.  Imagine, instead, that the steamer had been badly damaged, and rather than sinking into the icy waters off Newfoundland, the damaged, but unsinkable sink crawled slowly toward Halifax, more than 600 miles distant.  Early reports concluded that the passengers aboard the Titanic were likely all safe.  Smooth seas and calm weather would have made for a successful rescue, anxious readers reasoned.  Surely, Colonel and Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV, Benjamin Guggenheim, artist F. D. Millet, and writer William T. Stead were all safe.

The Titanic, at the docks in Southampton. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Initial reports received, until at least noon on April 15, 1912, indicated that the Titanic’s passengers had been moved onto the Carpathia, another steamship, traveling to Naples from New York City.  The Titanic could hold as many as 2,435 passengers and 892 crew, reporters stated.  Twenty lifeboats had already met the Carpathia, they continued, and were already unloading as many as 1,200 passengers rescued from the damaged ship.  And, surely, with other liners close by (and the Titanic still afloat), the Parisian, a Halifax-bound steamer from Glasgow, or the Baltic or Virginian were rescuing the remaining passengers.  And, on the morning of April 15, a wireless message was received stating that the transfer of passengers was underway, they would be brought to Halifax, and then sent by train to New York.

Wireless messages from the night before informed that the Titanic had struck an iceberg off Newfoundland at 10:25 PM on the night of April 14.  The last message received from the Titanic had claimed that the doomed ship was sinking by the head.  Women passengers were being loaded into lifeboats.

(Photo Credit: Wikipedia) A passenger aboard the Carpathia took this photograph of the last Titanic lifeboat arriving, filled with survivors.

The Virginian received the Titanic’s first SOS signal, and immediately began its journey full steam to its location.  At about 170 miles away, it would arrive by 10 AM the next morning.  The Olympic was just over 300 miles away.  Initial accounts indicated that 1,470 passengers were aboard the Titanic.

“All passengers are safe and Titanic [has been] taken in tow by the Virginian.”  read one wireless message received at noon the day after the collision with the iceberg.

And, at 9:20 on the morning of April 15, Vice President Franklin of the White Star Line still exuded total faith in the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, when he announced:

“We place absolute confidence in the Titanic.  We believe the host is absolutely unsinkable, and although she may have sunk at the head or bow, we know that the boat would remain on the water.  We do not attach any significance to the fact that the boat is in communication with other steamers, for she may have gotten off all the messages she wanted to send.  We are not at all worried about the loss of the ship, but we are extremely sorry for the annoyance and inconvenience to our passengers.  You can make our views as forceful as you like regarding the capabilities of the ship to withstand any exterior damage.  We figure the Virginian of the Allan line will be alongside the Titanic by ten o’clock and we figure the Olympic of the White Star line, will be with the Titanic at 3 o’clock and the Baltic an hour later.”

John Jacob Astor IV and his wife Madeline (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

If those words had been true, soon after John Jacob Astor IV, a real estate tycoon who had invented a bicycle brake and authored the 1894 science fiction novel, A Journey in Other Worlds, may have been rescued after he was last seen smoking a cigarette on deck with mystery writer Jacques Futrelle at 1:55 AM.  Francis Davis Millet, a Mattapoisett, Massachusetts native who had painted murals in Boston’s Trinity Church, invented the first form of spray paint, and helped found the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, may have gone on to even greater artistic accomplishments.    William Thomas Stead, a founder of the investigative journalism movement, may have had even more influence in the development of the tabloid press it ultimately created.  And the hundreds of steerage passengers who lost their lives in the sinking would have had a chance to begin their new lives in the United States and contributed untold accomplishments to their new country.

But, the truth was that, by the time Franklin spoke these words, the Titanic already lay at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  Its descent of more than two miles to the seabed had begun when it disappeared beneath the waves at 2:20 AM, carrying more than 1,500 people with her.  Although the Titanic carried more than 2,200 people, its lifeboats could accommodate only 1,178, and of those spaces, nearly 500 were never used.  Just 710 people survived the disaster.

The Titanic begins a day of sea trials, just two weeks before it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The sinking of the Titanic prompts the pondering of many ‘what if’ scenarios.  As we approach the 100th anniversary of that night, it’s interesting to wonder how history may have been different if that night had passed like any other, and the Titanic had managed to avoid the iceberg, or, if the damaged ship had survived long enough to transfer its passengers to other ships.  Instead, it sank, taking with it some of the age’s most prominent personalities as well as many other people who were only seeking a better life in the United States.


When Eastern Massachusetts was the Frontier, 1695

Maybe you’ve come through Billerica.  On the northern approach, near the North Billerica commuter rail station, lies the site of the John Rogers homestead, marked by a sign erected by the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission in 1930.  The sign memorializes an event that happened even longer ago on today’s Billerica Avenue.  Early in Billerica’s history, during the Indian Massacre of 1695, the homestead of John Rogers was destroyed.  The sign once reported that the entire Rogers family was killed.  Later, those words were grayed out after researchers learned that several of the Rogers’ children had escaped and survived.

