Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

Lowell’s Irish and French Canadian populations long had an uneasy relationship.  I grew up hearing about it, a century after the French Canadians first starting appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1870s.  By the time the French Canadians began arriving in Lowell, the Irish Catholics – who had started appearing a generation earlier – had been winning some hard-fought political control over their circumstances and had started arguing for labor reform in the city’s textile mills.  The French Canadians, newly arrived to Lowell, were not looking to jeopardize their chances of finding employment in the mills by becoming involved in the Irish efforts at labor reform.  As a result, the Irish viewed the French Canadians as strike breakers, and the French Canadians resented the Irish for making their quest for lasting and steady employment more difficult.

French Canadian family arriving from Montreal, 1913 (Via Wikimedia Commons, via Popular Science Monthly, Volume 83)

Gradually, as newer waves of emigrants arrived – among them the Greeks, Polish and Portuguese – the resentment between the Irish and French Canadians began to ebb as they formed an uneasy alliance against these newer groups who, like them before, so needed work that they were willing to act as ‘strike breakers’ when labor discussions turned toward reform in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  But, the tensions never really faded away entirely.

As both populations became ‘more American’, and less ‘Irish’ or ‘French Canadian’, their US-born children almost began to forget about the original divides between the two groups.  Almost.  Many mill town family trees, mine included, show evidence of marriages uniting children of the Irish with children of the French Canadians.

When Peter Foisy, of French Canadian descent, married my Great Aunt Catherine McNamara, of Irish Catholic descent, in the mid-1920s, a sense of scandal rocked the family – for a few reasons.  He was older, by more than 20 years.  He was divorced.  And – he was French Canadian – one of ‘them’.  For similar reasons, a sense of scandal also rocked his family, when their son divorced his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant – which wasn’t really a surprise to anyone since Peter had left his first wife since she hadn’t wanted children.  Their daughter, my Aunt Emily, was born in 1927, and the family lived happily, until 1929, when Peter died at the age of 47.  My Aunt Emily, was just two years old.

Grandma Foisy - the only photo I've seen of her.

Grandma Foisy – the only photo I’ve seen of her.

Decades later, I grew up hearing the story of how Aunt Emily’s French-Canadian grandmother tried to convince my aunt’s newly widowed mother to place her in the Franco American Orphanage in the months after her father’s death.  The stories led me to envision this woman as a ‘wicked witch’ sort of grandmother.  And, years later, when I found her photograph among my aunt’s things, that image wasn’t exactly disproven.

The Franco American School, as seen from Pawtucket Street, (By Emw, via Wikimedia Commons)

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The orphanage, to me, as a child hearing the story, seemed like it would have been a big, scary, lonely place to send a newly fatherless toddler in the late 1920s.  Now, after the passage of a few decades and a chance to further study the Franco American Orphanage, it turns out that it wasn’t such a desolate, lonely place after all.  The original building, shown above, dates to the 1870s and was built for Frederick Ayer, one of Lowell’s most prominent nineteenth-century businessmen.  Today, his former estate, once known as the Ayer estate and later as the Franco American Orphanage and School quickly became one of Lowell’s most recognizable landmarks on the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets.  Frederick Ayer, in life, was a successful Lowell businessman whose business pursuits included partnering with his equally well-known brother, J.C. Ayer, in his patent medicine business.

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell's Market Street.  On the building's Central Street side, the company's painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author.  Oct. 2011)

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell’s Market Street. On the building’s Central Street side, the company’s painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author. Oct. 2011)

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought the Ayer estate in 1908 and soon received Cardinal O’Connell‘s blessing to open an orphanage to serve the orphans of the city’s growing Franco American population.  Father Joseph Campeau, OMI, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, helped found the orphanage, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.  They had their work cut out for them, trying to refurbish the estate and turn it into an orphanage and school.  The estate had been vacant since 1890, when Ayer had moved to Boston.  In the end, they succeeded in renovating the estate, and the nuns welcomed the orphanage’s first sixteen orphans on October 15, 1908.

The orphanage prospered, and as times changed, it began to admit day students as early as the 1950s.  The number of day students continued to grow through the 1960s, when the Franco American Orphanage officially became the Franco American School in 1963.  Fifteen years later, in 1978, the Franco American School discontinued its boarding school services and moved to the day-student-only format that continues through today.

By the time I came around, the Franco American School had stood on Lowell’s Pawtucket Street for decades, where it still provides a Catholic education to the city’s youth.  Although additions have been added to the original Ayer estate over the years, the front building, the original, still retains much of its original historical charm.  Fortunately, very little remains today of that initial resentment between Lowell’s earliest Irish and French Canadian populations, except when recalled in family stories and old newspaper articles.  My aunt passed away in 2004, and never lost pride in either heritage – although I think she more readily claimed her Irish Catholic background just to spite that French Canadian grandmother who almost sent her to the orphanage all those years ago.


The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940.

The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940 crossed Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts within just a few days in February 1940.  Locals said it was the biggest storm to hit the region since the New England Hurricane of 1938, some 15 months before.  The first flurries started on the morning of Valentine’s Day, before progressing into a steady snow with strong winds as the afternoon wore on.  The storm didn’t stop until the morning of the next day when 14 inches of fresh snow lay across the area.  The drifts reached six to eight feet in some places.  Some reports described the drifts as approaching ten feet high.

