Category Archives: Massachusetts

Doors Open Lowell – 2012

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

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

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

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


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880′s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90′s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.


Once the Savoy Theatre, Then the Hathaway Theatre, First a Church – Lowell, Massachusetts

The site of the Casto Theatre, May 2012, Viewed from across Shattuck Street. (Photo by Author)

Parking lots aren’t usually very interesting.  And, as I found out this morning, it’s rather difficult to take an interesting photograph if your subject happens to be that parking lot.  And, usually, when one dives into the history of a parking lot, you find, as its predecessor, an open field, a burnt-out residence, or maybe a poorly constructed building that just outlived its usefulness.  There’s a parking lot in downtown Lowell with a much more interesting history, though.  It’s framed by the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets and is adjacent to Lowell’s Athenian Corner Restaurant.

The lot’s days for parking can be traced back, rather precisely, to the first days of September 1933, when a rather nostalgic downtown Lowell community bade its farewell to a building that dated to Lowell’s very first days as a city.  Since the start of its construction in 1837, the building first served Lowell as a church, then as a theatre, later as a boxing ring, and ultimately as a warehouse for one of its leading department stores.  All of those incarnations were recalled fondly as the wrecking ball came for the building in September 1933.

Lowell’s Casto Theatre, as it appeared around 1903. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity).  Located at the corner of Downtown Lowell’s Shattuck and Market Streets, the dark brick building directly behind it now houses the Athenian Corner Restaurant.

At the time of its demolition, the building’s past was best recalled by the time it was known as the Hathaway Theatre, a name it carried some 25 years before, from 1905 to 1912.  It was also well-known as the Casto Theatre.  But the building had many names during its century of existence.

Throughout its many years at the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets, the building’s architecture proclaimed its origins as a religious institution.  Indeed, the building was first dedicated as the Second Universalist Church on November 15, 1838.  The building remained the Second Universalist Church for years, nearly 50, before it changed its name to the Shattuck Street Universalist Church in 1888.  By 1892, church leadership began talk of selling the church property and relocating to a ‘more desirable’ part of town.  And, the following year, the Shattuck Street Universalist Society changed its name to Grace Universalist and purchased a lot on the corner of Lowell’s South Canton Street and Princeton Boulevard.

As the new church went up, church leadership worked out a deal with prospective buyers that would lead to the opening of the Savoy Theatre.  As the Savoy prepared to move into the old church, the first stone of the Society’s new church was laid on April 11, 1895.

The site of the Casto Theatre, as viewed from across Market Street. This is roughly the same view as the historical photograph offers above. (Photo by Author, May 2012)

The Savoy Theatre and Musee opened on February 17, 1896 as a vaudeville house.  The novelty of converting a church to a theatre was not lost on the Lowell populace.  As the scheduled opening of 2:30 PM approached that day, thousands lined Market and Shattuck Streets awaiting the new theatre.  And, it was by no means certain that the Savoy would open.  Mr. White, the state inspector of buildings had already condemned the former church once as unfit for theatrical purposes.  Those downtown on the day of the Savoy’s scheduled opening prepared for quite a spectacle as Mr. White arrived, at 2 PM, and met with the theatre’s management.  Ultimately, he did allow the doors to open at the scheduled time of 2:30.  So large was the crowd that many had to be turned away.  Among those who arrived to the theatre’s opening were members of the former church, anxious to see the ‘grand transformation’ of their building.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Savoy Theatre and Musee (Source: Lowell Sun, February 17, 1896)

That first show, in the converted church, promised some of the biggest names of the day in vaudeville.  And reports exist proclaiming the show’s grandeur.  They also record that the audience was timid in applauding in a church.  Or perhaps it wasn’t just that they were timid.  Those same reports recorded lots of issues with stage mechanics as the theatre worked out its ‘opening kinks’.  The Savoy gained some early notoriety when it found Miss Mamie Russell and her ‘Slide for Life’ act in early April 1896.  Her show, one of the Savoy’s most popular, featured Miss Russell sliding 400 feet, from the top of the theatre to the ground in front of the nearby YMCA building.

Despite the excitement surrounding its opening, the theatre soon ran into the red.  Management promised a change in the theatre’s “policy” and used advertising to proclaim that they were doing away with the “curio hall” attractions.  They promised “high-class vaudeville talent” only.

