Category Archives: Massachusetts

The Early History of Lowell’s Hi Hat Rollaway

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

In our last post, we revealed how we learned that the Hi Hat figurine within our collection was carved in the likeness of former Hi Hat owner, Mo Rochette, who was also famous as the ‘old guy’ behind the snack bar at the Hi Hat during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But to get there, we had to research the long history of Lowell’s Hi Hat, which dates back to the days of Prohibition in the 1930s.  Few Lowell institutions evoke memories as fond as those associated with the Hi Hat Rollaway, once located on Princeton Boulevard. But, as we have seen before, even something as seemingly fun and innocent as a roller skating rink can have its detractors. Up until the summer of 1964, the Hi Hat hosted not only roller skating, but also record hops, or dances, as we call them today. Until late August that year. Just as the summer was coming to a close, the Lowell License Commission suspended the dancing license of the Hi Hat, one week after a group of 500 teenagers ‘jeered and threw stones’ at Lowell Police as the record hop let out one night. The lasting damage from this angry horde? Damage to a police cruiser and five arrests for disorderly conduct. But, it was enough to lead the Hi Hat’s neighbors to collect some 170 signatures on a petition demanding an end to the record hops.

According to a Lowell Sun article from the time, there were some strong opinions among Outer Princeton Boulevard residents about the teens frequenting the Hi Hat. And not many of them were positive.  As the Lowell Licensing Commission was deciding whether to permanently revoke the dancing license of the Hi Hat, one neighbor worried that “all Hampton Beach” would be at the record-hop the following day, if it were allowed to happen. Another neighbor complained that she had found “lovers” in her car after a recent record hop, and that the “whole affair was just filthy.”

Even the city’s mayor, Ellen Sampson, didn’t have much nice to say about the Hi Hat. She complained that the teen girls there wore short shorts and the boys always wore dungarees and had their shirts untucked. She concluded by saying that “as a mother,” she would never allow her “daughters to step foot inside” the Hi Hat.

It’s no wonder that the Hi Hat lost its dancing license in 1964.

Images of the Exterior and Interior of the Hi Hat, from the Facebook Group 'You Know Your From Lowell When' via 'Hi Hat Skating Club' Facebook Page

Images of the Exterior and Interior of the Hi Hat, from the Facebook Group ‘You Know Your From Lowell When’ via the ‘Hi Hat Skating Club’ Facebook Page

The Hi Hat started out a generation earlier, as a restaurant, back in the midst of the Great Depression, when it was owned by Wilfred Goodnow.  As early as 1931, advertisements appeared in the Lowell Sun for the Hi-Hat Food Shoppe on Princeton Boulevard.  Even in these earliest days, during the Goodnow years, the Hi-Hat kept late hours, and was open till 1 AM.  As the ad proclaims, ‘Noon lunch in our cozy dining room will surprise you.” By 1940, it had added a dance hall.  The Hi-Hat was quiet in its early years.  Its frequent ads in the Lowell Sun touted its fried clams and other food.  After the mid-30s, liquor began to appear in its ads too.

A spate of burglaries in the late 1930s moved the Hi Hat to the Sun’s front page.  In 1937, thieves forced open a rear door in the dead of a late November morning in search of money and booze.  They escaped with about eight quarts of whiskey, but found no money on site.  That was the first break-in.  No one thought much of it.

A 1931 Advertisement for the Hi Hat Food Shop

A 1931 Advertisement for the Hi Hat Food Shop

Then, on Christmas Eve 1937, thieves broke into the Hi-Hat Restaurant again, for the third time in three months and this time made off with a bigger haul, including $100 in liquor, $50 of cigarettes, and about $7 in cash.    A week later, on January 3, 1938, two Nashua NH men were arrested and charged with the break-ins.  In the end, a total of seven men, between the ages of 17 and 23, were each sentenced to a year in jail, for their roles in the Hi-hat break-ins, and the break-in of a Tyngsboro restaurant named the Old Mexico cafe.

An advertisement for the Hi Hat, 1933

An advertisement for the Hi Hat, 1933

From Restaurant to ‘Swank’ Night Spot:

The Hi Hat reopens with its new Melody Room (Credit:  Lowell Sun:  November 25, 1940)

The Hi Hat reopens with its new Melody Room (Credit: Lowell Sun: November 25, 1940)

In November 1940, the Hi-Hat expanded, adding the Melody Room, and introduced live big band music, by Ray Harrington and the Hi Hatters orchestra, which was described as having “10 pieces of sweet melody”.  Even though the Hi Hat had been already been a destination for parties and receptions for a decade, the addition of the Melody Room in 1940 expanded the Hi Hat’s profile in local dancing circles and put it on the map of the city’s night clubs.  When the Hi Hat re-opened on November 26, 1940, as the city’s ‘swank new night spot’, its ads claimed that the Hi Hat ‘left nothing undone to its being the most modern and attractive dining hall north of Boston.’   The Hi Hat, which had been the city’s “home of good food and fine liquors” now also added its being “the toast of Lowell” to advertising banners.

