Tag Archives: Boston

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.


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

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

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

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

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

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


Jailbreak at Rainsford Island – Boston Harbor: August 1899

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, ...

Boys, House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A steady stream of ten boys, each jumping from the classroom windows of the Rainsford Island House of Reformation, sprinted for the shore under the cover of the night fog on August 19, 1899. They found their way through the brush by the light of the fire that raged through their prison behind them.  As the boys reached the shore, a boat appeared and several of them  crawled into it.  The rest found another boat nearby, belonging to a lobsterman, and stole away in that.  From there, the boys escaped first to Moon Island, and then into Boston itself.

While the boys slunk off into the darkness, the prison’s superintendent, John C. Anthony, was the first to notice the flames issuing from the north wing of his House of Reformation.  Just days earlier, the same building had been set afire.  And the day before, a boy named Joseph Sullivan escaped by jumping off the island’s gangplank and swimming over to Hull, across Boston Harbor.  Sullivan had told his fellow inmates that, if his escape was successful, he would return to help the others.

Superintendent Anthony issued the alarm.  Within moments, his sixteen officers directed the House’s remaining inmates as they took the fire hose and began their efforts to fight the raging fire.  It proved little use.  The poor quality hose kept splitting. Whatever little water pressure they had was leaking away before the water even had a chance to hit the flames.

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston...

House of Reformation, Rainsford Island, Boston Harbor, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the fire raged, Superintendent Anthony called Superintendent Hopkins of Boston Harbor’s Long Island for help.  Their ship, the John Howard, soon arrived.  The men from the Howard found the north wing completely ablaze, and the inmates fighting the blaze with their single line of hose that had burst in many spots.  The crew of the Howard aimed two streams of water at the fire while Superintendent Anthony put in a call to Boston, which also sent a ship of firefighters to the island.  Their ship arrived, and their crew fought the flames alongside the crew of the Howard, and the inmates.  The fire was gradually brought under control, but not before the North Wing’s top two floors were destroyed.

In the commotion caused by the fire, twenty-five Boston City policemen arrived to guard the island’s shores trying to prevent the boys still missing from escaping the island.  They found boys running about the island “as they pleased, like Fijis”.  Some tried constructing rafts and floating away into the harbor.  One boy, named McNulty, nearly drowned about 50 yards off the shore of Hull, before he was rescued from his floating log by a reporter named Frank Sibley.  Two other boys were later found crawling through a cornfield in search of driftwood that they too hoped to use for a Hull-bound raft.

As midnight approached on that Saturday night, Boston police had rounded up nearly all of the boys who hadn’t managed to escape the island’s shores.  The boys were gathered on the House of Reformation’s recess yard and spent the night in the chapel, which had not been destroyed in the fire.  Sleeping atop mattresses that had been pulled out of the burning building, some of the island’s more unruly boys caused trouble for the guards, yelling, hollering, and calling them names.  The guards tolerated the abuse, owing to the boys’ agitated state of mind, but after some time, they adopted ‘extreme measures’ to restore the peace.

A few ‘knock-down’ battles ensued between police, prison officials, and prisoners.  Eventually, the law got the upper hand.  With the unruliness reigned in, the officials picked out eight of the worst offenders and subjected them to “the administration of the rattan stick” the next morning, when they were made to bend over a bar and were flogged.  As for the boys who escaped, they remained at large for weeks before law enforcement was able to recapture them.

In the investigations occurring in the weeks and months following the fire, cases of prisoner abuse were unearthed, and Superintendent Anthony resigned his position.  Four of the ten escapees were later charged with setting the fire.  Their names were not immediately released by authorities, but were known to the local press soon after the arson.  James McNulty, the boy later rescued while adrift on a log several hundred yards from Hull was among their number.

The investigation found that the boys used shavings, paper, and oil that they had hoarded during the months before the fire.  Escaping to the attic on that Saturday night, the four boys lit several spots in the attic at once, and watched as the fire rapidly gained ground.  McNulty, after his recapture, was later implicated in the August 1900 burning of a barn at another reformatory school, in Westboro, Massachusetts.

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. For more in...

