Tag Archives: Lawrence

The Day a Cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts – 1890

On a summer morning in July 1890, the cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts suddenly and without warning.  What we would today call a tornado or microburst began as soft showers advancing across the city as people made their way to work on Saturday, July 26, 1890.  As nine o’clock approached, the clouds thickened and darkened the sky.  The rain intensified.  Fifteen minutes later, a funnel cloud appeared in the skies above Lawrence.  The wind picked up.  Then, the noise started.  Later, survivors learned that those sounds were nearby houses being torn apart.

Most Lawrence residents confused the commotion for noise coming from the city’s textile mills or from the city’s busy streets.  Chaos emerged as they realized a cyclone was crashing down onto South Lawrence, sending trees, houses, and other debris flying  through the air and across the city.  In just three minutes, twenty-five houses were completely destroyed.  Another 25 received serious damage.  Dozens of people were wounded, and eight people lost their lives.

St. Patrick's Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe - July 27, 1890)

St. Patrick’s Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe – July 27, 1890)

The cyclone struck Lawrence just west of Broadway, a main route connecting the city with Andover.  The houses on the west side of Broadway escaped with minor damage and downed tree limbs.  St. Patrick’s Church, the Catholic Church at the corner of Salem Street on Broadway’s east side, wasn’t so lucky.  It suffered broken windows and a lost roof on one of its transepts.

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy:  Illustrated American, 1890)

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy: Illustrated American, 1890)

Far worse, though, was the damage to the neighborhoods off Broadway.  Among the first casualties of the 1890 Lawrence cyclone was the saddest.  Mary Lyons, 24, was outside as the cyclone approached her Emmet Street home.  Fearing for her child, she ran inside her home just moments before the winds dashed her house from its foundation and broke it apart.  Her husband, James, was just a few feet further away, in a neighboring field, and just steps behind his wife.  The winds proved too much for him and he was blown aside, never reaching the house.  Outside, pinned to the ground just feet from his home, he was forced to watch it break apart with his family inside.  When the winds died down minutes later, he regained his footing, ran for his home and, with other rescuers, found the body of his wife, with a beam that had fallen across her forehead.  As they pulled her from the wreckage of the house, they found the Lyons’ young daughter underneath her, very alive and clasping her mother’s body while crying “mamma, mamma”.

The cyclone next crossed Salem Street’s overhead railroad bridge where Michael Higgins, who was working the bridge’s switch house, was blown more than 150 feet away.  His body was later found with a broken neck.   He was 23.  The winds next hit the house of Deacon William Cutler, who lived on the corner of Salem and Blanchard Streets.  The four people in the house at the time survived with just minor injuries.  One daughter narrowly escaped death by hiding under the family’s piano.  Another of Deacon Cutler’s daughters, Helen, just 11 years old, wasn’t so fortunate when she was carried down an embankment by the cyclone and struck by debris.  She died a few hours later.

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone.  (Courtesy:  The Illustrated American, 1890)

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone. (Courtesy: The Illustrated American, 1890)

Soon after the cyclone bore down on the Cutlers’ home, the wind shifted, sending the cyclone spiraling toward Springfield Street, where the heaviest devastation was recorded.  The houses there were either torn down entirely, blown over on their sides, or had entire walls torn out.  There, Elizabeth O’Connell, 32, died when she was crushed to death by the debris of her collapsing house.  Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, affectionately known as Mamie, died with her.  After Springfield Street, the cyclone flattened a grove of trees on Union street, before demolishing another six houses on Portland Street.  On Portland Street, among the debris, Elizabeth Collins and her six-year-old daughter, Annie, were found inside their house.  Hannah Beatty, 10 years old, was also found nearby.  All died of suffocation after being trapped under debris.

Some stories of miracle cases were told where death had been averted.  A bundle of rags blowing down Springfield Street in the aftermath of the cyclone turned out to be the baby daughter of Mrs. Elizabeth O’Connell, covered in dust and plaster, but otherwise unharmed.  Another Springfield Street resident, Mrs. Lizzie Holdeworth, was sitting in her house as the winds bore down upon South Lawrence.  She heard a crash, but lost consciousness before she could react.  When she came to, she was trapped under a pile of beams, unable to move, or to even make a noise.  A rescuing party, arriving hours later, chopped her free.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Lawrence set upon the ruined district around Springfield Street and started clearing the debris, and planning funerals for the dead.  Half of the cyclone’s victims were parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church.  Owing to the fact that cyclones are somewhat rare in the New England region, thousands of sightseers were reported to have descended upon South Lawrence in the days following the cyclone to view the damage.  Many remarked that the loss of life was very low for such a damaging storm.  This, of course, was no solace to the family and friends of the eight victims who lost their lives during the Lawrence Cyclone of 1890.


