Category Archives: history

Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Past Occupations: Lamplighters in Lowell, Massachusetts

Gas lighting early 20th century (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lamplighters turned night into day.  A staple of the urban Victorian streetscape, the nostalgic image persists of a lone man, walking a darkening city street as dusk descended behind him, extending his staff to ignite each dark, cold lamp stem to life with a small flame.  He would light the way along the lonely city lanes, so that those who were out after dark would not lose their way.

A lamplighter stood on his street corner, leaning on a long brass-tipped staff.  There, he would watch the time.  As dusk approached, he  hefted the end of his staff to light the street lamp overhead.  He would then walk quickly from one side of the street to the other, lighting the street lamps as he went.  When all the lamps were lit, the lamplighter was done for the night, until daybreak approached, when he walked the streets once again, to extinguish the flames.  Lamplighting wasn’t known to be a particularly grueling job, but most lamplighters were assigned routes of 70 to 80 lamps each.  They were paid about $2 a day.  Unlit gas jets within the lamps were known to immediately draw taxpayer complaints to the department’s superintendent.

The amount of work required to do the job varied by season.  The number of lamps rarely changed, but the work required to complete the route and light them did.  After the lamplighters extinguished their street lamps, they ate breakfast and then starting cleaning.  Cleaning was the most work.

In practice, in Lowell – a city of about 78,000 residents in 1890, the whole lamplighting system worked a little differently.  Up through the 1880′s, Lowell’s Department of Street Lamps employed a foreman, five other men, and 28 boys.  All under the direction of the city’s fire department chief, Edward S. Hosmer, the boys were charged with lighting almost all of the city’s 876 gas-powered lights.  Only 35 gas-powered streetlights in the city’s outskirts were lit by one of the five men employed by the Department of Street Lights.  When these men weren’t going out to parts less travelled to light these street lamps, they cleaned the lamps, and set, fitted, and sometimes reset posts, as needed.

Lamplighter

Lamplighter (Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

By 1888, 876 gas lights still dotted Lowell city streets.  They were beginning to be replaced by electric lights, but the city was still adding more gas lights than it was turning off.  The city also had 397 gasoline and kerosene-powered lights, and was gradually replacing these with gas-powered lights as gas mains were laid in the streets.  Through the 1880′s, the Lowell Police Department was charged with putting the lamps out as the wee hours of the morning approached.  In 1887,  the police complained that this rather cumbersome duty not only distracted them from other more important duties, but also provided criminals with a way to predict when and where the patrolmen would be busy.  The police were required to extinguish 850 lights each night, 750 at 1 AM, and another 100 at 3 AM.  Most of these lights were outside of the city’s main downtown area, where electric lights had begun to be substituted.  Sometimes, it took as much as three hours a night for a policeman to extinguish his lamps on a given night.  The remaining lamps on the outskirts were extinguished by the Street Lamp Department’s regular men.

The Lowell Police got their wish granted in 1890, when the Department of Street Lamps no longer hired boys to light the street lamps or required policemen to extinguish them.  On July 1, 1890, five men were hired into the Street Lamp Department, bringing its total headcount to 11 men.  The city was divided into 10 districts, each having 90 to 106 lamps.  Each of the ten districts was assigned to one of the men; the last man acted as the group’s foreman.  Immediately, the new system gained favor as it was found to lead to better cleaned lamps and also decreased the number of frozen or broken lanterns, which were more quickly reported.

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yel...

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yellow Book, “The Lamplighter” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The job of the lamplighter was not an altogether solitary one.  The warm months brought company to the lamplighters as they made their rounds.  “Bug cranks”, or “naturalists” as they were more politely known, followed after the lamplighters to collect moths, millers, and beetles that had been attracted to the flames and had lost their lives.  Lamplighters could earn an extra quarter, or even a half-dollar, if they brought especially rare specimens to these bug collectors.  Lamplighters recalled that the oddest folks were met in the mornings.  One lamplighter recalled meeting an old man each morning, rain or shine, who followed the horse railway track, with his eyes never leaving the ground.  Each morning, he searched the ground for valuables that had been lost from passengers’ pockets as they caught, got off, or rode the horse railway.  He was known to find coins, jewelry, opera glasses.