Rainsford Island in Boston Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island, an 11 acre island in Boston Harbor, is named for Edward Rainsford, one of the island’s earliest settlers.  In its history, Rainsford Island has been known by a number of names including Hospital Island, Pest House Island, and Quarantine Island.  Since 1996, Rainsford Island has been a part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area.  A municipal institution, the House of Reformation at Rainsford Island housed boys between the ages of 18 and 20 years old who had been sent there for all sorts of crimes, ranging from serious crimes like assault with intent to kill and larceny to the crimes that were substantially less serious like stubborn child and ‘playing ball on the Lord’s day’. The House of Reformation, later named the Suffolk School for Boys, operated on the island from 1895 to 1920.  The school housed a three-and-a-half story building with two wings, known as the North and South Wings.  At the time of the fire, 140 boys had been incarcerated there.  Most were housed in the House’s North Wing, which held 115 boys.


Oh, The Many Queer Lights of Franklin Park! – The Advent of Bicycle Lights in Boston, 1899

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

Blue lights, green lights, and red lights rose out of the dusky fog.  Men emerged carrying bright Japanese lanterns; women held dim electric bulbs.  As summer waned in Boston during the last days of August in 1899, a new regulation came into effect.  Starting on the night of August 21, 1899, bicyclists in Boston were to carry lights as they rode.  No longer would the 19th century darkness of Boston’s streets, paths, and byways yield unseen horrors like speeding bicyclists.

The only issue was that no one had thought to define exactly what kind of light the law should require for bicycles, or how many would do, or even where or how they should be mounted.  And this seemed perfectly daft to a populace accustomed to a world of darkness after twilight faded into night.

The patrolmen charged with enforcing the new law suffered for that vagueness; some suffered the abuse more amiably than others.  On the night of the 21st in that enlightened August of 1899, patrolmen were made aware that the regulation had gone into effect, but were asked not to enforce it until the following night.  Instead, for the night of the 21st, they were to ‘remind’ bicycle riders of their new responsibility.

English: Franklin Park, Boston

Franklin Park, Boston (Photo credit: Wikipedia).  In 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo would be founded, thirteen years after the passage of the bicycle lighting law.

Andy Cramm, a Franklin Park patrolman well-known for his joviality and affability, took his orders to heart.  On that Monday evening, the last before the new law took effect, Andy promised that violators would be ‘pinched sure as faith’ if they didn’t carry lanterns on the following evening.  Said he:  “I have only warned them tonight and lots of ‘em have sauced me, but I just want to see ‘em do it tomorrow night.”

Patrolman Cramm, whose beat included the part of Franklin Park known as the ‘roof garden’, saw one bicyclist who had attached a big reflector lantern to a pole extending from the front of his bicycle, much like what he had seen hanging in a “country doctor’s doorway”.   Andy called after the bicyclist as he pedaled off into the darkness, amid the cheers of the spectators and pedestrians who had assembled to watch the unexpected fun brought on by the new regulation.

Many of the bicyclists taunted Cramm and other patrolmen with their varying interpretations of the new vaguely-worded regulation that only required that they carry a light.   Some came carrying Japanese lanterns. Others carried bullseye lanterns.  Still others, like the bicyclist above, carried a huge reflector.  A few carried small, dim electric lights that were barely visible.  The lights spanned all of the available colors.  And then there were the bicyclists who hadn’t even heard of the new law, and who had come as they always had, in the dark, without any lights whatsoever.

Image Credit: Boston Globe, August 22, 1899, Pg. 1

And it fell to Andy Cramm and two other policemen to inform all of the bicyclists in the nearly 600-acre Franklin Park of the new regulation and to evaluate their sometimes half-serious attempts to comply with it.  Cramm, who was stationed near the Blue Hill Avenue entrance that night, was said to have suffered the worst of the abuse.  Known for his jovial, approachable manner, he handled the pranksters with ‘kid gloves’, but promised to bring his ‘boxing gloves’ the next night after the regulation really went into effect.

As Andy Cramm stood in the middle of the path leading from Blue Hill Avenue, prankster bicyclists rode past him, taunting the new law, their bicycles bedecked with red, green, and blue lights, of every variety.  Efforts had clearly been made to be the bicyclist with the most ridiculous light set-up.  Some bicyclists carried the lights in their hands; some attached them to the rear of their bicycles.  Others affixed them to long poles and attached these to the fronts of their bikes.

