Tag Archives: Lowell Fire Department

From the Curator’s Desk: Odd Old Things – The Box of Cinders

At the Lowell Historical Society, we sometimes get the question:  “Hey, what’s the strangest thing you have in your collection?”

That’s a tough question to answer. The Lowell Historical Society has been around for a long time. I’m reminded of this each time I visit our archive. Just this morning, I found a book, one of those old official-looking volumes with the word ‘records’ embossed on its side, that contains minutes from a few decades of our board meetings, starting from 1943.  And then, just next to that, was a stack of correspondence with donors from 1973.  All of this is impeccably preserved.

But the Society’s collection is much older than that.  Its history dates back to its founding in 1868.

That’s a lot of time to collect odd things, that have since become old.

When I stumble upon these, I often think of the question: ‘If you didn’t know to ask for it, how would you ever find it? Or even know it exists?’

This is exactly the case with our Box of Cinders.

The Box of Ashes, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

The Box of Cinders, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

Yes, the cinders, or ashes, are in a heart-shaped box.  As we’re currently in mid-February, I suppose that’s sort of seasonally appropriate.  The note attached to the top of the box, which probably accompanied the donation some ninety-ish years ago, identifies the remains within the box not as . . . some long-lost loved one, but as what one Charles C. Swan, a retired shoe dealer, found on his lawn one Friday morning on June 4, 1926.  The note actually provides a lot of information, which is great.  What’s sadly lacking is some explanation as to why the ashes were put, and kept, in a heart-shaped box, for these last 88 years.  This informational  gap is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in our collection.  Some questions just don’t have a satisfying answer.

The Box of Ashes - Top, with Explanatory Note

The Box of Cinders – Top, with Explanatory Note, which reads:  “CINDERS – Found on lawn on 452 East Merrimack St. Friday morning June 4th 1926.  Came from Pollard Fire June 3rd 1926.  Charles C. Swan

Most folks, after finding something on their lawn one morning, probably wouldn’t think of donating it to their local historical society, but Charles C. Swan must have been a bit of a visionary.  And he was the treasurer of the Lowell Historical Society at the time.  So, he understood the significance of historical events when he saw them unfold.

pollard 1944Charles C. Swan probably saw the flames consuming Pollard’s Department Store the afternoon before, maybe from his home a mile away, at 452 East Merrimack Street.  Or maybe he was downtown as the chaos unfolded late that afternoon.  Maybe he saw the firemen arrive, first from the Lowell Fire Department, then from the surrounding towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.  Firemen from as far away as Lawrence came to join in the fight to save one of Lowell’s largest department stores.  No one died, but several firemen were overcome by the billowing smoke or cut by flying glass.  Four hours later, the fire was history.  But, so was Pollard’s Department Store, which traced its roots in Lowell to 1836.  Only its walls remained.  In the eyes of many, including Charles C. Swan, it truly was a Lowell institution, whose loss would be keenly felt.  Mr. Swan probably couldn’t imagine Lowell without it.

Charles C. Swan must have been overcome at that moment, the next morning, when he found a piece of that history on his lawn.  When he picked it up, and held it – maybe even as the smell of the smoke that had consumed Pollard’s still hung in the air.  So, he found a box in his home on East Merrimack, the heart-shaped box, and saved that little bit of history for posterity by donating his find to the Lowell Historical Society.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph.  Photo by Author

Merrimack Street – Lowell – in Fall 2011. Pollard’s was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. Photo by Author

And it worked too.  Those ashes, which otherwise would have likely blown away in the next spring breeze, or melted into his lawn with the next spring rain, way back in June 1926, are still carefully held and preserved by the Society today.  They’ve survived Charles C. Swan, who died a few years later in 1929, and even the great Pollard’s Department Store, which subsequently rebuilt and reopened, but then closed its doors for good in 1969.

Sometimes the most fragile relics are those which survive the longest.


Hot Spells of Long Ago – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910

Like today, the summer months of a century ago were no stranger to hot spells in the Greater Lowell area either.  One particular hot spell, during the middle of July in 1910, was said to be ‘hotter than the hobs of Hades’, as it was reported by Oscar, a popular downtown Lowell personality who worked at Putnam’s restaurant in Merrimack (now Kearney) Square.  By the hot spell’s second day, on July 11, 1910,  Lowell residents rejoiced as they were cooled by a gracious, if not refreshing, northwest wind that brought the temperature down a few precious degrees.