Another lamplighter recalled finding a woman late one night.  Asleep and leaning against one of his street lamps, she held an infant in her arms.  The lamplighter stopped and roused her lightly.  She started at once and rose to her feet.  She begged the man that he not take her, and tried to convince him that she had not hurt the child.  She told him that, after she had reached the city the day before, her husband had left her and ran off with their money.  He had left her and their child on the streets in October.  The lamplighter was a sympathetic man and took her home, housing her for a few nights until her family arrived to get her.  In the end, the woman’s family sent a “pretty little present to remember her by.”

With the coming of electricity, lamplighters began to disappear from the Victorian city streetscape.  As electricity came to the cities, the task of lighting the roads depended more on some invisible someone flicking a switch at the electric company, rather than a team of men individually lighting each street lamp.  In the years leading up to the twentieth century, electric lights continued to replace their gas- and gasoline-powered counterparts.  In 1888 alone, 33 electric lights were added to the 119 that had been in place in Lowell when the year began, not including the eight electric lights on Fort Hill Park by 1888, which ran during the summer months.  The number of gas street lamps continued to decline as Lowell progressed into the twentieth century.  By 1909, Lowell had outsourced the care of its remaining gas lights to an outside provider.


Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883

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

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

Macaroni and cheese in a white bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day — Arrival at the old home, 1858

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


The Opening of the Billerica Mall, 1975

Billerica Mall, May 2012 – Photo Credit: (John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons)

A roll of quarters went a long way at Fun Time Amusements at the Billerica Mall.  And the pet store in the mall often offered a look at Billerica‘s latest group of adoptable kittens or puppies. Today, the mall still stands just off Boston Road, on the southern approach to town.  Fun Time is gone.   The pet store left too.  Even Papa Gino’s packed up and left after 25 years at the mall.  It’s hard to remember the Billerica Mall’s heyday today, even with the ongoing redevelopment efforts.  Until the early 1990s, though, the mall continued to be a vibrant member of Billerica’s commercial community.

When Musgrave’s Dairy closed in the early 1970’s, the Billerica Mall rose in its place.  By 1974, construction of the mall began on land owned by J. Everett Farmer.  Excitement abounded as the mall arose on Boston Road, across from Charnstaffe Lane.  Planners reported that the L-shaped mall would border St. Theresa’s on the north, and the town’s massive water tank on the south.

Townspeople prepared to welcome the mall’s two anchor stores, the A&P and K-mart.  K-Mart, the mall’s largest store, boasted some 84,000 square feet of retail space.  The A&P, the second-largest, had 50,000 square feet.  The mall location would be one of three Greater Lowell locations planned for the chain, which was re-entering the area after seven years away.

Papa Gino's

(Photo Credit:  Flickr: Svadilfari)

Planners announced an August 1975 opening.  In addition to the A&P and K-Mart, 40 additional shops were planned, including some familiar tenants like Radio Shack, Papa Gino’s, Fanny Farmer, and Fun Time Amusements.  Others like My Store for Levis and Smart Look had much shorter tenures at the Mall.

The mall’s architecture, reflecting its mid-70s origins, was touted by its developer as ‘reflecting a growing awareness of the relationship a mall has with the community it serves.’  He contrasted that with the shopping centers of thirty years earlier that ‘were an ugly convenience, the symbol of unplanned growth, suburban sprawl.’

Dark Corridors Abound at Billerica Mall

(Photo Credit:  The Caldor Rainbow)

The mall aimed to lessen the mall’s impact on the community.  Its comparatively narrow 25-foot wide hallways brought shoppers closer to the stores’ merchandise.  To avoid a “sea of glass”, storefronts were purposely staggered to create visual breaks.

An ad for the A&P Market in Billerica, ca. 1976

Billerica embraced its mall, which thrived until the early 1990s.  Stores came and went.  The A&P became Market Basket.  Almy’s evolved into a Burlington Coat Factory.  Falling foot traffic, and later a failing roof cost the mall additional tenants.  Today’s mall, known as the Shops at Billerica, has kept K-Mart, an original tenant, as well as Burlington Coat Factory and Market Basket.  Attempts to revive the aging mall have been made in recent years.  The results are starting to show with the addition of Planet Fitness and Big Lots to the mall.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

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

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

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

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

Captain Edward Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lowell depot, by Leander Baker

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

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

Life on The Boston, Lowell, and Nashua Line

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

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

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

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

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

Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority GP4...

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

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