The Hi Hat was wildly successful during the 1940s, but as the decade drew to a close, Bill Goodnow told the Lowell community that he was looking to move on and retire, and he put the Hi Hat up for sale.  He turned down one offer, received in 1950, saying he sought “lucrative enumeration for taking the place from a hot-dog stand to what it is now”.

But the Hi Hat was already in the news in 1950.  A lawsuit had been brought against it by Walter J. Perras, who alleged that the Hi Hat was responsible for some tough treatment he had received at the hands of local police when the Hi Hat had called them in to help with clearing the bar one night at closing time in January 1946.   One man in Perras’ group, from New Jersey, said, after a night at the bar: “In New Jersey, our bars close at three in the morning.”  When the bartender shot back an explanation reminding the men that they stood in Massachusetts where bars closed at 1 AM, the men finished their drinks, got up to get their coats and looked back at the bar to see the bartender instructing Lowell police to “see them off the premises”.  He pointed at the men to make sure there was no confusion over who he meant.  They also overheard him telling police that the men were not drunk, but were “feeling their liquor”.  At this, the Lowell Police approached the men, told them to leave, and while one of the men bent over to put on his boots, a plain-clothes officer struck him multiple times, with blows to the head and body.  The man recovered and survived, and developed the opinion that the force used to extricate him from the Hi Hat was excessive, and that the Hi Hat was responsible, since they had called the police in, in the first place.  The courts didn’t see it the same way, though, and the Hi Hat was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in the suit.

A 1940 advertisement for the Hi Hat, from the Seton Guild Little Show program.  (Courtesy of Brian Leahey, Lowell)

A 1940 advertisement for the Hi Hat, from the Seton Guild Little Show program. (Courtesy of Brian Leahey, Lowell)

The Whitney Years – Ma Whitney 

The Grand Re-Opening of the Hi Hat Rollaway  (Credit:  Lowell Sun - May 3, 1951)

The Grand Re-Opening of the Hi Hat Rollaway (Credit: Lowell Sun – May 3, 1951)

The fifties opened with the Whitneys taking over the Hi-Hat and presenting their plans for it to the Lowell Licensing Commission, amidst quite a bit of controversy.  The Whitneys – Maurice, William, and Ester (later known as Ma Whitney), petitioned the city for permission to build an addition to the Hi Hat’s Melody Room, so that they could conduct both skating and dancing lessons there.  Those against the plan worried at the amount of noise that adding a rink and its music would create.  In the end, though, the Whitneys got their way, and built their rink.  The Hi Hat Restaurant re-opened in May 1951, as the Hi Hat Roll-A-Way.  While it was owned by the three Whitneys, Esther quickly emerged as the most visible owner, and become known throughout Lowell as Ma Whitney.

The fifties wouldn’t have been the fifties at the Hi Hat Rollaway without her.  In contemporary newspapers, and in memories posted to the Hi Hat’s Facebook page, Ma Whitney is best remembered skating the floor of the Hi Hat, keeping an eye on the skaters, and watching out for the rink’s newest skaters, on the practice floor. Everyone called her ‘Ma’, even her husband. And, if you heard the two short bursts from the whistle she wore around her neck, you knew you had caught her disapproving eye.

Ma Whitney - (Photo Credit:  Lowell Sun - October 5, 1956)

Ma Whitney – (Photo Credit: Lowell Sun – October 5, 1956)

Ma Whitney loved roller skating. In a 1956 Lowell Sun article, she explained that “roller skating is a No. 1 participation sport.  It knows no age limits.” Although some of her neighbors outside would have disagreed with her, she continued. “The littlest tot enjoys [roller skating] as well as the person who would seem to be well out of active participation.  It is good for older people.  It gives them a chance to get the much needed exercise.” Maybe it would have made some of her older neighbors a little less crotchety too, if they had tried it.

Ma Whitney was proud that the Hi-Hat Rollaway attracted not only skaters from Greater Lowell, but also brought in people from as far away as Southern New Hampshire, and Hampton Beach, apparently. Ma prided herself in maintaining a rink where parents could view their teenagers as safe.  Ma herself was the mother of a champion girl skater, and held the Hi-Hat to the strictest and careful supervision at all times. Ma Whitney was also a good citizen too and very charitable too.  She was well-known for raising money for the polio fund and the heart fund.