One young couple, riding a tandem bicycle, hadn’t heard of the coming regulation and drove without a light, wheeling around Patrolman Andy Cramm as he kindly, but firmly berated them.  They eventually wheeled off into the darkness as the man called back: “Ta-ta Andy, I’ll see you in church.” Another man, attempting to make a good faith attempt to comply with the law, showed up at Franklin Park with a well-lit corncob pipe in his mouth.  A light?  Surely.  But, Patrolman Andy Cramm still told him the error of his ways.

Cramm and his two fellow patrolman eventually found the very darkest section of Franklin Park – at ‘Lovers’ Lane’, where they found many bicycles lacking lights – and riders.  None of the riders, had they even been found, were arrested, the patrolmen said.  To do so would leave their beats unprotected for too long, they reasoned.  An arrest cost the patrolmen about an hour, the time it took to bring the perpetrators to the police station and then to return to the park.

Said one of the men, “I never saw such carrying’s on in my life.  I suppose they wanted to make the most of the last night without lights.”


A Train Accident in Lowell – 1928

Few people living today remember the 1920s – let alone the specifics of travel during the era.  Luckily, New England‘s commitment to preserving its history makes it relatively easy to envision the region as it appeared in decades past.  This becomes obvious during any ride through many of its cities.  The YouTube video below shows the Boston streetscape as it appeared in the 1920′s.  In watching it, you will see many familiar sights, and some sights, period cars and fashions, that have faded with the passage of time.

Like today, travel on the roads and rails of the 1920s carried its risks.  Auto and train accidents occurred and, at many times, were more serious than today’s accidents, given the era’s lack of safety equipment and regulations to minimize accidents and their impacts.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

At one o’clock during the afternoon of November 19, 1928, two passenger trains of the Boston & Maine railroad crashed head-on just beneath the Hale Street bridge.  Fifteen were taken to local emergency rooms at St. John’s, Lowell General, and the Lowell Corporation hospitals in ambulances, private cars, and trucks.

Three cars of the two trains derailed and overturned.  Train 10, which was travelling southbound to Boston from Woodsville, NH, had received a clear signal to enter the northbound track.  Moments later, as it was passing through the crossover and back onto its southbound track, a northbound express, Train 9, which had left Boston to travel to Woodsville struck the lead car on the 10 train.  The impact was so great, the southbound train overturned and derailed.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

By the next day, one man had died.  John J. Hart, a Boston & Maine brakeman on the southbound train, died on the night of the accident at Lowell General after a blood transfusion had failed to save him.  A Stoneham resident and a 25-year employee of the railroad, he left a wife, and two children.  Another brakeman on the same train, Frederick  H. Lucas, of 786 Merrimack Street, was in serious condition.  He survived, along with 10 others who were also seriously hurt.

B&M officials ultimately concluded that the train accident was a result of the failure of the engineer of the north-bound train to control his speed and obey a block signal that had been set against his train.

Like today, travel in the past carried its perils and was sometimes visited by tragedy.  Unlike today, many of the regulations and laws that now prevent accidents, or at least mitigate their effects when they occur, did not yet exist. Train accidents, like the Lowell accident exhibited in this post, occurred frequently, and sometimes resulted in fatalities that affected the lives of our ancestors.


The Story of Lowell’s Shedd Park

The gates are familiar to all who pass Lowell’s Shedd Park at the intersection of Rogers Street (Route 38) and Knapp Avenue in the city’s Belvidere section.  And they tell a story of some of the greatest generosity ever experienced by the city of Lowell.

The Shedd Park Gateway, as it was envisioned in 1910. (Source: Lowell Sun: 7/16/1910)

Today, Lowell’s Shedd Park is home to fifty acres of  tennis courts, baseball diamonds, picnic areas, and a water spray park.  Its pavilion is often used as a stage for public events and concerts.  In the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, however, the land that eventually became the park was a combination of open fields and dense forests, and it was privately owned.

Field and forest covered the land that would become Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

The land wasn’t always destined to become Shedd Park.  As late as 1896, it was considered for subdivision and development into housing lots.

An 1896 plan showed a subdivision consisting of Hoyt, Belrose, and McAlvin Avenues traversing the core of what later became park grounds.  (Source:  1896 Lowell City Atlas)

But, in the end, Freeman B. Shedd, the owner of the land, gave it as a gift to the City of Lowell, with no strings attached.  On July 14, 1910, Freeman B. Shedd sent a letter to Lowell’s mayor at the time, John F. Meehan.