Unexpected Family Tree Finds – Western Electric’s Merrimack Valley Works

Sometimes, you need to work really hard to land the latest find in your family tree discoveries.  Sometimes, family history finds just fall in your lap.  Before going to work yesterday morning, I stopped at the barber shop, and checked Facebook while waiting for my turn in the chair.  And I found – quite a find.

A while back, I wrote a post about the Lawrence History Center, a small-city archive dedicated to preserving and sharing the  history of the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  For a few weeks now, I’ve been following their Facebook feed, which today delivered the find that made my genealogical day – a link to a video from 1959, showing Western Electric‘s manufacturing plant in North Andover, Massachusetts.

Western Electric eventually became AT&T, which spun off into Lucent Technologies, which today is Alcatel-Lucent.  Growing up in northeastern MassachusettsMerrimack Valley, Western Electric always played a large part in my life.  Most kids in my class had parents or relatives who worked at the Merrimack Valley Works plant, as it was called.  At its peak, 12,000 people worked there – including my parents.

My dad started there in 1960, my mom a year later.  A year after that, they met.  Many years after that, I visited the plant – during annual open houses.  But, I’ve always been curious what working there was like, especially in those first years, which today seem so long ago.  Sure, there’s the show Mad Men, which provides some great fictional insight into the life of ad men on New York’s Madison Avenue in the 1960’s.  But, I’ve been fairly certain that life at a Western Electric plant that was manufacturing equipment for the Bell System was quite different.  And after watching the video, I think I was right.

The video, from the AT&T Archives, lasts about thirteen minutes and shows views of North Andover, Massachusetts where the plant was located, as well as nearby Lawrence, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts.  The idea behind the 1959 video was to emphasize the relationship between the plant, the larger community, and its employees.  Even if you don’t have a family connection to the plant, the video shows some interesting views into the Merrimack Valley of 1959 as well as what a mid-century working environment at one of the region’s key employers was like.


Most Likely to . . . Visit a Local History Center? High School Yearbooks and their Value to Genealogists

In these days of point-and-click genealogy (think sites like Ancestry.com or familysearch.org), local and regional history centers of the brick-and-mortar variety are sometimes unjustly overlooked.  Some, like the New England  Historic Genealogical Society, have online resources and an impressive web presence themselves.  Others, especially those dedicated to smaller cities or even towns, have wonderful resources that are woefully under-appreciated or even unknown to the genealogical community.

Like other genealogists, I’ve been excited to follow one of Ancestry’s most recent projects – the ongoing digitization of US school yearbooks.  Given the vast number of schools issuing yearbooks in the United States, this is a pretty tall order and this project is still in its infancy.  Lawrence, Massachusetts, for example, has no high school yearbooks loaded into Ancestry’s database.  Ancestry does have two high school yearbooks for Lowell, Massachusetts, for the years 1950 and 1951.

Yearbooks are typically overlooked in genealogy as they fall outside of a “research comfort zone” that includes federal census records, city directories, and military/immigration records, to name a few.  All of these are wonderful, reliable resources.  Yearbooks are . . . a little hit or miss.  In large cities, or with families that moved around a lot, some extra legwork (city directories are good here) might be needed to determine which high school your ancestor graduated from.  Figuring out the year of graduation can be tricky too – there’s more variation in age at high school graduation as you progress further back into the twentieth century and into the nineteenth.  And then, there are a whole score of reasons why your ancestors may not have graduated from high school at all – or may have graduated from the high school’s evening session, which may or may not be included in the yearbooks.

