Tag Archives: Boston

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)


The Great White Hurricane – New England’s Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888 in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast.

A wet, swirling snow began to fall around dawn on Monday, March 12, 1888, in Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of about 65,000 residents.  Many of Lowell’s residents, workers in the textile mills, gingerly picked their way along slick sidewalks as they began their workweek.  Most did not know that a blizzard was approaching and that it would drop increasing amounts of snow in Lowell on that day and the next.  As they took their places behind their spinning machines and warpers, the morning’s light breezes intensified into winds and then gales.  Temperatures, near freezing in the morning, never warmed.  Outside the mills, milkmen shoveled passages through drifts that had grown several feet high.  Patrolmen struggled through blinding snows before being forced to suspend their rounds later that afternoon.  Most agreed that they had never before seen such a storm.  Almost all had thought these kind of storms only happened in the “west”, which had suffered through the Schoolhouse Blizzard just two months before.

Windows, and even their buildings, rattled in the howling winds as heavy, wet snow began to blanket Lowell, Massachusetts.  Communication with other cities was soon lost as strong gusts brought down telephone wires and telegraph poles, already heavy with snow and ice.

Travel to, from, and around Lowell soon devolved into chaos.  Snow drifts grew to ten, or twenty feet high on some train tracks.

Front Page Headlines from the Boston Globe - March 13, 1888

Those lucky enough to arrive from surrounding towns and cities came late.  Some unfortunate souls ended up stranded with their disabled trains in a dark, white wilderness.  The heavy, wet snow just proved too much for the steam engines.  To make matters even worse, downed telegraph wires meant that the stalled trains had lost all means of communication, leaving the stranded passengers and crew completely cut off.

For those relying on horse-cars to travel within Lowell, the situation was hardly any better.  Snow had settled into the horse-car tracks far more quickly than the plows had been able to remove it.  This, and the increasing number or passengers seeking refuge on the city’s horse-cars, began to overtax the city’s work horses.  Newspaper accounts recorded the concern expressed over the horses’ welfare.  When one of the horses dropped dead from overexertion early in the evening, the horse-cars were called back into the stables for the night and any attempts to keep the tracks clear of snow was given up.  Those stranded in Lowell remarked at the city’s oddly quiet streets, deserted without a single horse-car, or even any visible horse-car tracks for that matter.  Sleighs gradually claimed the streets, no longer needing to be mindful of the usual risk of overturning in the horse-car tracks.

City officials fretted that an electrical surge would take out the city’s fire alarm system.  At 5:30 that afternoon, officials shut down the city’s electric light system, after sending a notice to shopkeepers advising them to convert to their gas lights.  Most closed at dusk instead, sending their employees out into the evolving chaos that had been the city’s transportation system.  City officials tried to light their way using the old gas light lanterns that still hung along most streets.  They soon abandoned the effort, however, when they learned that the glass was missing from most of the lantern panes.

The increasing weight of the wet snow proved too much for telegraph wires too.  Communication with Boston was lost by 3 PM on March 12; New York fell silent several hours earlier.  New England Telephone Company suffered extensive damage to its telephone lines as well.

The sun finally reappeared by the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, but failed to melt much as temperatures failed to hit even 30ºF.  Throughout the day and evening, teams of men picked away at the deep drifts covering the horse-car tracks with their picks and shovels.  Horse car service began to be reinstated on the following morning.  By dusk on March 14, nearly all horse-car service was available.

Train service, too, began to return to a state of normalcy.  Trains that had spent the storm trapped within deep drifts began arriving during Tuesday, March 13.  A train that had left Fall River, Massachusetts at 5:45 AM on that day arrived in Lowell almost 12 hours later, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  By Wednesday, March 14, train service too had returned to normal schedules, even though even a passing snow squall had dropped even more snow on the area.

Western Union and New England Telephone remained hard at work in the days following the storm.  Although Western Union began work on felled telegraph poles after the storm ended on March 13, it was several days before service was restored.  New England Telephone had restored most of its service by Thursday, March 15.  Electric light service was restored to Lowell by dusk the night before.

As repairs were completed in the days following the storm, the Blizzard of 1888 faded from local newspaper headlines.  And as communication was restored with Boston, New York and beyond, news of the extent of the damage in New York City became known, where deaths and much more serious damage had been recorded.  Lowell, Massachusetts, recorded several injuries related to the Great White Hurricane of 1888, but escaped the greatest brunt of the storm.  The Blizzard of  1888 remained the benchmark for all other snowstorms, however, for nearly a century until the Blizzard of 1978 swept across New England and became the storm of record.