Similar promises, and a succession of managers, came and went over the next few years, each bringing a new policy or approach.  None were successful in making the Savoy a profitable enterprise.  Yet another new manager promised another new policy on March 26, 1897.  However, before the month was out, the theatre closed.  The Savoy stayed dark for about a year, before it reopened in February 1898, this time devoted exclusively to vaudeville.  A few short weeks later, the Savoy closed again, this time until December.  As part of this re-opening, the Savoy changed its name to the Casino – for about four months, before changing its name back to the Savoy in March 1899.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Casto – October 1902 (Source:  Lowell Sun)

The openings and closings of the Savoy continued, with a re-opening in September 1900, and another in October 1902, this time as the Casto.  Al Haynes managed the Casto during those years, and had brought the theatre’s new name from Fall River, where he had made his name.  The Casto made headlines in January 1905, though whether it was the lollipops it gifted to patrons (the latest craze) or Miss May Belfort, an English star who attracted much attention, was not certain.

Just a few short months later, the Casto underwent another ‘grand opening’ and another new manager.  A newly hired company of actors and a newly appointed stage promised a much enhanced show.  It must have worked – maybe even a little too well.  The actors left the Casto within a few weeks and moved on to its more prominent competitor, the Lowell Opera House.  Casto management replaced them, but attendance waned, and, by Christmas Day, 1905, the Casto became the Hathaway.

The theatre’s new owner, Andrew Hathaway tried to resurrect a theatre that locals had begun to call the “white elephant’.  His program promised ‘refined acts of vaudeville’, and ‘the best the market had to offer’.  And, for a while, the Hathaway succeeded and became known as one of the region’s best houses of vaudeville.  By March 5, 1912, however, the Hathaway had followed its predecessors into financial hard times.  A newspaper article of the time announced that it had again closed its doors.  The theatre had been showing some of the day’s most popular shows, like ‘The Preacher and the Convict’.  Theatre management blamed the Lenten season for sluggish ticket sales.

Six months later, on September 16, 1912, the Hathaway became the Playhouse Theatre and Kendall Weston became its manager.  Weston had a long history with the location and had been connected to the Savoy.  He brought in an acting company known as the “Drama Players”, who performed such period favorites as ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ and ‘The Charity Ball’.  Weston also acted in some of the plays.  After some initial success, the Playhouse Theatre opened and closed, frequently, as well.  The theatre temporarily tried its hand at burlesque in March 1914, adopting it as its policy one week, and shedding it in favor of showing ‘moving pictures’ the next.  On March 29, 1914, the headlines promised that the Playhouse would show ‘the $40,000 five reel feature film sensation, ‘The Making of an Automobile Shown by Vivid Moving Pictures’.

Advertisement for the Playhouse – September 24, 1912 (Source: Lowell Sun)

The Playhouse fell quiet again after that.  Lowell High put on its annual play there. The Middlesex Women’s Club showed children’s movies there for a time.  After that, the Lowell Orchestral Society offered concerts there.  Movies came back for a while in March 1917.  The following month, the Playhouse made another go at showing burlesque and musical comedy.  This continued, through more openings, closing, and reinventions.  New movie houses like the Strand moved into Lowell, and the more influential Lowell Opera House began to corner the shrinking market for live shows.

The Playhouse eventually closed for good, in 1918, and opened only sporadically in 1919 to serve as a boxing ring for local boxing stars.  On August 7, 1919, on the same day the Lowell City Council expressed its support for Irish independence and invited Ireland’s Eammon De Valera to Lowell, the announcement came that the Playhouse had been sold to the Chalifoux Company for use as a warehouse and garage.  Fourteen years later, the building was demolished and replaced by a parking lot, which still exists at the site today.


Racing along Lowell’s Pawtucket Boulevard – in 1908

Source: The Lowell Sun, September 5, 1908

‘Thrown from Machine at Harpin Curve in Tyngsboro’

‘The bursting of one of the front tires on the Isotta car, entered in the automobile race to be held Monday over the Merrimack Valley course, came near resulting in the death of Al Poole, the driver, and Coot, the mechanician. The accident occurred about 5.15 o’clock this morning while he was trying to negotiate the hairpin curve.  The machine turned completely over, pinning Poole to the ground, while the mechanician was thrown a distance of fifteen or twenty feet.’

So began the Lowell Sun story in the September 5, 1908 edition of the newspaper.  The conditions for the accident were primed by a low-hanging fog that had not yet burned off when Poole overturned his auto just after five o’clock in the morning.  He was extraordinarily fortunate that the driver immediately following him was able to make out the disabled vehicle through the fog and stop, rather than pile into it.