Photograph of the sign marking the site of the John Rogers Homestead, courtesy of Elizabeth Thomsen (Flickr)

That’s only part of the story.  The massacre at Billerica in 1695 was just one of a series of ‘Indian raids’ that formed part of King William’s War.  Relations between the colonial powers of France and England had been strained since 1689.  Both countries encouraged their respective American Indian allies to raid the other’s colonies in New France (now Canada), Acadia (now Canada and Maine), and New England.  As the war between France and England wore on, the raids crept closer and closer to Billerica and the town militia fervently guarded its borders.  Prior attacks had hit Dover (New Hampshire), Salmon Falls, and Falmouth Neck (today’s Berwick, Maine and Portland, Maine, respectively). Even though Billerica residents had felt themselves safe from the raids, being far south of the frontier with the French colonies, they still cringed at stories of English colonists in the more northerly settlements being killed, or captured during the raids and sold into captivity.

Map of Massachusetts, 1827, Anthony Finley (1790-1840)

With a wary eye, Billerica learned of the raids growing increasingly closer.  During September 1691, two raids hit Dunstable (Mass.).  A raid attacked Lancaster, Mass. less than a year later in July 1692.  The raids did come to Billerica – in 1692, three years before the raid on John Rogers house.

In August 1692, the town’s first massacre occurred near today’s Pollard Street.  Surviving records record little.  Indians raided two households near the current site of the North Cemetery.  In the first, Joanna Dutton, a widow whose husband had died of smallpox, was killed.  Her children, Mary and Benoli Dunkin were also slain.  In the next household, the raids claimed Ann Shed along with her daughters Agnes and Hannah.  Both mothers were 36 at the time; their children ranged in age from two to 16.  Mrs. Dutton was survived by five of her children.  Three of Mrs. Shed’s children survived.

The second, larger massacre occurred in early August nearly three years later, in 1695.  Town records recorded 15 people dead or taken captive, from four of the few houses that then stood east of the Concord River, in Billerica’s northern section.  According to the contemporary account written by Dr. Mather, the Indian raiders came upon the townspeople at high noon and in broad daylight.  The home of John Rogers, its site marked today by the Indian Raid sign, was raided first.  They found the farmer asleep in his bed and shot him through the neck.  Rogers awoke, ripped the arrow from his neck, and died holding it in his hand.  A woman, witnessing the attack, only survived by escaping through a window and hiding inside a pile of flags in the yard.  The Indians scalped a second woman, who survived and lived for many years afterward.  John Rogers’ son, Daniel, 12, and his daughter, Mercy were captured by the Indians.  Another four children escaped.

"The Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians" by Karl Ferdinand Wimar, 1853

The raid fell upon the home of John Levistone next.  Levistone’s mother-in-law and his five young children were killed.  Another daughter, eleven-year-old Sarah, survived, but was taken captive.  The third house raided belonged to John Rogers’ younger brother, Thomas, who was killed along with his son.  The last home raided belonged to Mary Allen, whose sister, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, and whose husband, Dr. Roger Toothaker, had been accused of witchcraft there and died in prison soon after.  Mary Allen died in the Indian raid; her youngest daughter was captured.  Word of the attacks soon reached Billerica Town Center, whose residents chased after the fleeing Indians.  The Indians easily escaped into the woods.  Town residents soon realized that the Indians had planned their escape well and had even muzzled their dogs.

Today, the sign near the North Billerica commuter rail station memorializes the site of the John Rogers homestead, the only raid site that has been definitively identified.  The identification was possible because, at least as late as the 1880′s, a well used by John Rogers was still visible.  Also, bricks that had been brought from England were found in the homestead’s cellar.  Historians have since proposed that the Levistone household was located  southeast of the Rogers Homestead, perhaps along present-day Mt. Pleasant Street or High Street.    Estimations of the locations of the homes of Thomas Rogers and the Toothakers have placed them at the site of the present-day MBTA west parking lot and the point where the Middlesex Canal leaves the Concord River, respectively.


The Immigrant Experience in 1892: New York’s Cholera Scare and its Effect on Boston

The emigrant ship Moravia crept into its dock in New York late on the night of August 30, 1892.  The ship was sent straight to quarantine.  On its ten-day voyage from Hamburg, Germany, 22 of its 358 passengers had been buried at sea, victims of Asiatic Cholera.  Two more passengers convalesced in the ship’s hospital, suffering from similar symptoms:  vomiting, nausea, and excessive diarrhea.  Those aboard ship did not know that cholera had been discovered in their departure city in the days after their ship left port. Consequently, they did suspect cholera was aboard ship with them as they travelled toward the United States.

Photograph of working class people crowding two decks of a transatlantic steamer, ca. 1907 (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

The Moravia set sail from Hamburg, Germany on August 17, 1892.  Less than a day later, a small boy aboard ship in steerage began suffering from severe and excessive diarrhea.  No one yet suspected Asiatic cholera.  Sickness among emigrant children in steerage was common on transatlantic steamships.  By the end of the second day, however, the little boy suffered convulsions of increasing severity and eventually became rigid and died.  Hours later, a nine-month-old girl succumbed to similar symptoms.  Those aboard ship did not comment much on the deaths of the youngsters as their bodies were sewn into weighted gunney sacks and cast into the Atlantic.  The deaths of five other children soon followed and the hospital filled.  Within days, more children began to develop diarrhea, cramps, and cold chills.  Their skin began to blacken from their illness.