The Rochette Years 

Mo Rochette, at the Hi Hat (Photo Credit:  Hi Hat SKating Club Facebook Group)

Mo Rochette, in the rear kitchen of his diner. (Photo Credit: Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook Group)

By the sixties, ownership of the Hi Hat Rollaway had passed onto Maurice Rochette, or Mo as he is fondly remembered by the Hi Hat skating community on Facebook.  Mo also ran Rochette’s diner, and was a veteran of the Lowell restaurant scene.  He was well-known for the food he prepared, and for being somewhat hard of hearing, especially in his later years.  Mo is the inspiration for the Hi Hat Guy figurine we hold in our artifacts collection at the Lowell Historical Society, and the subject of this month’s earlier post on the Hi Hat.

Mo saw the Hi Hat through its final 30 or so years, right up to its closing around 1990. Even though the Hi Hat has been closed for some 25 years, its memory lives on in generations of residents in the Greater Lowell area. You can still see these memories emerge, occasionally, through the posts on the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook page, or through periodic auctions of Hi Hat memorabilia on eBay, and even in the conversations with Lowellians as they drive by the Hi Hat’s former site, where condos now stand on Lowell’s Princeton Boulevard. Even though very little now stands in memory at that site, it’s obvious that the Hi Hat is fondly remembered among the Greater Lowell community.

**  Special thanks to Brian Leahey of Lowell, who contributed to this post.


Among the Artifacts: Remembering Lowell’s Hi Hat Rollaway

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

We call him Hi Hat Guy, at the Lowell Historical Society, after the name of roller skating rink that is lettered across his red tie.  To the modern eye, Hi Hat Guy looks a little like Phil Dunphy, at least at first glance.  He’s the father figure played by Ty Burrell on ABC’s Modern Family.  Hi Hat Guy also looks like a lot of bobble-head dolls – well, except for the fact he’s hand-carved from wood . . . and over 40 years old.  Hi Hat Guy has been sort of a mystery.  According to our accessioning paperwork, he dates from 1969 and was carved by one W.L. Bemis.  He entered our collection in 1994.  Unfortunately, his paperwork doesn’t tell us much more, like who he might have been modeled after, or where he might have once been at the Hi Hat.  So, we’ve made Hi Hat Guy our next artifact to research.  And any research on Hi Hat Guy has to be research into the Hi Hat Rollaway itself.  There are few defunct businesses so iconic to Lowell as the Hi Hat.  Some close rivals that come to mind are the Bon Marché  or Record Lane or maybe even the Giant Store.  But, the best chance to get to the real story behind Hi Hat Guy rests with researching the institution he represents.

Phil Dunphy, from ABC’s Modern Family (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Researching the Hi Hat is a lot like researching the Bon Marché.  The Hi Hat has such a long legacy, stretching some six decades.  Where would one ever find a wooden bobble-head doll in over 60 years of history?  Well, like so many of Lowell’s iconic memories, there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the Hi Hat’s memory.  The folks of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook page fondly remember the Hi Hat, and have formed a close-knit community dedicated to reminiscing about the Hi Hat, its history, and its many personalities.  Surely, the story behind our Hi Hat figurine must be captured somewhere in their memories.

The Rochette Years 

Mo Rochette, at the Hi Hat (Photo Credit:  Hi Hat SKating Club Facebook Group)

Mo Rochette, in the rear kitchen of his diner. (Photo Credit: Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook Group)

By 1969, the year Hi Hat Guy was carved, the Hi Hat was owned by Maurice Rochette, or Mo as he is fondly remembered by the Hi Hat skating community on Facebook.  Mo also ran Lowell’s famous Rochette’s diner, and was well-known for the food he prepared.  While hired managers oversaw the roller skating rink, Mo made his signature tomato soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, and lemon meringue pies.  But the most Facebook chatter surrounds memories of Mo behind his snack bar, serving up his french fries, the gravy, and famous Rochette beans.  Mo Rochette was a veteran of the Lowell restaurant scene, going back decades to the WWII years.  It seems, at least in his later years, that Mo was hard of hearing.  Many fondly recall placing their food order only to see Mo lean closer, cup his ear, and ask them to repeat what they had said.