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine's Day snowstorm in 1940.  (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine’s Day snowstorm in 1940. (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

The storm stalled train travel for hours on all of New England‘s railroad systems, and stranded many in Boston on Valentine’s Day.  Many Lowell residents attending the ice carnival at the Boston Garden were trapped in Boston after all train service was cancelled  after the 8:45 PM train left the station.  Many of the stranded spent idle hours over the next day or two at hotel bars, still clothed in their dinner jackets and evening gowns that they had been wearing on the night of the storm.  Those lucky enough to score hotel rooms paid steep premiums.  When the rooms ran out, hotel owners were required to provide cots in their lobbies and ballrooms to accommodate those made ‘temporarily homeless’ by the storm.

The storm also stalled trolley car and bus transportation, and all plane service was cancelled for three or four days. In the city, all of Boston’s major department stores closed on the 15th, something that hadn’t happened in 14 years, not even in the New England Hurricane of 1938.   The roads became so bad that Boston city police enforced a ban on all automobiles entering the downtown area.  And, snow removal efforts became further hampered by the large amounts of automobiles that had stalled and subsequently abandoned on the streets.

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine's Day storm.  (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine’s Day storm. (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

In Lowell, hundreds of public and private employees fought in the days following the storm to free the city from the vast amounts of snow covering city streets.  Snow removal moved slowly in Lowell.  In the aftermath of the storm, the city dispatched 30 plows, two bulldozers, and a 10-ton tractor to clear the snow.  Similar to the situation in Boston, they found many of the city’s main streets – Merrimack, Central, Bridge, and Rogers – all blocked with cars that had stalled in the storm.  By the 16th, even in the downtown section, huge drifts of snow remained piled high on the edges of the streets.   The Lowell Street Department estimated that some 200 streets remained blocked with snow, even on the 16th, two days after the storm had hit.  Like Boston, by the end of the second day after the storm, many of the stalled cars on Lowell’s city streets had been cleared out, allowing plows to finally complete their rounds.

In the end, the Valentine’s Day storm of 1940 claimed 31 lives in New England.  In the days following the storm, the number was feared to be much higher while searchers scoured the seas for the ten-man crew of the lost 49-foot dragger “Palmers Island”, which had sailed from New Bedford before the storm.   Three days after the storm, the Coast Guard took the “Palmers Island” in tow, some 120 miles south of Block Island, RI.  The dragger, with crew aboard, returned to New Bedford on Sunday, February 18.


Fire Alarm Signal Boxes

Fire alarm signal box in Ridgewood, New Jersey (Photo Credit: Wikipedia via Ben Schumin)

In a world before text messages, the internet, televisions, radios, and even telephones, fire emergencies were signaled with fire signal boxes.  Not everyone could signal a fire.  Fire signal boxes were locked, and alarms could only be activated by keyholders.  Alarms were to be activated from the box located closest to the fire.  Keyholders confirmed that a fire was indeed burning before activating the box by unlocking it, pulling down the slide or hook inside once, and letting it go.  After activating the alarm, keyholders listened for the bell inside the box to begin ringing, which indicated that the fire alarm signal had been successfully sent to the fire department.  If no sound came, keyholders pulled the lever inside the box again.  And if this didn’t work, the keyholder moved to the next closest box and tried again.  If the bell inside the fire signal box was ringing before the hook was pulled, this meant that the alarm had already been given at another box.  Once the bell did ring, the keyholder remained at the box until the fire department arrived and released the key.  Keys were never to be lost, or turned over to anyone other than the fire department‘s chief engineer.  Police also had keys to the boxes.

Each station of the fire department was assigned a set of fire signal boxes that it was expected to respond to, but the department’s chief, first assistant, and protective company were expected to answer all alarms, regardless of which box they were sent from.  When the alarms were signaled, any companies not responding were asked to remain at their houses for at least thirty minutes unless they were dismissed by telegraph signals.

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source:  1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source: 1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

To a society where telephones were new and untried technology, and other forms of twentieth-century communication technology were still decades away, fire signal boxes served as a lifeline to the city’s fire department.  The signal boxes provided citizens with peace of mind.  When they were in need, the boxes were the quickest and easiest way to reach help.  However, beside providing help in emergencies, fire signal boxes also provided a service later offered by radio, and more recently by TV and the internet.  They were used to announce the cancellation of school sessions.  Two strokes at the fire signal boxes, repeated three times at 7:45 AM, or at 1:15 PM meant that the following session of school was cancelled.  And, they also helped people set their clocks.  The bells were struck once daily, at 1 PM.


Past Occupations: Lamplighters in Lowell, Massachusetts

Gas lighting early 20th century (via Wikimedia Commons)

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

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

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

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

Lamplighter

Lamplighter (Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Macaroni and Cheese? For Thanksgiving? Thanksgiving Dinner in 1883

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

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

Macaroni and cheese in a white bowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Day — Arrival at the old home, 1858

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


The Opening of the Billerica Mall, 1975

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

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

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

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

Papa Gino's

(Photo Credit:  Flickr: Svadilfari)

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

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

Dark Corridors Abound at Billerica Mall

(Photo Credit:  The Caldor Rainbow)

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

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

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


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

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

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

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

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

Captain Edward Cunningham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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