Tag Archives: Huntington Hall

The Grand Fires of 1904: Huntington Hall; Lowell, Massachusetts

A sign posted at the site of Huntington Hall provides a history of the building.

Huntington Hall/Merrimack Street Depot

By 1904, the building that housed both Huntington Hall and the Merrimack Street Depot had served as the city’s main public gathering place for generations.  The City of Lowell and the Boston & Lowell Railroad entered into a joint agreement to build the hall in 1853, providing the railroad with the Merrimack Street Depot and the city with a public hall.  Named for the early longtime Lowell mayor, Elisha Huntington, the building housed the hall in its upper stories, and the train depot on its bottom story.

The hall was very prominent during the city’s Civil War years.  In 1861, the Union’s Sixth Massachusetts Regiment left from the hall on its way to Washington, D.C., before meeting a tragic fate in Baltimore that left four of its soldiers dead, including Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney, now buried at Monument Square under the obelisk that bears their names.   During the 1880’s, the hall housed memorial services for President Garfield and Generals Grant and McClellan.  And a few years later, General Benjamin Butler made his final speech in the Hall shortly before he was laid in state there in 1893.

1896 map showing the location and surroundings of Huntington Hall

A portion of the 1896 atlas. Huntington Hall appears at the bottom-right, at the corner of Merrimack and Dutton

The hall wasn’t without its problems.  As early as 1856, three years after it was built, a crowd gathering to hear US Senator Rufus Choate speak grew so large that city councilman J. Frank Page later remarked that the hall’s floor, at its center, sunk by “about an inch, but it seemed to us as if it were ten feet”.  Although his father, Jonathan Page later added two iron trusses to add support, the floor still sagged regularly under the weight of large crowds.  In 1892, the safety of the hall was questioned again when a bazaar to benefit St. John’s Hospital drew such a crowd that the floor sagged under its weight.  Just a few years later, in 1897, a fire damaged the hall so badly that the rebuilding effort took almost two years before the hall reopened on May 2, 1900.

The Second (and Last) Huntington Hall Fire – November 1904

Policeman Noye was patrolling downtown Lowell early on the morning of November 6, 1904.  He reached the corner of Palmer and Middle Streets.  He looked in the direction of Huntington Hall and noticed a strange glow emanating from the hall’s Market Street windows.  He was slowly approaching the hall when an explosion rocked the ground underneath him.  He watched as a tower of flame blasted through the hall’s roof.

He turned back, ran to the Central Fire Station, and pulled the fire alarm box.  The fire department responded quickly.  Members of Engine Company Number 6 arrived on Dutton Street within minutes of the explosion and prepared to fight the fire.  They had not had time to erect their ladders against the Dutton Street wall when a second explosion rocked the building.  Had they arrived minutes earlier, the falling bricks and debris would surely have caused severe injuries and maybe death.

The explosion moved the Dutton Street wall of Huntington Hall by one foot.  The Market Street wall, one foot thick and said to be “one of the surest in the city” – blew apart in the blast.  Falling bricks split a freight car into two and destroyed a hydrant on Dutton Street.  As the firemen prepared again to fight the fire without the hydrant, they soon discovered that the water was also drawn off in the canal – furthering complicating their efforts.  Assistant Chief Norton took in the situation and ordered a general alarm, bringing in fire apparatus from all areas of the city.  It wasn’t long before the firemen realized that the Hall was a total loss.  The water was having no effect on the flames.

From the Lowell Sun - 7 November 1904, pg.1

Firemen fight the flames claiming Huntington Hall - November 1904

The firemen next turned their efforts to saving surrounding buildings.  And they succeeded.  Flames caused little damage to surrounding buildings – though the explosion and water did.  The one exception, the W.A Mack building on Shattuck Street was severely damaged when the second blast sent a pile of bricks onto and through the Mack building’s roof.