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

So, we went to the Hi Hat skating club on Facebook to see if they could give us the identity of the wooden bobble-head dating from 1969. And, where the trail had run cold on who he might have represented, or where he might once have stood within the Hi Hat, the digital age of social media actually presented its helpful face, allowing us to solve at least part of the mystery.  Not two days after I posted my original question about his identity to the Hi Hat’s Facebook group, we got our answer.  The bobble-head,  held by the Lowell Historical Society for some 20 years, represented none other than Mo Rochette himself, in his younger years.

Even though the bobble head doll may look like Phil Dunphy, the father on ABC’s Modern Family, he actually represents the man behind Rochette’s Diner, and the most recent and last owner of the Hi Hat Rollaway.  But, the bobble head doll also represents, through the white lettered ‘Hi Hat’ prominently painted into his red tie, the Hi Hat itself, its days of roller skating, and something that was lost to the Lowell scene when the rink finally closed around 1990.  To so many, the Hi Hat holds a piece of their youth, and maybe even a window into a different time, perhaps simpler and more peaceful.  One member of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook group summarized the sentiment of many in the community with her comment:  “Young love was everywhere at the Hi-Hat!”

There are many Hi Hat memories posted to the Facebook group, some of first loves, and others of first kisses shared (or stolen) in the booths at the Hi Hat Rollaway.  Today, even though condos occupy the site once held by the Hi Hat, maybe just a little of its memory lives on in the roller-skating figurine carved in the image of Mo Rochette, its last owner.  It so easy to drive by the Hi Hat’s former Princeton Boulevard location without even realizing that it once stood there, for six decades.

Related Articles:

Coming in the next installment of Forgotten New England:

Did you know that the Hi Hat’s history dates all the way back to the days of Prohibition, in the early 1930s?  In its long history, not everyone was a fan of the Hi Hat, or viewed its brand of entertainment as light, safe, respectable fun.  Even a former Lowell mayor complained that she’d never ‘let her daughters set a foot inside’ and mingle with boys who wore untucked shirts with dungarees, and girls who wore short shorts.  


Among the Artifacts: The Licensed Newsboy Badge

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

My fingers first brushed across the small metallic oval a few weeks ago. It was right next to Officer Lee’s Lowell PD badge.  This very different badge was light, too old to be plastic.  I figured it was probably aluminum.   As I slid out the drawer at the Lowell Historical Society’s archive, the flourescent overhead lights flashed across its shiny surface, and caught the lettering of the circle of text within.  It was a licensed newsboy badge. The diaper pin clip on its reverse looked old, ancient, but it was in remarkable shape. And it carried a name that looked quite familiar to the Lowell political scene – Poulios.

A newsboy selling newspapers in Rochester, New York, abt. 1910; (Photo Credit: Lewis Hine, via Library of Congress.)

Having delivered newspapers myself in the eighties and into the nineties, something called a newsboy license and issued by the Lowell School Committee seemed really interesting. By the time the 1980s rolled around, we didn’t need newsboy licenses. But, this badge looked more like something a kid hawking papers on a street corner might have had, as in the “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” variety of newsboy.  Not the type who slipped the paper under your door on some Thursday evening before dinner and the Cosby Show.

This badge, according to the rules published by the Lowell School Committee, was required to be worn by any minors under the age of 14 before they could sell newspapers on any street or public place within the city of Lowell.  And it came with conditions.  Newsboys, for as long as they continued to be licensed, were required to attend ‘every session’  of classes at one of Lowell’s schools, unless properly excused from such attendance.  Newsboys were not allowed to sell, lend, or give the badge to anyone, or to give any of their newspapers to unlicensed minors to sell for them.  The newsboy himself was not allowed to sell newspapers in or near street cars, before six o’clock in the morning or after nine o’clock at night.  Lastly, and clearly visible on the badge, newsboys pledged to exemplify behavior becoming of a young citizen, and were not to smoke, gamble, or do anything to jeopardize their image of good behavior.

This newsboy license looked to be early 20th century to me, and had a name attached to it – Athanasios Poulios.  These things usually make our artifacts easier to research.  And it listed the school that young Poulios attended – the Bartlett.  That was slightly less helpful, since the Bartlett school, named for Lowell’s first mayor, traces its roots in the city to 1856 right up to today.  Athanasios Poulios’ address, at 9 Whiting Street in Lowell, proved valuable too.

The 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

Partial 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

One good rule of thumb when researching the arts and artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society is ‘never assume anything’.  During 1992 and 1993 – about the time I was delivering the Lowell Sun to homes in the city’s South Lowell district, Tarsy Poulios was mayor.  But, did the badge belong to him?  Without a specific year on the badge, I couldn’t be sure.