If you were to walk . . . Boston’s North Union Station, 1895

A view of Boston's North Union Station on Causeway Street, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Any discussion on “Lost Boston” has to include Boston’s North Union Station, which once stood on Causeway Street, on the current site of the TD Garden (better known locally as “the Boston Garden” and by some as the “Fleet Center”).  North Union Station, which consolidated the operations of four different railroads into one building, was completed in 1893  and demolished in 1928.  Traffic through Boston’s North Union Station came mostly from Boston’s north and northeastern suburbs, although some traffic also originated from central and western Massachusetts, and even further afield from places like Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada.  Soon after it opened, the Boston Sunday Globe stated that a number of people equal to the then-population of the United States (62.6 million) passed through its entrance once in every two years.

Boston, Massachusetts. Boston and Lowell Railr...

Lowell Station, Image by Boston Public Library via Flickr

North Union Station, actually three adjoined buildings, was completed in 1893 and included the former Boston & Lowell Station, which dated from 1873 and was known as just ‘Lowell Station’ to the locals.  Lowell Station, the left-most building in the photograph above (almost lost in the haze), had over 200 feet of frontage on Causeway Street and was 700 feet long.  Built by General Stark, it replaced an even earlier station, the first on the location, which dated from 1857.  The Lowell Station housed the head offices of the railroad and boasted some of the largest and most accommodating waiting rooms in the country.  Opened in December 1873, the Lowell Station quickly became known, simultaneously, as one of the finest stations in the country, and  as “Stark’s Folly”; many Bostonians thought it too grand and expensive for Boston’s needs.  Even after its absorption into the larger North Union Station, Lowell Station remained somewhat distinct, retaining its own waiting rooms and toilets.  The station also housed the inward baggage room.

On the other end of North Union Station was the “office tower” (the right-most and closest building in the photograph above).  The top two stories of the structure served mostly as offices.  Its ground floor contained the outward baggage room and space that had been leased to the express companies.  The Causeway Street frontage of the building included a 45-foot tower; the reminder of the building measured over 300 feet in length.

North Union Station, Boston, Mass.

Boston's North Union Station - Main Entrance, via Boston Architectural Club Catalog, via Wikimedia Commons

Connecting them was a central building sporting a rather elaborate set of stone columns, which had been designed by the architecture firm Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, the same firm that designed Boston’s first skyscraper, the Ames Building, which also dated to 1893.  In other photographs, the name “Union Station” appears, prominently carved above its entrance.  Connecting these three main buildings were two corridor structures, known as ‘midways’.  The view from the interior of one of the midways appears below:

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

Courtesy of: One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord ... By John Francis Murphy

Via "One hundred and fifty glimpses of Boston, Cambridge, Lexington, Concord" by J. F. Murphy, 1904

The Causeway Street facade of the entirety of North Union Station spanned 586 feet and boasted as its main entrance an archway of cut granite some 80 feet wide and 70 feet high.  Upon entering North Union Station through the arch, one would find the main waiting area, some 98 feet square, and filled with benches (or settees, as they were called) that could accommodate several hundred people.  The men’s and women’s lavatories were provided on each end of the waiting area.  Each boasted Italian marble, the latest innovations in plumbing, and were quite spacious – they could accommodate nearly 100 people.  To the right of the waiting room was the parcel room, where up to 1000 pieces of luggage could be checked at once.  To the left stood the ticket office, an elaborate system of sorting, processing and selling railroad tickets for the B&M railroad as well as other railroad companies.  The ticketing system was so large and complex that it took 18 men to run it in 1894.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station, Boston, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

The scene outside Boston’s North Union Station wasn’t entirely unlike today’s.  Foot traffic and vehicle traffic clogged Causeway Street and pedestrians needed to take care crossing the street to catch their train or meet their friends arriving from points north and west of the city.  The scene above, from the Detroit Publishing Company’s photograph collection, dates from 1895. To arrive to, or depart from, North Union Station most relied on public transportation, i.e., electric cars, if they lived beyond a comfortable walking distance.  The station’s hack stand was designed so that its waiting area was under the station’s roof, to protect waiting travelers from the elements, a luxury that was much appreciated by Boston’s masses.