Group of bathers at Hanlan’s Point. (Toronto, Canada), 1913 – City of Toronto Archives (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But, even though the northwest wind had brought the 100°F temperature down a meaningful 8°F, it was still an oppressive 92°F in the shade at Lowell’s Pawtucket Boulevard.  At the height of the spell on the day before, the temperature had reached a hot 96°F at the Concord drug store in Belvidere.  The city farm near the Chelmsford town line recorded a temperature of 98°F.  That heat, recorded on July 10, 1910, was said to be the hottest in 30 years.  And, the hottest temperatures ever recorded in Lowell up to that time, 102°F, were noted on that day at two spots, Gallagher’s Tobacco Store on Merrimack Street and the Merrimack Woolen Mills at the Navy Yard.

So, what did people do, in an age before air conditioning, to escape the heat?  Whatever they could.  The Lowell Fire Department helped in the effort to keep people cool, by wetting down the roads twice per day, flushing the unhealthy dust from the air.  The 7 o’clock wetting each evening was the most popular.  While wetting down the roads, the fire department was known to also wet down the roofs and sides of houses too.  As they dispersed through the city to spray down the streets, they were greeted in a variety of languages.  Children followed the watering cart, to keep their legs wet.  Wearing little more than a smile, they played in the muddy streams that had replaced the hot, dusty roads.  The bravest among them approached the firemen’s hoses even though the streams of water emerging from them were capable of knocking a small child a great distance.

Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910

By Tuesday of that week of the hot spell, the weather began to cool, to 88°F.  When the street-wetting visits by the firemen were still hours away, people waited (and prayed) for passing showers.  During the mid-July 1910 heat wave, Tyngsboro was the only Greater Lowell community visited by a shower.  Portsmouth, NH was also visited by a strong thunder shower.  Both had attracted so much attention that they were recorded in the Lowell Sun the next day.

Not everyone hated the heat waves.  Lowell’s soda fountains and ice cream shops did a brisk business with those seeking a brief respite from the heat.  And the street railway welcomed the extra fare-paying passengers who could not or would not walk.  All sought to escape the unhealthful city air during the hot spell.  Many who could escape fled to the beaches on the north or south shores.  Those who were too poor to afford travel swarmed the beaches of the city’s Merrimack and Concord Rivers.

Others sought out the amusement parks along the street railway – Canobie Lake, Lakeview and Willow Dale, all of which were heavily visited.  Salisbury beach, Hampton Beach, Lynn beach, Revere, Marblehead, Nahant, and Nantasket were all popular destinations too.    Lowell residents often found their neighbors and co-workers at the beach.

To escape the city and get to the beach was difficult.  Some relied on the electric cars to get to Salisbury Beach or Hampton Beach, but the ride was cumbersome, lengthy, and not well-loved.  On Sundays, no train ran from Lowell to Salisbury or Newburyport.  Instead, Lowellians needed to take a car that would get them to Lawrence in time for the 8:20 AM train that left there for Salisbury, a trip that cost 55 cents.  Even on an 8:20 AM train, you wouldn’t expect to arrive at Salisbury until 80 minutes later, at 9:40.

Meanwhile, those trapped in Lowell’s tenements would often find themselves on their doorsteps, unable to withstand the heat inside their buildings.  Others would crowd the city’s commons or Fort Hill park, jockeying for prime positions on the park’s limited benches.  And they had to contend with one of the era’s most annoying pests, the brown-tail moth.

The brown-tail moths congregated on the lightposts so closely that passersby sometimes mistook the black posts as white, the color indicating stopping points for the electric car lines. (Illustration Credit: Lowell Sun – July 11, 1910)

Brown-Tail Moths were associated with the hot spells of a century ago. The moths were an invasive species accidentally introduced from Europe  only a few years earlier.  By the time of the 1910 heat wave, the moths were a common pest who invaded at times of high heat.  Often seen on the Chelmsford Street electric cars, the pests would fly into the faces of the motormen and the passengers, causing the cars to run more slowly.  Contact with the brown-tail moth caused an irritation similar to poison ivy and could be particularly severe in some people.

Hot spells were dangerous.  In the two-and-a-half days from Saturday to noon on Monday, 30 deaths were recorded in the Lowell area due to heat.  A significant amount, 11, were infants and children under 5 years of age.  One day later, by noon on Tuesday, 11 more had died, for a total of 41 deaths due to the heat wave.  Four more of those deaths were children under 5.  The others were older patients who doctors said would have lived, if not for the extreme heat.

One of the groups most seriously at risk was the men who worked the streets, cleaning and maintaining them.  Most had grown accustomed to the weather over the course of their lives.  One key survival trick?  They would wear wet cabbage leaves under their hats so that “sun won’t affect the brain”.  They also drank oatmeal water to “keep their stomachs in order”.  Advice of the day warned against drinking ice water or swimming in very cold water when overheated.  The shock to the system was unhealthy.  Women in the mills, too, were frequently overcome at their work and had to be carried outside to the open air.  And, lastly, the children who carried lunch pails to their parents and relatives in the mills were frequently overcome by the unforgiving midday heat.