Source: Lowell Sun – September 3, 1908

Is it so difficult to imagine today’s Pawtucket Boulevard (Massachusetts Route 113) as a race track for cars in the very first years of the 20th century?  The 1909 World Almanac and Book of Facts lists the Lowell track, then known as the ‘Merrimack Valley Course’, as one of the most important in the nation.  The races along the track were sponsored by the Lowell Automobile Club and the American Automobile Association.  During the 1909 season, three days of racing took place over Labor Day weekend, September 6-8, and formed part of the larger Lowell Automobile Carnival, which also included one day of motorboat racing and athletic events as well as a day of motorcycle racing.

The Merrimack Valley course was said to have started with a ‘one-mile speedway’ along the present-day Pawtucket Boulevard / Route 113, which, five miles up the road curved along  a ‘hairpin turn,’ at the Tyngsboro Bridge, before sending drivers up a long hill, bordered by deep forest on both sides.  Considered one of the most dangerous points along the course (which led to Poole’s crash the year before), the hairpin turn was thought safer after its widening to a width of 12 feet in 1909.  On the wooded road, today’s Sherburne Avenue in Tyngsboro and said to be the ‘back part’ of the course, racers were actually driving along a farmer’s road that dated back to colonial times.  The boulevard and the back road were so close together that strategically situated spectators could watch racers on both roads simultaneously.  The back road (Sherburne Avenue in Tyngsboro / Varnum Avenue in Lowell) also contained the next well-known peril of the course – ‘the drop’.  It wasn’t lost on race spectators that ‘the drop’ nearly disqualified the back road from forming part of the course.  Some time before, the Racing Board of the national association examined the road, stopped their automobiles just before the drop, and stared in amazement at what they thought was the bottom of the road disappearing.  They remarked at the chimney of a house, just barely visible in the hollow before them, and the road returning up a hill on the other side.  There was absolutely no way an automobile could negotiate that at 40 miles an hour, they reasoned.

Source: The Lowell Sun – August 11, 1908

Soon after, a racer came along, and proved them wrong.  The engineers widened the road some, leveled off some of the uneven spots, and added the road to the new race course.  Beyond the hairpin turn and the drop, the racers most feared a sharp turn from the back road onto Dunbar Avenue and then another sharp turn that brought them back onto the Boulevard.  After negotiating that last sharp turn, the racers were rewarded with the highest speeds attainable on the track, on the mile-long speedway now comprising part of the Pawtucket Boulevard.

The Lowell Automobile Carnival attracted large crowds of fans from Lowell, other cities and towns in Massachusetts, and even locales that were further away.  Many of the racers, including Al Poole and his ‘mechanician’ Coot, developed large followings of fans.  And, as for the fate of the racers Poole and Coot?  Poole, initially thought dead after the accident, was removed from under his overturned automobile, raced to Lowell General Hospital in one of the other race cars, and found to have a broken collarbone, sprained hip, and a twisted ankle.  But he did survive.  His mechanic, Coot, got away a little luckier, suffering only a few scrapes and bruises.


The Opening of the Chelmsford Mall, 1973 – Remembering Child World and Bradlees

In the early spring of 1973, if you were to drive west along Chelmsford‘s Route 110, just beyond the Lowell city line, you wouldn’t get far before you came across a large clearing outside your driver’s side window.  Masses of steel would be shooting skyward, well back on a newly-cleared 12-acre parcel of land.

With locations in Nashua, Salem NH, and Chelmsford, Child World saw the spending of many childhood allowances during the 70's and 80's.

There might even be a sign, advertising the fate of the new development – not far from the junction of Rtes. 3 and 495.  A “Neighborhood Mall” is planned, and with it, Child World and Bradlees Department Store are both coming to Chelmsford.  A Stop & Shop Grocery Store also announced plans to move into the new mall.

A lot of excitement surrounded the mall’s opening.  “Who wants to go downtown?  Who wants to drive all the way to Burlington?” quipped one man to the Lowell Sun in early 1973.

With construction beginning around December 1972, the mall was seen as a welcome alternative to the at-times sweltering, and at-times freezing, streets of downtown Lowell, or the larger and more distant Burlington Mall some miles down Route 3.  The idea of a mall at the site actually surfaced as early as 1970, but several hurdles needed to be cleared before construction even started.  First, no less than 14 separate parcels of land needed to be purchased.  Later, the project was almost derailed (and ended up being delayed for two months) by the Conservation Commission, while the question of wetlands found on the site was discussed.

Originally opened as the Neighborhood Mall, the Chelmsford Mall acquired its current name soon after opening.