Freeman B Shedd, (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

He said:

“I have acquired title to a tract of land containing fifty acres, more or less, which is situated south of Knapp Avenue and adjoining Fort Hill park, that I offer to the City of Lowell for its acceptance under the following conditions:

“First:  That it shall forever be used as a park and recreation or playground for the citizens and children of the City of Lowell, and for no other purpose.

“Second:  That no building or structure shall be erected on the land except such as is adapted and required for use in connection with said park and playground.

“Third:  That the city will, within a reasonable time, proceed to develop and prepare the ground for such uses on the lines indicated by accompanying plan furnished by E.W.Bowditch, civil engineer of Boston.

“Fourth:  That I shall have the right to erect, subject to the approval of the park commission, a suitable gateway and entrance, with a tablet or tablets thereon with the following transcription:  “Shedd Playground.  A gift to the City of Lowell by Freeman Ballard Shedd, A.D. 1910.”

And, with that he closed the letter, and awaited the city’s response to his offer.  Real estate experts of the day valued the land at $50,000.  There were really no strings attached.  Freeman Shedd, a lifelong resident of Lowell, and was simply and in the words of the day, an ‘ardent lover’ of his city.

The vote to accept Shedd’s park was unanimous, and a rising vote of thanks was offered to Freeman Shedd.  An appropriation of $10,000 was voted by the City Council on November 4, 1910 to clear the land and build a roadway to the entrance.  Work commenced quickly.  A roadway was built to grant better access to the future park.  Ground was cleared;  trees were felled.  The skating rink was created.   The Council intended, within 10 years to make the park one of the best outside Boston.  Freeman Shedd again stepped forward to make that happen.  Shedd’s will left $100,000 to the city for the development of the park, provided that his daughter, Mary Belle, left  no descendants when she herself died.  Mary Belle Shedd did, indeed, died childless in 1921, but was survived by Freeman Shedd’s wife, Amy.  When Amy Shedd died in 1924, the $100,000 reverted to the City of Lowell and Shedd Park was further developed.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park called for an open air theater, roughly where the little league baseball diamonds sit now along Knapp Avenue, a pond with a beach roughly where the Senior League baseball diamond sits now, and gender-specific gyms and tennis courts.  A field designated for baseball and football was to reside further down Boylston Street, where the current picnic area is.  Original plans also called for an underground tunnel to pass under the B&M railroad to connect the park with Wigginville, now better known as South Lowell.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park – 1910 – Lowell Sun, 7/16/1910

In the last days of November and into early December 1910, a 6″ inch service pipe was laid into the park, and from it approximately four million gallons of water were let onto the land to flood about five acres of land for a skating rink.  City residents loved it.  The Water Department wasn’t so thrilled.  Although the Park Department paid for the pipe and its installation, they refused to pay the water bill.

The skating pond at Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

Outside downtown Lowell, there are few Lowell landmarks as universally well-known as Belvidere’s Shedd Park.  At over 50 acres, the park is among the largest in the city.  Its story, enhanced by generations of memories among Lowell residents, traces its origins to one of Lowell’s most generous sons, who grew up to leave Lowell’s one of its greatest gifts ever.


Cornhill – Once Boston’s Literary Center, Today Replaced by Government Center

Cornhill (Quincy Market in background, Sears block in foreground), 1901 – (From BPL Flickr Photostream)

It wasn’t Cornhill Street, Cornhill Road, Cornhill Avenue, or even the Cornhill; instead, it was just Cornhill, and in its day, knowing this was just one more way that those in the know had to distinguish locals from those visiting Boston as tourists.

In its history, Boston has had two roads called Cornhill.  The first, named after its namesake in London, ran from Water Street to Dock Square, was laid out in 1708 as part of a winding road between Roxbury and Boston.  Some 80 years later, in 1789, George Washington drove over ‘Old Cornhill’ during his ceremonial visit to Boston as the country’s first president.  As part of the occasion and as part of a larger movement to rename Boston streets after the Revolution, this first Cornhill was renamed Washington Street.  Around the same time, State Street emerged from King Street, and Court Street replaced Queen Street.  Pudding Lane became Devonshire.

A generation later, in 1816, Uriah Cotting planned ‘New Cornhill’.  From Court Street to its terminus with Washington Street at Adams Square, the curving road was initially called ‘Cheapside’, later ‘Market Street’, and ultimately ‘Cornhill’ in 1829, thus resurrecting the street onto Boston maps.