One hundred years ago, hot spells were a matter of life or death, literally.  Much advice was provided for avoiding the perils of ‘heat prostration‘, which is today better known as ‘heat exhaustion’.  In July 1901, The Western Druggist advised its readers to eat a light, nutritious diet.  That meant no sweets, no pastry, no fats, and no heavy dinners.  Instead, readers were to eat lean meats, fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish.  The Western Druggist admonished its readers to pace themselves and take a couple of hours off in the middle of the day for a siesta, like those in the ‘hot countries’.  Also, readers wishing to avoid heat prostration were told to avoid alcohol and other stimulants.  Most sunstroke, it was reported, was caused by those who had become drunk on beer, whiskey, or other alcoholic drinks.  And last, milk was to be sterilized and kept on ice before it was given to children.

The Western Druggist then went on to advise city-dwellers to spend time in the public parks.  The air, it was said, had been cleansed by the trees of ‘carbonic acid’ and purified with oxygen.  And, according to the common knowledge of the time, the air in a wooded area was actually colder, due to the average mean temperature of growing trees being just 54°F.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967

On a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in early May 1967, two men simultaneously spotted the billowing smoke escaping from the first-story windows of Sacred Heart School’s “new building” on its Moore Street campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.  John J. McWilliams, an off-duty police officer, ran and activated the fire alarm at a nearby fire-box.  John Sickles, a Tewksbury resident who happened to be driving past the scene, drove to the nearby Lawrence Street firehouse and notified the firefighters inside.

Marked with a black arrow above, Sacred Heart School's "new" building once fronted Lowell's Moore Street.

At 58 years old, the “new building” was the newer of Sacred Heart School’s two school buildings on the corner of Moore and Andrews Streets in the city’s South Lowell neighborhood.  Its cornerstone had been laid on October 9, 1909 by Lowell native and then-Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who later became a Cardinal.  By 1967, the school, which served the children of parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish located across Moore Street, had grown to include the “old” and “new” buildings that served some 600 students, from grades 1-8.  The building now burning housed the younger children, through Grade 4.  The older children attended classes in the “old building”, which standing just 25 feet away, was threatened by the raging fire too.

By the time the first firefighters arrived, a few moments after 2 PM, the fire had spread past the first-floor boys’ lavatory near where it had started, through an air shaft, across the school’s gleaming oil-treated floors, and up the stairwells into its third-floor auditorium.  The first alarm company to arrive on the scene, led by Deputy Chief Mulligan, quickly determined that the three-story brick building could not be saved.  They soon called for more alarm units.  Sacred Heart School’s new building was entirely engulfed in flames before the second alarm units even reached the fire.  Five more companies arrived to fight the blaze, and to protect the surrounding neighborhood, tightly packed in the city’s South Lowell section.  They also worried for the school’s remaining building, the old building, nearby, but still untouched by the flames.

The firefighters called in two more engines.  At 2:43 PM, help was called in from surrounding communities outside Lowell.  Firefighters from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Bedford, and Lawrence all answered the call.  Some assisted Lowell firefighters at the fire.  Others manned Lowell’s fire stations, while their firefighters fought the Sacred Heart School fire.  The inferno was declared a general alarm fire.  Veterans on the city’s fire department remarked it was the worst fire they had seen since the 1941 fire that had claimed the Bartlett School, more than 25 years earlier.

Firefighters directed the department’s pump-fed, high pressure lines at all four sides of the building.  They threw up a water curtain to protect the old building.  A few minutes after 3 PM, the fire began poking through the school’s roof.  Seven minutes later, firefighters were ordered out of the school when the top of its west-facing wall began to fail, spilling bricks, plaster, and other debris into Andrews Street.

Sacred Heart School's "New Building" - Lowell, Massachusetts

Police pushed back the crowds that had gathered along Andrews Street as firefighters risked death and severe injury to remove their equipment from the failing wall.  For the next hour or so, firefighters worked to contain the flames while they raced unchecked through Sacred Heart School’s new building.  Eight classrooms, an auditorium, the offices of the principal and of the school nurses, and the lavatories were all destroyed.  At 4 PM, the roof above the third-floor auditorium failed and fell into the building.  Its weight caused the floor of the third story to sag, forcing firefighters to abandon their efforts inside the building and escape using the nearest ladders and fire escapes.  More sections of the school’s roof soon failed, allowing firefighters atop aerial ladders clear access to aim their deck guns at the flames.  The fire was finally declared under control by 4:30 PM.  Smoke towered some 75 feet above the doomed school building as firefighters began to re-enter the building’s first floor and subdue any leftover trouble spots.  Chief Gendron left three companies on the scene overnight to prevent any additional outbreaks.