At the Merrimac House, a hotel which once stood on the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets opposite Huntington Hall and at the current site of the Hess Gas Station, guests inside awoke to the sound of ringing fire bells and shouts of ‘fire’ outside.  Those on the eastern side of the hotel, facing the hall, looked through their windows to see tendrils of flames shooting halfway across Dutton Street, threatening their hotel.  The bricks on the Dutton Street side of the hotel grew hot; window glass began to crack.  Guests panicked and began to cart out their hastily packed trunks.  One hotel tenant, an Ike Harris, was seen lowering his loaded trunk from a fourth-story window toward Merrimack Street below.  He, along with the other guests, were relieved to see the fire department’s water tower arrive moments later.  Those knowledgeable of fire department equipment knew the hotel was safe.  The others soon learned the same from the bell hops and night clerks.

The Merrimac House, Lowell's premier hotel, which once stood at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets, opposite Huntington Hall

The fire heaved its last breaths from the Hall’s Shattuck Street tower, which lay beyond the streams of water thrown up by the firemen’s efforts.  Out came the department’s Babcock ladder.  Volunteers would be needed to ascend to the tower and cut out an outlet for the flames.  Bill Foss and Robert Carleton, firemen long known for past heroic efforts, quickly climbed the ladder with axes, as high as the ladder would take them, and then “monkey-like shinnied up to the roof” to make holes so that the hosemen could reach the flames.

By 6 o’clock that morning, the hall was totally destroyed.  All of its interior floors had collapsed onto the ground floor and were spilling out from the Merrimack Street Depot’s street-level entrances.  At noon, the “all out” signal sounded.  The fire was out.

A scene from the 7 November 1904 edition of the Lowell Sun

The fire, occurring so early in the morning, did not attract the usual crowd.  But the aftermath did.  Thousands were said to have descended upon Merrimack and Dutton streets to view the damage.  On the morning after the fire, the Lowell Sun estimated that some 40,000 people had come to view the ruins, many from out-of-town.  The walls that remained standing were so dangerous that Mayor Howe later ordered ropes erected to keep the crowds away.  The police guarded the ruins from would-be souvenir seekers.  Photographers crept as closely as they could to snap photos.  The cause of the fire was never determined, but some postulated that the source may have been a discarded cigar stub in a dressing room near the stage or by the scenery.  Janitor Omer Smith, known as a loyal, hard-working city employee, had worked at the hall for years and believed the fire’s cause to be the electrical wiring.  As he walked through the stage and the ante-rooms before leaving the night before, he had not seen any smoking cigars, or any signs of fire.

After this second fire in seven years, the hall was never rebuilt.  Its telltale arches were reconstructed and still stand today on Lowell’s Dutton Street.  The Huntington Hall fire was the third large fire to hit Lowell, Massachusetts in 1904, and was the last major fire during a year that had opened to see fires that claimed the O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store and St. Patrick’s Church.

Today, all that remains of Huntington Hall are the rebuilt arches of its lowest floor.


The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts and Fire’s Constant Threat

Image of 1904 Fireman

1904 Fireman - Lowell, Massachusetts. From: Lowell Sun. 14 Jan 1904; 7.

Fire was a danger never far from the minds of our ancestors at the turn of the last century.  In 1904, Lowell, Massachusetts, then a manufacturing city of 95,000 residents and the 39th largest city in the United States¹, suffered a record-setting year in terms of fires, alarms, and losses suffered.  Before the year would end, just over 700 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department; five of those alarms included a fatality.  The year’s largest fires claimed Lowell’s iconic Huntington Hall and one of its largest department stores – O’Donnell & Gilbride’s.  The Old City Hall – dating from 1830, St. Patrick’s Church- the city’s first Catholic church, and even the Central Fire Station were nearly lost as well.  Through this post, and a series of posts to come, I will cover each of the grand fires of 1904 in detail.

All five of the city’s fire-related deaths during 1904 were women and girls who had passed too closely to open flames in an age when hemlines swept floors.  Mrs. Celia Green died in February after stepping on a match.  Two others, Mrs. Rose Churchill and Miss Alice Sullivan, just four-years-old, died after passing too closely to burning leaves.  Another woman, Mrs. Marion Ainsworth, died on September 23 after suffering from burns caused from her oil stove the day before.  The last, Mrs. Ellen Leary, 75, died on Christmas Eve after her clothes caught fire from a falling oil lamp.