Of course, if you were “of means”, you might arrive in your own personal horse-drawn buggy, such as this gentleman appears to be doing:

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

North Union Station - Gentleman arriving, 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Like today, people rushed to and from Boston’s North Union Station.  The station’s train shed was said to be the largest in the world, covering nearly 6 acres and boasting over 20 tracks.

Union Station, Boston - 1895, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Below, passengers disembark from an electric car outside Boston’s North Union Station.  The station had an extensive newsstand just inside the main entrance to the left, as well as its own barber shop and restaurant.

By Detroit Publishing Co. (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994007151/PP/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals, via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

Boston's Union Station - Arrivals , via Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the end, Boston’s North Union Station stood only for a few decades before it was demolished and replaced with the Boston Garden (and a new North Station) in 1928.  The Boston Garden, itself demolished in 1997, and replaced by the TD Garden, saw many celebrities perform under its roof, including The Beatles (1964), James Brown (1968), the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead (multiple times).  The Garden also saw many championship seasons from the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins.  Today, the TD Garden stands at the site, with yet another North Station underneath.   Even in its day, the North Union Station had its detractors, who claimed the building’s beauty was too extravagant and came at too great a price.  Others claimed its incorporation of three very different buildings was incongruous, and well, just plain ugly.  Seen today, more than 80 years after its demolition, North Union Station is seen in a much kinder light.  It becomes a part of the lore of “Lost Boston” and elicits a certain sense of nostalgia for a part of Boston that no longer exists.


The Ebbing Excitement Surrounding the Opening of Boston’s Tremont Street Subway, 1897

Have you visited Boston?  Do you have ancestors who lived or visited here?  Since you’re reading a blog called Forgotten New England, chances are good that you, or someone on a branch of your family tree, has ridden Boston’s subway.  Boston’s subway, or ‘the T’ as its locally known, makes a very walkable city even more accessible.  The T is also the first, and oldest, subway system in the United States.

Much fanfare heralded the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, now part of the T’s Green Line route, during the months leading up to its opening on September 1, 1897.  Prior to its opening, Tremont Street had been so thick with horsecars and foot traffic that residents of the city quipped that you could make better time walking across the tops of the electric cars and carriages than by trying your luck battling elbows, feet and horse traffic at street level.  Residents of Boston were justifiably excited by the prospect of pushing all of that mess underground.

A scene showing the construction of the Tremont Street Subway, in 1896 (via Wikimedia Commons)

From the Boston Daily Globe, Front Page, September 3, 1897

Soon after the Tremont Street Subway opened, the novelty of this change to the daily commute quick wore off.

And that excitement appears to have lasted . . . one day.  Like anything, the novelty soon wore off.  As early as September 3 – two days after the opening of the Tremont Street Subway, a Boston Daily Globe reporter wrote that the number of passengers had already dropped on the subway.  This development wasn’t entirely unwelcome.  The crowds of curious “pleasure riders” hitching rides on the new subway cars had already begun to chafe at the evening rush-hour commuters just wanting to get home.

By the afternoon rush of the second full day of subway operations, the Boston Globe writer reported that subway cars coming through the Park Street station actually had room for people wishing to get on, and get off.

Perhaps hastening this “cooling off” in pleasure riding interest in Boston’s subway system were the cooling temperatures outside.  As early September greeted Boston in 1897, temperatures dipped both outside, and in Boston’s subway system, which he described as ‘chilly’.

Oddly, another reason might have been the system’s exit turnstiles, which were called out as one of the system’s greatest inconveniences.  Although they stood some seven or eight feet in height, no one could figure out their purpose.  Fares were paid to conductors aboard the subway cars or through tickets that had already been purchased.  The only purpose that the turnstiles seemed to serve, riders guessed, was to slow people’s exit from the subway, and to make the platforms even more crowded.  With their considerable height, they obstructed the view past the exit and apparently resulted in some passengers being struck in the face by the revolving bars as they struggled to escape.  In addition, at the Boylston Street station, the turnstiles at the Tremont Street side reached almost to the edge of the platform, leaving little room for passengers to negotiate their exit, as others were jockeying for prime positions for boarding the next incoming subway car.

By Boston Daily Globe (Sign at Park Street station) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A copy of a newspaper page from the day of the Tremont Street Subway's opening, (via Wikimedia Commons)

One other confusion persisted into the first week of subway operations.  No one seemed to understand where the subway cars stopped on each platform.  Riders waiting at the Park Street station lined the entire platform, not understanding that the incoming subway cars pulled as far ahead as possible.  As the slowing cars pulled ahead of the waiting passengers, they then scurried down the platform to board their cars, not ‘paying much attention to any who happened to be standing in their way.’