After all the hurdles had been cleared, and as construction progressed in March 1973, the development’s leasing agent joked, to a Lowell Sun reporter:

“Have you seen the new Hatch Act?  Conservation is all right.  But it needs some moderation!  In this one, any marsh, meadow, wetland, the sea coast, any brook, all treated the same.  They’re not the same.  It’s all got to be reasonable. . . . Really, who cares about saving the mosquitoes?”

The seventies sure were different times. . . .

Construction continued through the spring and summer of 1973, and the mall was scheduled to open that October.  That large parcel of land along Chelmsford’s Route 110 eventually came to accommodate 1,200 cars and a ‘huge’ mall, as it was then called.  In addition to Child World, Bradlees, and a Stop and Shop, the mall also housed some 25 speciality stores, including Hit or Miss, Radio Shack, and Fayva.

A Stop and Shop in Chelmsford on 110? Deja Vu? No, this ad heralds the opening of a Stop and Shop location at the Chelmsford Mall on February 4, 1974.


When McDonald’s First Came to Massachusetts, 1960s

Although fast food restaurants seem less prevalent in our neck of the woods than in other regions of the country, it’s hard to picture a strip of suburban road, even in New England, without including a glimpse of those golden arches among the commercial landscape.  Today, McDonald’s employs 1.7 million people in more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.

McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Lowell during the summer of '65, on Rogers Street - near the Tewksbury line.

During the same year that McDonald’s opened its first Lowell-area restaurant in 1965, the chain also celebrated its 10th anniversary and became a public company with its initial public stock offering.  By 1965, McDonald’s had grown to 700 locations in the US and had become famous for its 15-cent hamburgers.  No item on its menu of the mid-1960′s sold for more than 20 cents.

McDonald’s strategy mirrored that of the Detroit automakers:  churn out hamburgers with assembly line efficiency – high volume and low overhead.  Then, hope that customers will continue to wait at the self-service window as long as they can continue to enjoy discounted prices.  Even in the mid-60′s, a burger at fifteen cents was still a steal.

The original model of the McDonald’s restaurant involved self-service windows, rather than today’s familiar eat-in restaurant (introduced in 1962) and drive-thru, which debuted at a McDonald’s located near a military base in Arizona so that soldiers would not need to violate a rule that prohibited them to leave their vehicles while wearing fatigues.

McDonald’s first television advertisement hit the airwaves in 1966, the year after its entry into the Lowell, Massachusetts market.  The ads below tout such forgotten McDonald’s delicacies as Roast Beef on a Roll and McDonald’s own Home Fried Chicken.  There’s also a spot showcasing what’s since become a rare scene:  kids piling into the back of a station wagon.  In this era of car seats and seatbelt laws, there’s something nostalgic about the idea of sitting in the back of a station wagon with five or six of your favorite neighborhood friends.

The second set of McDonald’s ads also dates from the late 1960′s, and captures the debut of the Filet-o-Fish, originally introduced to help revive flagging sales on the “meatless Fridays” practiced by Roman Catholics.  Warning:  The “McDonald’s is Your Kind of Place” tune is the sort of jingle that may stay stuck in your head for a while.

McDonald's first location in Fitchburg, Massachusetts predated its Lowell location by several years. This ad dates from 1963.

McDonald’s today has grown into a multinational corporation that brings what many view as a kind of “Americana” into countries far from America’s shores.  Over the last 15 years, living in Western Europe for extended periods of time and spending stints of time in Latin America too, I sought out McDonald’s when I needed a temporary escape from the local fare.  Whether you love them or not, it’s hard to deny that McDonald’s has had an indelible impact on American culture of the past fifty years.


A ‘Forgotten New England’ Book?

The Jail on Lowell, Massachusetts' Thorndike Street, circa 1908 (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Good evening readers – it’s been a good week at Forgotten New England.   The site has hit 150 followers and has been experiencing some of its heaviest traffic ever.

And – an editor from a reputable publishing house happened upon this blog last week and asked if I’d be interested in writing a book on Lowell (Mass.) history.  I am.

I’ve got tons of content and research, but am short on photographs that aren’t already readily available on the Internet.  Does anyone have old photographs/memorabilia (1800′s to 1970′s) of Lowell landmarks and personalities that they’d be willing to contribute?  I can scan and return any originals.  Credit for the photo will be included in the book, of course.  Please send me a message at forgottennewengland at gmail dot com for further details.

And, as always, thanks for your continued readership and for all of the ‘shares’.