This 1832 map of Boston shows the area that would one day become Government Center. At the time, Cornhill spanned from Court Street to Washington Street.

‘New Cornhill’ was planned in every way, from its curving design to the materials and methods of construction required for any buildings raised along its route.  The new road was admired by many luminaries of the day, including John Quincy Adams, who in 1817, called it an improvement to the city that ‘contributed to the elegance and comfort of the place.’

Burnham’s Bookstore, on Boston’s Cornhill. (From the Library of Congress)

Cornhill quickly attracted Boston’s best booksellers and publishers. With them came the best-known religious, social, and political thinkers of the day.  Cornhill soon became a mecca for Boston’s intellectuals during its mid-19th-century heyday.  Writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier met at Burnham’s book store (later the Brattle Book Shop) on Cornhill, in the Sears Crescent Building.  Oliver Wendell Holmes kept law offices there.  And William Lloyd Garrison published The Liberator there, as well.   Angry mobs were twice seen dragging him from his office, subsequently tarring and feathering him.

Yet another Cornhill thinker, Horace Mann, became famous for his contributions to American education reform, creating the model eventually adopted by many states for their public school system.  Even the creator of the Graham Cracker, Dr. Sylvester Graham, claimed an office on Cornhill.

J. J. Jewett, also a Cornhill merchant and a supporter of the Underground Railroad, published the first American version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from Cornhill, selling 3,000 copies on his first day, and 300,000 during his first year.  During the Civil War, many runaway slaves were hidden in the basement under William Lloyd Garrison’s Cornhill office, a vital link in the underground railroad.  Julia Ward Howe wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” there.

Sears’ Block, 72 Cornhill Street, Boston, Suffolk County, MA – (Via Library of Congress – Created by Crevin Robinson, 1962). Court Street Tavern is now the site of Starbucks, which today boasts above its entrance a 227-gallon golden kettle, rescued from nearby Scollay Square during its razing.

So the legacy of Cornhill continued through the middle of the 19th century.  As the 19th century came to a close, even Cornhill began to lose some of its luster as the preeminent location for publishers and booksellers, the street was still dominated by the city’s booksellers.  Scholars, casual browsers and even future personalities like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR and JFK all frequented the area as students.  The intellectual energy so synonymous with Cornhill may have subsided in the wake of the Civil War, but the days of the area’s booksellers continued until the coming of Government Center.

Intersection of Court Street, Cambridge Street and Tremont Street, at Government Center, today (via Wikipedia, contributed by M2545).  The Sears Block (tan) and the Sears Crescent (red brick) still stand at the intersection, the sole survivors of the location’s pre-Government Center history.

Today, the only surviving remnants of Cornhill are the Sears Block and Sears Crescent.  David Sears built the Sears Crescent in 1816, after being inspired by Charles Bullfinch‘s Tontine Crescent.  The building follows the gentle curve of Cornhill’s original layout.  The Sears Block, right next door and built in 1848, followed, and today houses a Starbucks known for its golden steaming kettle, cast in 1873 for the Oriental Tea Company.  The kettle, which originally hung in nearby Scollay Square (like Cornhill, also destroyed during the construction of the Government Center), became famous when the Oriental Tea Company ran a contest in 1874, encouraging those so-inspired to guess the kettle’s capacity.  Eight winners stepped forward to claim chests of premium tea when they correctly guessed that the kettle held 227 gallons, two quarts, one pint, and three gills.  The kettle was rescued from Scollay Square during its razing, and moved to the front of the Sears Block in 1967, where it remains today.

Cornhill, along with Scollay Square, was destroyed during the construction of Boston’s Government Center during the city’s 1960s-era Urban Renewal Scheme.  Initially, Government Center was lauded as “a model of how urban renewal, when imaginatively conceived and carried out, can bring new vitality and beauty to a city”.  Government Center even captured a special commendation from the American Institute of Architects in 1972.  Today, the aesthetic merit of the area is assigned, at best, mixed values.  Many view the area as a brutalist ‘brick desert’ in the heart of what was once one of Boston’s most picturesque Victorian neighborhoods.

Teapot on the “Sears Block” on City Hall Plaza, Boston, Massachusetts (Via Library of Congress, Contributed by: Carol M. Highsmith)


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)