Maybe the subway experience of 1897 isn’t so much different from that of a modern-day commute.  Boston’s Green Line route, even today, still retains a lot of its Victorian-era charm – some intentionally, through the placement of posters showing scenes of the Victorian-era city, and some not so intentionally, like the stop-and-go lurching of an electric car trolley that likely feels quite similar to what our ancestors experienced for the first time, more than a century ago, under the streets of Boston.

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Worries of the Past: Smallpox and Boston’s Epidemic of 1872

A smallpox inoculation sign from 1801, via Wikipedia Commons

First, flu-like symptoms emerge -fever, aches, pains, nausea.  Exhaustion soon follows.  It’s not until a few days later when the telltale, flat, red spots appear about the face, hands, and arms.  The spots evolve into pus-filled blisters that scab first and then fall off, to reveal deep, pitted scars.  Smallpox was one of history’s most dreaded diseases, not only for its tendency to produce significant and deep scarring to victims’ faces, but also for its ability to cause blindness, or even worse, death.

Smallpox deaths in Boston, 1811-1873

Fear of smallpox never lurked far from the worries of 19th-century Bostonians.  Older folks still spoke of an epidemic that had struck Boston during 1721 and 1722 and killed 844, which was then more than 7% of the population.  The chart at right, from a February 1881 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal shows the level of smallpox contagion in Boston during most of the 19th century.  During the century’s first decades, after the first smallpox vaccinations were introduced in 1800, smallpox all but disappeared from Boston.  From 1839 forward, the presence of smallpox remained more or less constant in the city.  The epidemic that everyone talked about, though, dwarfed all the others and even rivaled the earlier outbreak of 1721.  The smallpox epidemic of 1872 claimed over 1,000 lives before it finally abated in the first weeks of 1874.

During the 1872 epidemic, smallpox victims, or even those suspected of having smallpox, were brought, sometimes against their will, to Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor.  During the epidemic, those who could not get to the island or afford care there, were re-directed to the city’s smallpox hospital on Albany Street.  The hospital, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of smallpox infections, quickly found its 30-patient capacity stretched to 48.  Charges soon emerged that those admitted to the Boston Smallpox Hospital on Albany Street did not receive proper care or food and that they were forced to endure substandard conditions.  The testimony provided by patients and medical staff has been preserved and provides some interesting insights into the experiences of 19th-century hospital patients.

The main complaint emerging from the hearings seems to have been the casualness around the enforcement of the smallpox quarantine.  Several hospital patients claimed seeing the hospital’s gates open at different times of the day.  Others reported seeing smallpox patients come in very close contact with women who came into the hospital yard to collect rags or boys who had come to collect nails.  Several saw sailors near the hospital’s gates.  Nearly all could not recall ever seeing the red flag (indicating smallpox contagion) hung at the gates to warn passersby and visitors of the smallpox infection inside.

Late 19th century sanitary water closet

Another complaint involved the hospital’s water closet, or bathroom/restroom as we call it today.  Nearly all patients complained that the water closets were filthy and that most did not work.  Administrators did acknowledge that toilets did not always work and explained the difficulty in finding plumbers who were willing to enter the hospital, make the repairs, and risk infection.  Nevertheless, the stench from some water closets was so oppressive that several patients took it upon themselves to clean the water closets.

Lastly, many patients complained of the food, claiming that there wasn’t enough, or that it was of poor quality.  Several claimed that eggs or meat that had been served them had gone bad, and in the case of meat, contained maggots.

In the end, the Smallpox Hospital was closed in September 1872, and patients were once again cared for either in the facilities on Gallop’s Island or in their own homes.  Claims charging inadequate food or insufficient care were never substantiated.  However, the claims that the hospital was overcrowded and lacked enough help were found to be true.  The committee investigating the claims did decide that more nurses were needed, but also considered that patients, when sufficiently healthy, were expected to patch in too.  Regarding the broken toilets, the committee did find that it was indeed broken, but sympathized with the hospital, which claimed, probably quite truthfully, that no one would enter the hospital to fix them because they were afraid of being infected with smallpox themselves.

No effective treatment was ever discovered for smallpox, a disease that killed up to 30% of those who were infected, and pockmarked up to 80% of its survivors – most often on the face.  In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a successful global eradication program, which led to the world’s last case of naturally-occurring smallpox, in 1977.