One firefighter lost his life fighting the blaze.  While helping fellow firefighters raise a 45-foot extension ladder on the school’s Moore Street side, John J. Wojitas, a WWII veteran and a 24-year veteran of the Lowell Fire Department, fell victim to a fatal heart attack.  He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John’s Hospital (now Saints Memorial).  Rev. W. Irving Monroe, the fire department’s chaplain, was on the scene of the fire and left with Wojitas when he was stricken.  Rev. Monroe returned to the scene of the fire later, delivering the news that Wojitas had died to his saddened fellow firefighters.

The school’s loss weighed heavily on the local community that had gathered to watch the efforts to save the building.  Most were graduates of, or otherwise connected to, the school.  The school’s nuns, of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, stood stricken with the priests of the school’s church, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In its aftermath, the school announced that its classes would be cancelled for a few days following the fire.  Rev. Frederick Higgins, OMI, acting as the church’s pastor while Rev. John T. McLaughlin, OMI, was recuperating in Florida from an illness, announced that plans to place students in other schools would be discussed.  By Sunday afternoon, the day after the fire, a crane had been already put in place to take down the charred ruins of the school.
The top two floors of the school were soon condemned and the city’s deputy commissioner of lands and buildings ordered that students not attend class in the school’s old building until those floors were leveled.  Some talk was made about saving the school’s first floor, but ultimately, this was leveled too.

The Rev. Bruce M. Lambert, pastor of the First United Baptist Church soon reached out to Rev. McLaughlin to offer the church the use of their facilities at Central Plaza at 99 Church Street in Lowell, which included, in his words, “a modern educational wing, with 10 classrooms, accommodating up to 300 pupils, an office and a large open basement recreation room.”  Sacred Heart officials ultimately chose to use their old building on a double session basis, for the few weeks remaining in the school year.

The school did rise again.  On September 22, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,500 people gathered to watch the dedication of the new Sacred Heart School building.  Its student body of 500 began classes there on the following day.  The Sacred Heart School band provided the crowd with a concert as dignitaries, parishioners, students, alumni, and friends looked on.  After the concert, a tour of the new building was given.  The cornerstone was laid during the ceremonies by Rev. John T. McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and the Very Rev. Thomas Reddy, OMI, Oblate Provincial of the Eastern Province.  The school’s principal, Sr. Mary Kevin, SSMN, proudly looked on.

Sacred Heart School's new "New" building, dedicated in 1968. Photo from The Lowell Sun, 9/17/1968

As part of the ceremony, Fathers Reddy and McLaughlin passed through the rooms of the new school building, blessing each one, and finished by hanging a crucifix in the principal’s office.  After giving thanks to all those who helped in the rebuilding effort, Father McLaughlin told the crowd about the contents of a box which had been sealed into the new school’s cornerstone.  The box contained all of the keepsakes that had been sealed in the cornerstone of the 1909 building: copies of The Lowell Sun and the Lowell Courier-Citizen detailing the construction of the first school and its groundbreaking ceremony.  In addition to the 1909 items, new keepsakes were added to the cornerstone box:  Lowell Sun articles describing the 1967 fire that had destroyed the former school building and the new school’s groundbreaking ceremony, a Miraculous Medal, a Sacred Heart Badge, and a list of all the current priests and teaching sisters.  The priests had also added a list of parishioners, a medal of Pope Paul, a Kennedy half-dollar, and a picture of John Wojitas, the fireman who died while fighting the fire that had claimed the old school.

By the time I began attending Sacred Heart School more than a decade later, people still spoke of the great fire that had claimed the “new building”.  During my first few years at the school, we still attended classes at Sacred Heart’s “old” building, with its quaint coat rooms and ornate woodwork.  The building was eventually demolished, ten or fifteen years ago.  The school itself closed a few years later.

Do you have memories of the fire, or of Sacred Heart School or Church?  Please share them here!

Note to readers:  The Fires of Lowell series includes several other articles, including one detailing the 1904 fire of Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Church.  This post marks the fifth installment of the series.


The Grand Fires of 1904 – St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; Lowell, Massachusetts

Note to readers:  The St. Patrick’s Church fire of 1904 occurred just one day before the Fellows Block fire covered in last week’s post.  This post marks the third installment of the Grand Fires of 1904 series.