I’ve been lucky in that my families have pretty much stayed put and predictable.  This past weekend, I travelled to Lawrence, Massachusetts to the Lawrence History Center and looked through their Lawrence High School history collection.  The Lawrence History Center operates today on the grounds and in the buildings formerly held by the Essex Company, which planned and built the city in the mid-19th century.  They specialize in all things Lawrence:  records of the Essex Company, photographs and oral histories of Lawrence, and records that have been donated to the center over the years.  Their staff, which graciously accommodated my request for a Saturday morning appointment, were very helpful and knowledgeable about their collection.  When I told them that I was hoping to view high school records from 1915-1930, I quickly found myself surrounded by boxes of well-organized and well-kept records.

The most compelling and complete component of this collection is undoubtedly the Lawrence High School Bulletins, which are essentially newsletters that had been written by the students.  These are kept in chronological order – starting from the 1890’s and ending sometime in the 1970’s.  I poured through the period I was researching – the 1915-1930 years that my grandfather and his siblings would have attended the high school.  The bulletins are fairly concise – 10 or 15 pages each – about half of which contain advertisements from local business that seem to be a blend of the yearbook and city directory styles.  These are interesting from an artistic perspective and to give some insight into some of the businesses that were in existence when my grandfather was attending high school.

A High School Yearbook Photograph of Edward T Owen, from 1925. Personal Collection of Author.

The real value in the bulletins is the photographs of the students, some candid, most posed, as well as fiction and non-fiction pieces and reflections on high school.  Some bulletins even had alumni notes updating readers on members of earlier graduating classes.  After an hour or so, I found what I had been seeking – a photograph of my grandfather.

My grandfather died a few weeks after I was born.  Although I never knew him, I had heard the stories of how he had played baseball for the Lawrence Independents, a semipro baseball team that counted former Olympian Jim Thorpe among its members.  Legend has it that my grandfather played alongside Thorpe during the 1924 season.  Family stories also recount how my grandfather had tried out for the Braves baseball organization, when it was still located in Boston.  Lawrence has had many sports teams through the years, and I wasn’t able to find anything directly related to the Lawrence Independents, but I did find a team photograph among the pages of a 1916 Lawrence High School bulletin showing my grandfather – then a high school freshman with his baseball team.

A family story exists that recounts how my grandfather once played baseball alongside Jim Thorpe. Image via Wikipedia.

For me, this was the genealogical holy grail I had been hoping to find.  Staff at the Lawrence History Center were glad to hear of my discovery and provided me with a couple of additional boxes of high school history to sort through.  In those, I found a 1920 yearbook – one year after my grandfather had graduated.  Initially, I was counting my bad luck that it couldn’t have been just one year earlier.  But, I looked through it and found a class history written by a member of the graduating class.

An earlier post on this blog spoke about the impact of Spanish Influenza on Lawrence during what was my grandfather’s senior year in high school.  The writer of the class history, a high school junior during the outbreak, recounted how her junior year felt like it had started twice – once on schedule in September and again after the outbreak – and a five-week suspension of classes.  It was during that five-week suspension that my grandfather must have seen the wagons descending his street for the bodies of flu victims, another memory of his that has lived on in our family stories.

John R. Rollins School Lawrence, Massachusetts

J.R. Rollins School, Lawrence, Massachusetts - Image via Wikipedia

Just when I thought I would call it a day, I mentioned to the staff of the Lawrence History Center that my grandfather came from the Prospect Hill section of Lawrence and that he had attended the Rollins School there.  They informed me that the Rollins School had issued a centennial yearbook as part of its one-hundredth anniversary celebration in 1992.  And that book contained class photographs of most of the eighth-grade graduating classes since the school’s inception.  It turned out that the eighth grade class photographs of my grandfather (from 1915), and his siblings (1919, 1921, and 1923) were all included.  His older brother, graduating in 1913, was not pictured, but a program from his graduation ceremony was included in its place.

My first visit to the Lawrence History Center won’t be my last.  The staff was wonderfully informative and welcoming.  I even got a tour of the Center’s main building, including the Essex Company’s vault and boardroom, dating from 1883.  My “finds”, greatly facilitated by their staff, contributed significantly to my own family history holdings.  After all, who wouldn’t want to see a never-before-seen photograph of a grandparent, at 15 years old?  One last note – the center also offers off-street parking on their grounds, which is no small mercy if you’re concerned about finding parking on Lawrence’s busy downtown streets.