Using the address on the badge, 9 Whiting Street, I found the Poulios family living there during the enumeration of the 1940 US census.  With a quick process of elimination across his four brothers, I was able to confirm that Tarsy was a nickname for the ‘Athanasios’ whose name was printed on the front of the badge, and in the census.  I already knew that the badge couldn’t have belonged to one of his sisters since, among the many rules attached to these newsboy licenses by the Lowell School Committee, one specifically stated that ‘licenses shall not be issued to girls, nor to boys under the age of ten years.’

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

All of that dated this newsboy license to the late 1930s or early 1940s, meaning that the badge represents one of Tarsy’s first jobs.  It dated to a time long before his two-year run as Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s, and before he joined Lowell’s City Council in 1987.  Tarsy wore the badge decades before he even began his political career as a neighborhood activist with the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization, and the Community Development Block Grant Organization before that.

When he died in 2010, Tarsy was recalled as gruff, adept at defending his arguments, and very proud of his roots in the Acre neighborhood (he called it ‘God’s Acre’) and in Lowell’s Greek-American community.  He was elected to City Council on his platform of improving Lowell’s neighborhoods, and had a specific focus on removing abandoned cars from city street, something that Lowell struggled with during the 1970s and 1980s.

A few years after Tarsy was selling newspapers, he graduated with Lowell High School’s class of 1943, and went on to serve his country during World War II when he entered the US Army and saw combat action in Japan, the Philippines and Korea.  He was honorably discharged as a Sergeant in 1946.  When he first came home from the war, he attended an electrical school in Boston, but left when his father died and returned home to Lowell to work in the Merrimack Mills to support his family.  By the time the Merrimack Mills closed in the 1950s, Tarsy had moved on to become a letter carrier, a job he held until he retired in 1984.

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

As Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s and throughout his career as a public servant before that, Tarsy most enjoyed helping his constituents who he fondly called Joe and Joan Sixpack, whose parents he delivered mail to for over thirty years, and whose grandparents he sold newspapers to, way back in the 1930s, at the very start of his storied career.  His newsboy badge has held up well, in the 85 years or so since he wore it, selling newspapers in the city he would one day lead.  Its vintage-looking clip looks as if it could still hold the badge to someone’s coat.  And its shiny metallic holder looks much more valuable than the 25-cent replacement fee that Tarsy would have had to pay in order to get a duplicate badge, had he lost it all those years ago.


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.


An Early History of ‘Wild Wigginville': Why Concord Heights isn’t a Lowell Neighborhood today

Lowell's Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street.

Lowell’s Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity, 1904)

Recently, I’ve been following some really interesting discussion on the “You Know Your from Lowell When” Facebook group.  It’s been about Wigginville, the South Lowell neighborhood that’s probably better known for its local landmarks: the Six Arch bridge, Riverside School, and the Dizzy Bridge – that ancient footbridge that doubles as a teenage dare/deathtrap and runs roughly parallel to Lawrence Street on the opposite side of the Lowell Cemetery. The thing about Wigginville is that it’s one of those places where, even if you grew up there, or even spent your entire life there, you may not have noticed that you were standing there, smack in the middle of it. I heard passing references to it, growing up in South Lowell, where it was almost always referred to as “Wigginsville”, which, surprisingly, isn’t actually the right pronunciation.

Sure, Lowell still has its neighborhoods, even today. There’s Centralville (always pronounced, but rarely spelt Centerville), Back Central, Pawtucketville, Belvidere, and the Highlands. There are some smaller, older neighborhood names that have sort of clung on, over the years. Belvidere contains the neighborhood once better known as Lowell’s Oakland section, which still survives at some level, in the name of the former fire station across the street from Shedd Park. There’s also Ayers City, which has best survived in the sign at the end of the Lowell Connector’s Exit 4. If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign contains a misspelling, calling it Ayres City. Go back a century, though, and you’ll find many more neighborhoods. Lowell’s South Lowell neighborhood, for example, once contained the Bleachery, the Grove, Riverside Park, Swede Village, and Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell's southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell’s southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

For a neighborhood name that’s been largely forgotten, Wigginville sure created quite a stir in city politics when one Councilman Wilde proposed changing its name in 1908, not even two years after it had been annexed from the neighboring town of Tewksbury. Echoing what was the general feeling at the time, his argument followed that anything annexed to Lowell from a surrounding town had to be upgraded so that it met the city’s standards and didn’t embarrass the citizenry. Wigginville, according to Councilman Wilde, did just that. First and foremost among his concerns, there was the matter of its name. Wigginville had landed upon its name as a sort of dedication to its largest developer, William H Wiggin. Wiggin had been a well-known builder in the Lowell area, contributing his efforts to such lofty and well-respected edifices as the Savings Bank Building, the Boston & Maine depot on Central Street, and the Armory on Westford Street. And, in the nineteenth century psyche, he was a valued and solid member of society. He had been born in Epping, NH in 1823, went on to graduate from Dracut Academy, and had even had the time to trace his ancestry to the pilgrims.