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

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

The first few words are familiar:

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

The next are shocking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990′s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930′s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840′s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870′s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930′s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990′s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


What was before – What once occupied the site of today’s Pru?

From the South End, the Prudential Center towers above the newer 111 Huntington Building (Photo via Fogster / Wikipedia, Public Domain Image)

Seen from any approach to Boston, the Prudential Tower has figured prominently into Boston’s skyline since its construction in the early 1960′s.  And, with 52 floors, the Pru stands as Boston’s second-tallest building, just behind the John Hancock Tower‘s sixty.  The Tower, completed in 1964, rises 749 feet, or, with its radio mast (pictured atop the building), 907 feet, making it the 77th tallest building in the United States.  The Pru contains some 1.2 million square feet of retail and commercial space, the highest observation deck in New England (that is currently open to the public), and a restaurant on its 52nd floor, Top of the Hub.

Announced in 1957, the plans for the new Prudential Center were seen as ‘a rebirth’ for a section of Boston that had been considered dated and in need of renovation.  Mayor Hynes announced that the construction, led by Prudential Insurance, proved that “the  city of Boston [was] about to be reborn.”  At the time, the new skyscraper promised to be the tallest in Boston, dwarfing the nearby John Hancock Mutual Life building, built by its rival and standing 26 stories.  (Hancock eventually got its revenge several years later when it constructed the slightly taller Hancock tower.)  Prudential planned to build a structure standing 45-50 stories for its new regional home office, citing that the construction as a good long-term investment in Boston.

The Prudential Tower is just one of twelve buildings that were planned to be built as part of the Prudential Center, which occupies 31 acres on a site bordered by Exeter Street on the east, Dalton Street on the west, Boylston Street on the north, Belvidere Street on the southwest, and Huntington Avenue on the southeast.

But, what stood on the site of the Prudential Center before its construction?  Twenty-eight acres came from land belonging to the Boston & Albany Railroad and used as a freight yard.  Another half-acre came from the Mother Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist.  The remaining two-and-a-half acres came from Mechanics Hall, described in 1957 with such words as “grim” and “dated”.

Mechanics Building, Huntington Avenue, Boston, and the Boston & Albany Freight Yard. Future Site of the Prudential Center. (Taken: 1920 - Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)

The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association built Mechanics Hall on Huntington Avenue in 1881.  During the Victorian era, it was one of the city’s largest halls with a seating capacity of 8,000 people and housed many of the day’s exhibitions and fairs.

Even by 1881, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association had deep roots in Boston, dating to the association’s founding in 1795.

The Association’s annual income went to providing relief to mechanics and their families who had fallen upon hard times.  Any funds left were used for loans to young mechanics and to establish schools and libraries to support the profession and further the education of apprentices.

Mechanics Hall covered an area of over 110,000 square feet.  Its frontage on Huntington Avenue was 600 feet; on West Newton Street, 300 feet.  Its tower, 90 feet in height and 40 feet in diameter, formed the eastern end of the structure.  The Hall’s two entrances, one from the sidewalk on Huntington Avenue and another from the carriage porch, were made from a combination of brick and stone.    Following the Hall westerly along Huntington Avenue, the next section after the tower was the administration building and then the exhibition hall, which boasted spacious galleries and a large basement.   Past the exhibition hall was the grand hall, which formed the west end of the building.  It was the grand hall that sat some 8,000 people, and which held the Hall’s famous Roosevelt organ.

Mechanic's Building, Interior - March 1911 (Photo from BPL Flickr Photostream)

The administration building had, on its first floor, offices.  Small dining rooms filled the second floor.  The third floor contained another large, ornate hall.  Within Mechanics Hall, exhibitions frequently showcased the latest innovations in the field of science and mechanics.  During its 19th-century heyday, visitors to the hall saw a strength-testing machine, railway electric safety signals, and a postal stamp cancellation machine.

The destruction of Mechanics Hall in 1958 and the subsequent construction of the Prudential Center were seen as supporting the urban renewal embraced by many mid-century Bostonians.  This same urban renewal scheme brought Boston such ‘modern’ architecture as Government Center and left a lasting mark on the city’s historic West End.  Today, the Prudential Center is a vibrant commercial and retail hub, frequented by many residents and visitors to the city.  Still, there’s a certain sense of loss that one considers when viewing photographs of Mechanics Hall, which once stood on the site, when Huntington Avenue was a much quieter place.

A quieter time on Boston's Huntington Avenue - 1897 - (Courtesy: BPL Flickr Photostream)