On Monday, January 11, 1904, Sister Josephine, a teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Lowell, Massachusetts, awoke, rose from bed, and looked out her window at the pre-dawn stillness; it was just minutes after five o’clock in the morning.  Only she saw smoke – and lots of it – billowing from St. Patrick’s Church.  Sister Josephine rushed from her room and roused two other sisters.  Together, the three Notre Dame teachers found the key for the fire alarm box on Fenwick Street, just outside the church’s main gate.  Key in hand, the nuns rushed to the parochial residence, rapped at the door, and pulled the bell.  Rev. John J. McHugh, in the midst of a week of sick calls, bolted awake, threw on his clothes, and answered the knocking at the door, ready for his next sick call.

From the Lowell Sun, January 11, 1904

St. Patrick's Church - Lowell, Massachusetts, Before the Fire

Father McHugh saw the nuns – and the smoke in the churchyard behind them.  He held the church quite dear.  As a boy, he had been a student in its Sunday school and, later, an altar boy to its first priests.  Father McHugh called the Central Fire Station on the telephone, and took the key to the fire box to pull the alarm.  He struggled with the box; its door wouldn’t open.  It was either frozen or broken.  He looked back at the growing billows of smoke issuing from the church and gave up on the fire box.  He quickly ran inside the basement of the church and set to saving the host and as many sacred vessels as he could carry out.

A crowd began to gather outside the church as more and more of the neighbors, most parishioners themselves, saw the smoke.  Mary Ann Saunders, the elderly sacristan of the church and another lifelong member, pushed through the bystanders and rushed toward the burning church.  She made her way to the vestry windows on the Cross Street side, broke the glass, and climbed through.  She found the vestments, and prepared as big a pile on the floor as her frail but determined frame would allow her to carry.  The firemen arrived later to find her at her task, building a small mountain, and ordered her out of the building.  She turned, looked at the men, and refused – still determined to save as many vestments as she could.  The firemen were preparing to carry all 80 pounds of her out when another priest, Fr. Walsh, happened upon the scene.  Both were doubtful that the firemen would save the sacred vestments that Mrs. Saunders had gathered on the floor of the vestry.  Fr. Walsh mediated a compromise and the firemen escorted him and Mrs. Saunders from the building and helped them with the vestments.  Apparently, Mrs. Saunders was quite convincing.

Other parishioners rushed through the chaos to save sacred and valuable items within the burning church.  John Nugent, a member of the Holy Name Society, felt through the smoke and saved two large candlesticks that stood near the main altar.  John J. Sullivan carried out several statues, vestments, and other articles.  Professor Fred G. Bond, the director of the church choir, ran into the church at great peril to save the church’s collection of music from the choir gallery.  The music, which had been brought from Ireland by the late Father Michael O’Brien, was priceless to the church.  With the help of the firemen, Professor Bond took several bundles of music and covered others with protective blankets.

Sister Superior Theresa, of Notre Dame Academy, stood among the bystanders watching the fire, and calmly took hold of the situation.  She ordered all gas shut off in the church and all fire doors between the church and academy closed.  She thought of her grade school students at the boarding school.  Sister Superior advised her nuns not to tell the students of the fire until they were safely dressed and downstairs.  Her actions probably saved the school and lives.
The firemen, who had responded quickly, did not find much of a blaze initially, only lots of billowing, blinding smoke.  The  firemen surmised that the blaze had started in the church’s boiler room in the basement.  To gain entry, they broke through the church’s basement door and drove into the smoke escaping the church.  The fresh air fanned the flames, but the firemen’s efforts subdued the fire within a short time.  Lots of smoke and water still filled the church’s basement, but the flames appeared to be out.  Chief Hosmer dispersed some of the firemen and left a few to help in the clean-up.  The crowd breathed a sigh of relief.  Their church was saved.
But smoke still billowed from the upper part of the church.  And it seemed to be growing in intensity.  Doubts began to rise through the crowd that the fire was truly extinguished.  Perhaps the smoke  was still emanating from a fire.  Within fifteen minutes, the crowd, the remaining firemen, and Chief Hosmer looked on in horror as flames shot through the church’s roof.  The fire still lived inside the church’s walls.  Chief Hosmer frantically called back the dismissed firemen.  By now, Suffolk, Cross, Fenwick and Adams Streets were clogged with bystanders watching the fire.  The police struggled to keep them back, a safe distance from the flames.
From the Lowell Sun, January 11, 1904

St. Patrick's Church was soon ablaze. Inset: Officer Freeman lowers the fire doors.

Soon, a dozen lines of hose were directed at the church.  Chief Hosmer ordered the ringing of a general alarm.  The firemen aimed their streams of water at the steeple, the flames continued to lick at its stone and wood.  The firemen soon realized that their water would reach only 100 feet up, but the steeple was already fully ablaze – every inch of its 225-foot height.  The steeple was doomed.