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

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

And he had, in the words of his supporters, developed the “beautiful suburban village” of Wigginville. Councilman Wilde was not among his supporters. Councilman Wilde also didn’t have the best sense of timing. He chose 1908 to change Wigginville’s name. Yes, that was about two years after the neighborhood had become part of Lowell, but it was also just after William H Wiggin had died. Those who had grown up appreciating Wiggin’s contributions to the cityscape, and may have even attended the Riverside School he had funded and helped build, felt that the neighborhood should not be stripped of his name. In fact, they said, Wigginville should retain his name, as a memorial to his good deeds. Wiggin’s supporters found their champion in Richard Sykes, ‘the man with the Mountain Lion’s voice’ from Wigginville.

Councilman Wilde had his supporters too. There wasn’t even an appropriate entry into Wigginville, they reasoned. Lowell city councilmen looked at the Lawrence Street bridge spanning the Concord River as a ramshackle pathway, perilous even to foot traffic, let alone horses. Now that it was part of the city, it had to be dealt with, they claimed. And, this, of course, took the conversation back to its name, Wigginville. Who would want to enter a neighborhood named Wigginville? they asked.

A 1908 Lowell Sun article purported to ask a resident of Wigginville, unnamed, what he thought of his neighborhood’s name. He claimed that he thought the name should be changed, so that electric car riders would no longer be embarrassed to board cars bound for “Wigginville” – if riders could even heard the conductor’s destination announcements over the snickers. The name should be changed, this unnamed man (or woman) on the street claimed. He went on to say that he had found that this opinion was shared by a three-to-one margin among his fellow Wigginvillians. Wigginvillians were so ashamed of the Wigginville name that they had been seen clandestinely boarding electric cars to the nearby Bleachery station, just to escape the snickers meant for the Wigginville car. And, then there were the comedians too, the man on the street continued. They were ‘always’ cracking jokes at the cost of the poor Wigginvillians.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

The problem of what Lowell city residents should call these new neighborhoods was a cause of confusion too. The deeds for these newly annexed lands carried all sorts of arbitrary, vaguely defined and unfamiliar neighborhood names, based on the many developers who had built up the area in the last couple of decades. A quick review of the deeds had turned up not just references to the unfortunately named Wigginville, but also to places called Lee Village, Gilman Hill, and Riverside Park. It just made sense to unite the rural territory under one suitable, nicely sounding name, supporters of the name change claimed.

So, what should the name of this section be? Councilman Wilde proposed changing the name of Wigginville to Concord Heights, after the name of the nearby Concord River. This name would assuage the bruised egos of Wigginvillians, and even begin to rehabilitate this poor no-man’s-land into a proper city neighborhood. Lowell would, finally, be able to hold its head high with Concord Heights, its newest neighborhood. It was hoped, he said, that the name change would encourage the Boston & Maine to improve its station stop in Wigginville (near the present-day park off Commonwealth Avenue) and help the Primitive Methodist Church being constructed on Lawrence Street to finish its construction without having to wonder how to name itself around the unfortunate Wigginville neighborhood.

Councilman Wilde seemed to have all of his supporters in lock-step. All that was left to do was put the Wigginville renaming proposal in front of the Board of Aldermen. And he did, in July 1908. And, on that night, Richard Sykes, the Mountain Lion’s Voice from Wigginville, came, ready to argue his neighborhood’s stance that the name not be changed. He had prepared a speech in defense of a memorial to the neighborhood’s benefactor, William H Wiggin. Local press came too, ready for the show. They quipped amongst themselves that he would present his argument there in the chamber, and would have his “janitors around with baskets picking up his dropped h’s.” Wilde started by presenting a petition, said to be signed by some 100 Wigginvillians, to change their village’s name to Concord Heights.

Today's Concord River Bridge on Lowell's Lawrence Street.  (From a mid-century postcard)

Today’s Concord River Bridge on Lowell’s Lawrence Street. (From a mid-century postcard)

The aldermen listened, briefly. Wigginville barely registered in their minds. The neighborhood, annexed less than two years before, didn’t even have defined borders. Chairman Wilder spoke first. He wondered why all the fuss was even worth their time. The name will die out, Wilder told Wilde, since it came from Tewksbury, and Wigginville was clearly now a part of Lowell. His fellow aldermen listened, and joked that perhaps Wigginville should be renamed Wildeville. Another alderman claimed that Wild Wigginville might be even more appropriate.