The ship’s doctor, Dr. Israel, observed the sick infants and children aboard the ship, but dismissed their illnesses as the more common and non-epidemic cholera morbus instead of Asiatic Cholera.  The doctor blamed the children’s symptoms on the hot August weather and the tight conditions within steerage.  Dr. Israel called for all children to come on deck, thinking the open air and sun would help them.  The next day, though, two more children died, and, on the day after, one more perished.  Deaths were common aboard immigrant ships, especially among children; but when four more deaths occurred two days later, people began to grow nervous; two of the four deaths were adult passengers.  The rapid onset of death was also troubling to the passengers.  All of the deaths occurred within 48 hours after the first symptoms began to show; most died within 12 to 16 hours.

The Ship Manifest listing passengers aboard the Moravia: top of the first page.

As the Moravia approached New York toward the end of its journey, Joseph Roth, a pilot for the port of New York, boarded the Moravia carrying news of Asiatic Cholera’s spread into Hamburg, the ship’s origin.  He noted some sickness aboard ship, but was reassured by the Moravia’s medical personnel that all of it could be attributed to the non-epidemic cholera morbus.  The Moravia’s medical personnel learned from Roth that the spread of cholera into Hamburg had been announced.  The officers and passengers aboard the Moravia had no idea of the panic that had since surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic.

22 passengers died from cholera during the Moravia's voyage from Hamburg to New York; their causes of death were noted on the Moravia's Ship Manifest

Passengers began to grow alarmed as the ship was turned away from New York and toward quarantine.  The following morning, its passengers were removed from the ship to Hoffman Island, where they were bathed and their clothing was fumigated.  After that, they remained in quarantine while doctors waited to see if cholera would develop among them.

While the Moravia languished in quarantine, other steamers approached New York, the Rugia – three days behind with 300 passengers, the Normannia, five days behind that with 700 aboard, and the Scandia, which had left two days after the Normannia with nearly 900 aboard.  The US quickly determined that the country was at risk of a cholera outbreak.  The US Consul ordered the steamship lines to fumigate the baggage of all incoming passengers with sulphur fumes for no less than six hours.

Boston nervously listened as news reached its streets that cholera had been identified on board the Moravia, and that 22 cholera victims had been buried at sea.  Older residents recalled the city’s cholera outbreak of 1849, which resulted in 611 deaths.  Boston port officials had been enforcing stringent health regulations at immigration ports, singling out Russian steerage passengers, and enforcing the disinfection of all arriving vessels that contained them.  Disinfection was eventually extended to include all ships arriving from Havre and Hamburg too.

At Boston, all luggage belonging to immigrants was steam-heated to 230ºF for 20 minutes. Also, all immigrants were removed from the ships while it was washed and disinfected.  Any cholera patients among them were diverted to Gallop’s Island.  In the city, health precautions extended beyond those aimed at immigrants  Filth was removed from city street, cellars, and dirty tenement houses.  Plans were laid to prevent the spread of cholera to New England were it to surface in Canada.  In this case, health officials planned to stop all Canadian immigrants arriving by train, where they would be examined.  They, along with their clothes and belongings, would be disinfected.

Several days later, another ship, the Catalonia, arrived at Boston’s quarantine station at one o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 12, 1892.  One thousand passengers were aboard, including 700 immigrants.  Even though an order had been issued prohibiting the transport of immigrants, the order had taken effect after the Catalonia had sailed.  Bostonians nervously read the 692 of the steerage passengers came from Europe, and that some of these likely hailed from Hamburg.  Health officials watched the steamer as it approached Boston and noted no signs of cholera.  Soon, a port physician boarded and carefully examined steerage passengers.  Still, no traces of cholera were detected.  The ship was eventually diverted to Gallop’s Island where immigrant passengers, 30 passengers from second class included, were administered a scrubbing as part of the disinfection procedures.  At Gallop’s Island, the Catalonia was delayed for two or three days before it was allowed to dock.  Non-immigrant passengers from the ship’s first- and second-class cabins were brought to Boston a few days earlier on tug boats.

New hospital building, Ellis Island; quarantine buildings on Swinburn Island and Hoffman Island (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

As September progressed, officials reassured the public that the cooler weather would slow the spread of cholera.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia and the other infected ships remained under quarantine at the Swinburne and Hoffman Island hospitals.  By September 12, deaths from cholera had slowed considerably.  The Moravia had not had a new case in nearly a week.  Officials vowed to hold the infected ships away from the city for at least ten more days, which soothed the fears of those in New York and beyond of the immigrants carrying cholera to their wharves and into their streets.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia did not reach dry land until September 22, 1892, over three weeks after they had first approached New York, and over a month since they had left Hamburg.