Before 8 o’clock that morning, the huge, heavy cross, which had hung on the steeple for the building’s first 50 years, crashed into the interior of the church.  The flames could be seen throughout the city – thousands watched as the steeple burned in what some described as “an awful beauty”.  When the steeple failed, its spectacular crash sent timbers spilling into the church yard and into Cross Street.  Several fell atop members of Hose 11, throwing them to the ground.  They survived, though bruised and cut.
The firemen battled the raging fire, sending streams of water toward the church from all four sides.  Assistant Fire Chief Norton broke through the main door of the church, but was driven back by the smoke, and almost suffocated.  The firemen behind him directed several lines of hose into the church’s interior, but the altar, pews, and the entire front of the church was already lost to the flames.

Several firemen had close calls in the fire.  One, whose name was never recorded, was struck when a large piece of plaster, weighing several pounds, struck his helmet and knocked him flat.  The fireman remarked “Gee, that was a close call!”  as he picked himself up, cognizant of the fact that his helmet likely saved his life.  Another, a call man named John Conway, fell through a burning floor and was badly shaken, but not injured.

From the Lowell Sun, January 12, 1904

The Interior of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Massachusetts after the fire

The fire was extinguished, eventually – but not until midday.  Two firemen worked on its last sparks in the bell tower for an hour while the crowd watched from below.  By the time the fire was out, St. Patrick’s Church, the city’s oldest Catholic church with origins dating to the 1820′s, lay in ruins – its steeple destroyed, its interior gutted.  Its four walls stood, but it was clear that mass would need to be held somewhere else for some time.  The church’s marble altar, and every single stained glass window had been destroyed.  Parishioners, eager to hold onto any possible memento of their ruined church, sifted through the ruins in the hours and days after the fire to find their metal pew number markers within the ashes.

From the Lowell Sun, January 12, 1904

A man scours the ruins of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Massachusetts for mementos of his lost church.

City official James Conlon offered Fr. O’Brien the free use of Huntington Hall.  Indeed, the church would not fully recover from the damage caused by the fire until two years later, in 1906.

From the Lowell Sun, 11 January 1904

In the aftermath of the 1904 fire that destroyed St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Chief Edward S. Hosmer received much criticism in the local press.

In its aftermath, Chief Hosmer suffered through significant, and undue, criticism, for initially underestimating the fire, and soon after, for mistakenly concluding that the fire was out.  The fire department also received criticism for the antiquated key-operated fire box at the corner of Fenwick Street, which had not yet been replaced by a new handle-operated box.  The failure of the key-operated box had been one factor leading to a delay in the reporting of the fire.  The fire department also received criticism for not using its water tower to fight the fire and for the underperforming hydrants that provided 100-foot streams of water when streams reaching 225 feet were needed.

Chief Hosmer defended himself in the press as early as the following day, stating that many of the accounts circulating were false.  When the fire was extinguished in the basement, he, and several of the priests, had thought the fire was under control when he sent the two companies of firemen home.  As soon as he entered the church again, he found that the fire still raged in the three inches separating the wall and the plastering and that this had allowed the fire to work its way up from the basement into the church.  Hosmer immediately called the dismissed companies back; they hadn’t gone far and were able to return quickly.  Hosmer knew the gravity of the situation when he realized that the fire had progressed into the church’s main floor and he had rung the general alarm.   Regarding the water tower, Homer stated that it could not have been used in the situation.  Chief Edward F. Hosmer survived the hasty post-fire criticism and went on to serve the Lowell Fire Department for another nine years before he retired, with honor, on May 1, 1913 after 55 years of firefighting, 30 of which were spent leading Lowell’s fire department.


The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts – The Rise and Fall of the O’Donnell and Gilbride Department Store

In the 80 years leading up to 1904, Lowell, Massachusetts had grown from a sparsely populated corner of East Chelmsford into a bustling manufacturing city of 95,000 residents. Like any Edwardian-era city, Lowell faced its share of fire risks, especially in its downtown area. Before January was even half over in 1904, Lowell had suffered three substantial fires, one of which claimed the O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store, the city’s largest.

An O'Donnell & Gilbride Advertisement from January 1904 listing just some of the items that the store had grown to carry. (Lowell Sun)

To tell the story of the origin of the O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store is to also tell the story of what is great about Lowell, Massachusetts, and other mill cities like it.  Patrick Gilbride, an Ulsterman from what is today Northern Ireland, immigrated to the United States in 1874 at the age of 20, settled in Lowell, and soon found work with J. V. Keyes & Company, a dry goods firm. He learned the business, saved his money, and by 1880, at the age of 26, opened his own dry goods store with a fellow Ulsterman, Constantine O’Donnell. The O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store was born, on downtown Lowell’s Merrimack Street. Through a combination of a strong work ethic, good business sense, and some luck, the two men built O’Donnell & Gilbrides into the city’s largest department store.   By 1904, the store had expanded from the original location in Merrimack Street’s Albion Block into a second Merrimack Street Block – the Bascom – and also into Middle Street’s Fellows Block. Bridges had been constructed to span the narrow alley that separated the Merrimack Street and Middle Street areas of the store.