Richard Sykes prepared to speak. There was no need to fear Sykes, or his speech though. When the motion to change the name was presented, Aldermen Brennan and Gray disposed of it almost immediately, telling Wilde, whose smile must have been fading by then, that the Council had no role in naming, or re-naming Wigginville, since the name had never actually been assigned. The fact was, they said, that the residents themselves had just decided that that was how they wanted to name their neighborhood, and the Council was just fine with that. They then moved the topic of discussion to something that the “Council had something to do with”. They appropriated funds to fix that Concord River bridge so badly in need of repairs.

And the proposal to change the village’s name from Wigginville to Concord Heights seems to have died right there, on the chamber floor, because, as they moved on to the matter of that Wigginville bridge, not one voice was raised in protest, because the people of Wigginville were just fine with their neighborhood’s name, and didn’t want someone with very little connection to Wigginville renaming their community. In the weeks following the decision, or non-decision at it may be, the Wigginvillians took the momentum from their victory and formed the Wigginville Improvement Club, and elected Richard Sykes as its president. The objective of the club? To improve the village’s streets, and to perpetuate the proud, newly vindicated name of Wigginville.


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.


The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source:  Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source: Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

In the years following the US Civil War, roller skating really came into its own.  As the design of the roller skate improved over the second half of the 19th century, so did its popularity.  Many became fans of the new hobby.  Many others viewed it as immoral and a threat to the order of things.

By the 1880s, a craze had developed, and roller skating rinks began opening in many US cities.  Boston had three.  The largest, on the corner of Clarendon and St. James Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood, featured a roller skating surface some 180 feet long by 70 feet wide.  Two others were in Boston, at the time, one on Washington Street, near the intersection with Dover, in the South End.  Another stood on Shawmut Avenue.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a December 1884 editorial in the Lowell Sun took aim at the Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, stating it was ” the cause of more and worse immorality . . . in the city.”    It went so far as to claim that the city’s theaters, themselves often criticized for contributing to society’s immorality, were a “Sunday school” compared to the roller skating rinks.  While the editorial acknowledged that some of the city’s most “moral and estimable” people visited the rink, it questioned whether the rink also attracted some of the city’s most immoral citizens, like “prostitutes” and “libertines”.  And, the editorial went on to insinuate that it was much more likely that the immoral would corrupt the moral classes, rather than the other way around.  The 1884 writer wondered:

“Does it improve a young girl’s modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor, in the gaze of hundreds, with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head?  Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?”

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source:  The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source: The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink was located on Gorham Street, and opened each year in November, right before Thanksgiving.  The season extended through April and sometimes until the middle of May, when the rink closed and skaters took to skating on the smoothest sidewalks and roads to be found in the city.  Sometimes, the rinks were also used for bicycles, bouquet parties, and competitive skating competitions.  For a while, the Lowell Skating Rink even hosted the games of Lowell’s polo team.  Despite its popularity, many saw the skating rink as a “bad institution” even it all it did was keep society’s most vulnerable, the young, out too late at night, or provide them with a plausible cover when they went elsewhere.

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s.  (Source:  Scientific American Supplement - February 24, 1877)

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s. (Source: Scientific American Supplement – February 24, 1877)

Inside, the rink was known not only for its yellow birch skating floor, but also for its ornamental railings that separated the skaters from the fifteen-foot-wide promenade.  From the promenade, spectators watched skaters from their rows of camp chairs.

The editorial concluded by claiming that roller skating could not “help having immoral effects” even if the management of the rink was sound.  The long-ago writer also claimed that roller skating was the “most mischievous form of public amusement ever introduced” and believed that it would soon be “suppressed as a dangerous evil.” In the end, roller skating was not suppressed, and actually evolved into being seen by later generations as good, clean fun.  The Lowell Skating Rink would not live to see the vindication of roller skating among the masses, though.  It closed its doors in early 1885, and was sold and torn down soon after.


The Daniel Gage Ice Company of Lowell, Massachusetts

In the Lowell of our parents and grandparents, a yellow horse-drawn wagon coming down a city street in high summer meant an approaching escape from the summer heat.  City children knew each ice man driving the yellow wagons, and often relished jumping aboard for a piece of ice and a ride down the road, or across the city.  The yellow wagons belonged to the Daniel Gage Ice Company, and many kids knew the routes better than the ice men themselves.  Even today, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember them.