What’s surprising is that there were not more far more deaths in Lowell.  707 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department in 1904, and those were fairly well-distributed throughout the year, averaging about 60 alarms each month.  What caused these fires?  Chimneys were the most common cause in 1904, constituting about 17% of the alarms for that year.  Grass fires were a distant second at 7%.  Improper use of matches resulted in a good number of calls to the fire station during that year, as well, and resulted in about 5% of the year’s alarms.  However, the causes of the alarms truly were varied – ranging from sparks setting a roof on fire to failed attempts to thaw frozen pipes.  A wooden spittoon was blamed for one fire and rats’ nests in wall partitions were blamed for five others.

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

St. Patrick's Church - Lowell, Massachusetts; Image via Wikipedia

1904 began with three disastrous fires before January was even half over.  The first, on January 9, sparked in the Odd Fellow’s Building on Merrimack Street, and threatened to spread across a narrow alley and burn down Lowell’s Old City Hall Building, even then a valued part of Lowell’s early history.  The Fire Department responded quickly and effectively and protected the Old City Hall Building, which still stands today on Lowell’s Merrimack Street.  The damage from that fire was contained to the top two stories of the Odd Fellow’s Block.  Just two days later, on January 11, an overheated smoke pipe in the boiler room of St. Patrick’s Church (the city’s first Catholic church, dating from 1853²) started a fire that quickly spread throughout the landmark church, and grew so large that it threatened the nearby St. Patrick’s Home, a five-story women’s boarding house and Notre Dame Academy, a day and boarding school for the daughters of the city’s mill workers, housed in another five-story brick building.  In the end, the boarding house and the Academy were saved, but the fire caused losses of $160,765³ and major damage to the church’s interior, which would not be completely rebuilt until two years later, in 1906.

Lowell's Central Fire Station - Taken by Author

The worst fire, however, occurred on January 12, the night after the St. Patrick’s Church fire.  That fire resulted in an even larger loss of $161,422 and shut down one of the city’s largest department stores, O’Donnell & Gilbride.  The fire started late in the evening at the Fellows Block near the intersection of downtown Lowell’s Middle and Palmer Streets and quickly spread to three other large brick buildings on Middle, Palmer, and even Merrimack Streets.  Before it was extinguished four hours later, the fire threatened the Central Fire Station itself and even the entire downtown area.  Together, the three fires (all occurring prior to the middle of January) resulted in more than 80% of the city’s annual fire-related losses (4).

Historical Marker on Downtown Lowell's Merrimack Street

Historical Marker telling the story of Huntington Hall/Merrimack St. Depot

Although not the largest fire of 1904, the Huntington Hall blaze of November 6, 1904 left the longest-lasting scars on the downtown Lowell landscape.  Rebuilt from a previous fire of just seven years earlier, Huntington Hall was jointly owned by the Boston & Maine Railroad and the City.  Since 1853, Huntington Hall had served downtown Lowell as its main train station and public hall at the intersection of Merrimack and Dutton Streets.  The Hall was not rebuilt after the 1904 fire, but the arches that stand today in its place on Merrimack Street replicate the Hall’s first floor entrance to the train station, which was also known as the Merrimack Street Depot.

Over a series of posts during the next few weeks, I will be covering each of these fires in detail.  Each has its story to tell and, in the case of the Huntington Hall and Fellows Block fires, has left a lasting scar on the downtown Lowell landscape we see today.  The firemen fighting these blazes fought bravely and amid significant peril to their own lives.  Fire was an ever-present danger to our ancestors who were alive in the first years of the 20th century.  Stories have survived to show that citizens banded together to help each other through this fear, to escape the fires as they raged, and to recover from the losses they suffered.

Footnotes:

1.  To put this in perspective, consider that today, Atlanta is the nation’s 40th largest city, with a population of 420,000.

2.  It should be noted that the original St. Patrick’s Church was built in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1831.  The stone structure that suffered the 1904 fire was constructed a generation later, in 1853.  It still stands today in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood.

3.  This is quoted in 1904 dollars.  For perspective, consider that the annual payroll for Lowell’s entire department of 176 firemen was $110,000 that year.

4.  This excludes the damages caused by the Huntington Hall Fire, which occurred in November and was still being valued at the end of 1904.  The total valuation of that fire’s losses approximated $70,000.