The Buildings marked with black dots represent those occupied by O'Donnell & Gilbride in 1904. The bridges connecting the buildings are represented by the black lines spanning the alley between the buildings.

Just past 9 o’clock on a Tuesday night on January 12, 1904, John Quinn, the night watchman for O’Donnell & Gilbride, had just rung in his watch clock in the men’s clothing department on the first floor of the Merrimack Street store, when he began his walk to the carpet department in the adjoining Fellows Block. He approached the bridge connecting the buildings, opened the door, and was pushed backward by an inferno that had completely enveloped the carpets beyond. By the time he reached the street, the bells were already sounding.

William R. Kennedy had activated the alarm. Kennedy had gotten off work at the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company moments before and was waiting across the street on the Middle Street side of the Central Fire Station for a friend to get off work.  He was alone, the firemen were below in the basement, which happened to have a bowling alley. He looked through the window at the wintry desolation at Middle Street’s intersection with Palmer. Below, his friend was among the other firemen bowling. He had planned to descend into the basement, find his friend, and perhaps bowl a string or two in another moment or so.

Suddenly, he heard shouts from the direction of the Reynolds Brothers restaurant in the Staples Building across Palmer Street. Fire! Even through the closed windows, he could clearly make out that the man was shouting about a fire. Outside, above the shouting man, Kennedy quickly found the flames – silhouetting the top of the Fellows Block directly opposite the Central Fire Station. The firemen were somewhere below, still bowling. Kennedy thought of the maze that was the Central Fire Station, and dashed outside into the cold. At the corner of the building, he broke the glass of the Signal Box, inserted the key into its lock, and pulled the alarm. Inside the Central Fire Station behind him, the bells began to toll. It was the third fire in Lowell within the last five days.

                    

The Rebuilt Fellows Block on Lowell's Middle Street (brick). A small marker between the third and fourth story windows memorializes the 1904 Fire. The smaller Staples Block (with the white second story) today houses the Coffee Mill Emporium. Behind both is the Albion Block, which fronts Merrimack Street.

Taken from a similar vantage point in 1904, this photo shows the Fellows Block after part of its front wall had fallen. (Lowell Sun)

At about the same time, Joseph H. Gormley walked along Merrimack Street, and was passing O’Donnell & Gilbride’s when he heard cries from within the building. He stood outside for a moment, uncertain whether to get involved. He then distinguished cries of “fire!”, dashed into the Albion Block, and tore up its stairwell toward the source of the cries. In the corridor, he found first a woman screaming and running to and fro. He looked past her toward the window overlooking the alley between Merrimack Street and Middle Street – and saw flames glowing inside the Fellows Block. He set to knocking on each of the corridor’s doors to arouse the residents. They, and many others in downtown Lowell on that night spilled into the streets to watch the fire. The tolling of the alarm bells filled the streets of downtown Lowell, as the firemen assembled at the intersection of Middle and Palmer Streets outside the Central Fire Station (in front of the brick building in the photo, at left). The alarm sounded, and just moments later, a loud explosion, and then a second, roared through the night sky. People as far away as Lawrence, Haverhill, and Nashua reported seeing the flames above Lowell that night.

A brisk breeze buffeted the crowds gathering in the street.  Sparks showered down upon them.  The flames whipped from the upper story windows of the Fellows Block. Long, roaring tongues of fire bridged overhead across Middle Street. The flames were blowing against the Central Fire Station itself, its third story wooden window frames were beginning to smolder. The station’s weathervane representing a streamer, atop the tower, was melting.

At the corner of Palmer and Middle Streets, Downtown Lowell. (Photo by Author)

Without the Central Fire Station, the fire would rage unchecked throughout the entire downtown area, causing millions of dollars in damage. The firemen diverted their attentions from the Fellows Block to their own station. Ten streams of water gradually brought the flames to smoldering tendrils of smoke. The station was saved, but behind them, the fire continued to rage through the Fellows Block. The wall facing Middle Street groaned and appeared to waver, though whether it was actually wavering or if this was an effect of the flickering firelight was debated among the firemen.