An advertisement for Daniel Gage Ice, as it appeared in Lowell, A City of Spindles, 1900, by Lowell Trades and Labor Council

One of the best things about writing Forgotten New England is hearing from readers.  I recently posted an entry about the lost profession of ice harvesting and the ice cutters and icemen who helped gather and deliver ice to a world that did not yet know refrigeration.  Through a fellow board member of the Lowell Historical Society (who writes the Lowell Doughboys and More blog), I met Gavin Lambert, who shared the photograph below, as well as his mother’s memories of the ice men she remembered from growing up in Lowell in the 1940s.  She recalled Shorty, her family’s ice man, who arrived in his horse-drawn wagon with his leather shoulder shroud and ice tongs.  Shorty, as she remembered, was a friendly guy, who readily chiseled off ice splinters to give to the neighborhood kids each summer.  She remembered the wooden floor of Shorty’s ice wagon.  Although she never knew his full name or nationality, she still remembers her family’s ice man from Gage’s Ice Company to this day, almost 70 years later.

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Gage’s Ice of Lowell was, at one time, so well-known that the image of its ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River was considered so central to the identity of Lowell that it is memorialized in a stained glass window that sits in St. Brigid’s church in the village of Ballyknock, Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland.  Explaining the photograph of the window, posted at right, Gavin Lambert shares that enough people from the Jordan family left that Irish village for Lowell that the stained glass window was placed in their church in their memory.  Representing Lowell is, of course, its mills and smokestacks.  But, closer examination reveals the ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River, ice blocks belonging to Gage’s ice trade.

Another reader, Dave, recalls colder winters in the 40s and 50s, and how the ice would back up each winter along the Merrimack, so much so that one could hear it “cracking all the way to Broadway”.  Dave recalls walking to Gage’s decades ago to buy ice chips.  Some days, he would buy a huge block of ice for a quarter, and watch it descend a long slide, packed in straw.  Like another reader, he also owns a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s.

Daniel Gage, founder of Gage’s Ice was a fixture in Lowell business circles for nearly half a century, and quickly rose to prominence among Lowell’s business community.  He was born in Pelham, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1828, to Nathan and Mehitable Woodbury Gage, and was proud of his deep New England roots extending back to colonial times.  Gage even claimed descent from the band of men who helped William the Conqueror win England from Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Daniel Gage, from History of Lowell and its People, Volume 3. (Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

Gage spent his first twenty-five years in his native Pelham, NH, on his family farm, before coming to Lowell in 1854 and founding a business in the city’s wholesale beef trade.  He did this for 15 years, setting up his home and business near the Hildreth Street area, in what was then still part of the town of Dracut, Massachusetts.  He sold this off in 1869, and moved to corner of Bridge and West Sixth streets in Lowell.  Soon after, he started his ice business, which he would build for the rest of his life.  It became so successful that he eventually earned the title of Lowell’s ice king.

As Lowell’s ice king, Gage also made his mark on the city in other ways.  He served as a long-time director of the Prescott National Bank, and was its president when he died in 1901.  Later in life, he also extended his business into the coal and wood trade.  Gage also donated ice to many of Lowell’s charitable organizations, a practice continued by his business, and other businesses, well after his death.

Gage, with his wife, Abiah Smith Hobbs, had two daughters, one who died at the age of 16, and the other, Martina, who lived into old age, and eventually became owner of her father’s ice business when he died in 1901, after suffering a bout of pneumonia for about one week.

Daniel Gage, from an illustration published after his death in the March 1901 edition of Ice and Refrigeration.

Years after his death, Gage’s daughter, Martina Gage, became a well-known figure in Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood.  There, she was often seen handing out candies from D.L. Page’s candy store to the children of her workers, who lived in company housing there.  Miss Martina Gage retained control and ownership of Gage’s Ice for nearly as long as her father had.  In March 1929, Martina Gage sold control of Daniel Gage Ice Co. to the Lowell-based Kidder Company, and she gave up her role in its active management.  After 28 years leading the company following her father’s death, she passed day-to-day responsibilities to a board of directors, led by F. Arthur Osterman of the Osterman Coal Company of Wamesit.

Gage’s closed decades ago, and the need for ice from the river has long since been replaced with more modern refrigeration technologies.  Even though the ice houses and the companies that built them are now long gone from our city, their memory remains with those who saw them growing up, and remember the very human element of the ice men who were warmly welcomed regulars in the Lowell neighborhoods they loved as children.


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.