The firemen eventually conquered the flames threatening the Central Fire Station and turned seven streams of water back toward the Fellows Block, now fully engulfed in flames. The firemen held their ground on Middle Street, but with one final groan, the Middle Street wall wavered and fell into the street. An avalanche of smoldering stone and brick poured over several of the firemen. The crowd gasped; several women wept. Ten firemen sustained injuries in the collapse. As Assistant Chief James F. Norton was pulled from the rubble with a broken leg, the capstone from the Fellows Block, four feet square and weighing more than two tons, was hurled against the wall of the Central Fire Station cracking its wall from floor to ceiling, and narrowly missed several bystanders.

Three of the Lowell Firemen hurt in the Fellows Block Fire (Lowell Sun)

The winds shifted again and threatened the Pollard Building. Glass shattered from its windows, and hit the street below. The building’s walls grew hot. The firemen diverted the water to the Pollard Building. Steam hissed from its bricks as the water hit the walls. At this point, with flames filling the night sky over downtown Lowell, managers at the Thompson Hardware Company, at the nearby corner of Shattuck and Merrimack streets, nervously watched the growing fire as it neared their building.  The managers thought that the great heat from the flames would ignite the powder and dynamite they had on hand, causing a great explosion. They loaded the dynamite and powder on a wagon and carted it away.

The bridge connecting the Albion Block to the Reconstructed Fellows Block in Downtown Lowell, Massachusetts

Crowd control became a challenge for city officials at the corner of Palmer and Middle Streets.  The crowds pressed closer and closer to the flames.  Inspector John Walsh, needing to move the people away a safe distance, picked a spot in the crowd and said to an imaginary person:

“It’s strange how the flames got over to St. Anne’s church.  It’s a pity to have that burn down.  I understand the tower is all ablaze.”

Instantly, the streets cleared as the crowds dispersed to check on St. Anne’s on Merrimack Street, even then a historical landmark on the Lowell landscape, dating to the early 1820′s when it was built as a place of worship for Lowell’s mill girls.

As the crowds rushed to check on St. Anne’s on Merrimack Street, the firemen’s toughest battle continued upon the bridge connecting the Fellows Block with the Albion Block – pictured, as it appears today, at left, and, as it appeared in 1904, below.  At this point, the firemen were losing hope that the Fellows Block could be saved.  From their vantage point atop the bridge, they watched as the flames issued from the windows of the Fellows Block and raged across the narrow alley.  Six firemen fought the flames from atop the bridge.  Several more fought the flames from the several stories of fire escapes above the bridge.  Flames shot below, around, and above them.  They worked their way up from the bridge, battling one step to the next, as they calmed the flames until they no longer spanned the alley, threatening the Albion Block on Merrimack Street.  Below, more firemen stood, throwing a stream of water at the men on the bridge so that their clothes would not catch fire.  Another stream was aimed at the bridge to keep the flames from destroying the bridge and the fire escape stairs above it.  Once the bridge was secured, the firemen took a length of hose to the top of the fire escape, turned it to fight the flames raging within the department store, and then realized that the hose had turned dry.  The firemen and then the many spectators who heard them began to cry “water!” “water!”  loudly, but it was ten suspenseful minutes before the water issued again from the empty hose.  A cheer went up and the firemen set to fight the flames again.  As the firemen fought the flames issuing from the Fellows Block, the fire continued to threaten O’Donnell & Gilbride’s main store on Merrimack Street.  The edge of the roof of the Albion block caught first, the sidewall began smoking next, and then the spectators watched in horror as a thin line of flames advanced toward Merrimack Street.  The fire fighters gave up on saving the Fellows Block, and set their efforts on saving the Merrimack Street buildings.

The Bridges between the Fellows and Albion Blocks, circa 1904. (Lowell Sun)

It was after midnight before the fire was under control, but it wasn’t until one o’clock in the morning when the firemen began packing up their equipment and leaving the scene. In the aftermath, the Fellows Block suffered the heaviest losses and was considered a total loss.  The Block was pulled down ten days later, and subsequently rebuilt.  The Staples Block too suffered heavy damage, but was rebuilt and still stands today.  The Albion Block, which currently stands on Merrimack Street, and the Bascom Block, its Merrimack Street neighbor which is no longer extant, were considered near total losses.  The Urban Hall building, which stood on Middle Street at the present-day site of the parking lot next to the Fellows Block, also suffered heavy damage.  The Central Fire House, due to the valiant efforts of the firemen, suffered only minor damage.

The O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store did not re-open after the fire. The partners took the fire as a chance to amicably dissolve their partnership after nearly 25 years in business together. Constantine O’Donnell and Patrick Gilbride each eventually reopened separate businesses. Patrick Gilbride re-opened a store at the Merrimack Street location where he had opened O’Donnell & Gilbride’s with Constantine O’Donnell over two decades before.  He died more than ten years later, in March 1914, mourned by those who knew him as a quiet, unassuming man who became an inspiring business leader in the early downtown Lowell community.

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.