Tag Archives: Lowell Historical Society

From the Curator’s Desk: The Wooden Stake in our Collection

During these last few weeks, we’ve been busy at the Lowell Historical Society. As we near the end of our 2013-2014 year, we had our annual meeting last weekend at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library where our society’s Vice President Kim Zunino spoke about some of the fascinating finds she’s encountered in the attic of Lowell’s City Hall.  With our new year, we are also welcoming a new member, Kathleen Ralls, to our board.  And, last, but never least, we continue to work feverishly on integrating new collections and artifacts into our archive. Look for more on that soon!

Naturally, as we move into the future, we continue to study the past. And in processing, organizing, and better cataloging our collection, we find some pretty intriguing items.  Take this one, for instance:

This wooden pin was once part of the Central Bridge.

This wooden pin was once part of the Central Bridge.  (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

At first glance, it looks like an old wooden stake, rounded, with some fire damage evident at its edges. The stake looks old, feels old, but still retains just a hint of a smoky, burnt wood sort of odor.

But, before you ask. . . No, it’s not one of the last surviving wooden stakes left over from the Victorian vampire epidemic rumored to have hit Lowell in the 1890s. It’s actually a wooden pin retrieved from the ruins of a fire that ravaged Lowell’s Central Bridge on August 5, 1882. Although largely forgotten today, the fire caused quite a stir in Lowell back in those days.

Much better known today as the Bridge Street Bridge, the span connecting Lowell’s Centralville section with its downtown mainly goes unnoticed these days, except for the occasional traffic jam which gets it into the news.  These days, when the cars begin to back up, you can drive your car along the river for a couple of extra minutes, and cross the Merrimack River at the Aiken Street Bridge, or at the Hunts Falls Bridge.

A section of an 1882 atlas showing the vicinity surrounding the Central Bridge, Lowell.

A section of an 1882 atlas showing the vicinity surrounding the Central Bridge, Lowell.

But, when the Central Bridge burnt down on that August night 130 years ago, folks who found themselves on its Dracut side had a real worry. How were they going to get to work?

In a time before vacation days, workers who walked the Central Bridge to earn their bread in Lowell’s mills watched in disbelief as flame consumed the bridge in 1882. The first of them noticed the fire in the quiet of a summer night, just a few hours before sunrise when the first flames were seen at the south end of the Central bridge, the section closest to downtown.

When he saw the flames, he ran and told the nearest policeman, who ran to the nearest fire alarm. The fire brigade came soon after, but their progress wasn’t fast enough to prevent the spread of the fire beneath the bridge. As they made their valiant efforts to put down the fire on top of the bridge, the flames spread nearly half its length underneath.

The men slung the fire hoses across the bridge, and also battled the flames from the nearby Boott mill.  Another hose carriage fought the flames from the Centralville side.  The fire kept advancing, though, and just an hour later, flames were engulfing the entire span of the bridge, and lighting up the night sky.

Central Bridge, 1882

Central Bridge, 1882  (Source:  NYPL Collection)

From the downtown end of the bridge, the firemen made one last push to save the structure, climbing into the burning bridge, and trying to put down the fire.  They fought until the end, until the bridge itself failed and fell into the river below, throwing five firemen into the dark waters with it.

- James Halstead, foreman, Hose 4
- Edward Meloy and William Meredith
- William Dana, Steamer 3
- James McCormack, Hose 6

A sixth man, Capt. Cunningham, who had been fighting the flames from the roof of the bridge, caught onto the cross bar of a telephone pole as he fell and clung to it until he was rescued.  All of the men survived, but several sustained injuries.

As the bridge failed, spectators on both sides of the bridge watched a gas pipe explode in a blinding flash as firemen called out to their brethren in the dark waters below. They feared for the men flailing about in the water.  They also feared that the Boott or the Massachusetts mills would be next. They shuddered as their watched the windows of the Boott mills smolder, and then ignite.

During the fire, and the days and weeks following, all speculated on what might have caused it. The going theory was that it had been caused by the sparks thrown off by some machinery used by the Boott mills. Some even came forward to say that they had seen the bridge catch fire a few days before, and that workmen from the mill had put it out.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The bridge was a total loss, leaving more than 8,000 Centralville residents cut off from Downtown Lowell and their livelihood.  Those with horses, the wealthier in Centralville, were able to go a few minutes out of their way and enter the city by the Pawtucket bridge, but most of the people who depended on the bridge walked to work.  And they were out of luck.

The only way left across the river appeared to be by boat, which harkened back to the days of Bradley’s Ferry, before the bridge was built.  In the days following the fire, the City Council discussed and approved plans to lay a footbridge across the ruined bridge’s span. It was quickly put into place, and Centralville residents were thankful – even if it didn’t have a cover, which drew a little bit of ire among Centralville residents.  By March of the following year, townspeople were known to remark that the builders of the old bridge knew what they were doing when they made it a covered bridge.

The relics of the old bridge quickly became popular. A January 1883 Lowell Sun article recounted how City Marshal McDonald was presented a ‘finely finished white oak club’ made from the timbers of the old bridge, which had been under water for 54 years.  The novelty of the ruined bridge wore off quickly, though.  Lowellians grew impatient with the builders as the months following the fire wore on. By September 1883 a Lowell Sun writer stated that ‘whoever drew up the contract between the bridge company and the city of Lowell for the bridge’s iron work ought to create a new one, and then tie a handkerchief around his eyes and jump into the river.” The writer went on to say that the delays had hurt Centralville residents and city traders, and that the contract offered the city no recourse in addressing the delays in the construction of the bridge with the builders of the bridge.

In the end, though, the bridge reopened.  It took almost a year, but a new iron bridge reopened in the old wooden bridge’s place.  That bridge stood for over half a century, before being washed away in the Flood of 1936, and replaced by the bridge that still stands today.

Wooden Pin Label, 1882

Wooden Pin Label, 1882 (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

And that’s the story of the wooden pin in our collection, contributed and tagged so long ago.  (The tag itself is almost as interesting as the pin itself.)  The pin is just one of the items in the collection that we’re currently researching.

Watch here for future updates on other items we find in the collection.

 


Forgotten Stories behind the Artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society

Lowell Police Badge - William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

Lowell Police Badge – William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Check out this badge.  I came across it in the Lowell Historical Society’s vast archive, located in the city’s Boott Mills complex.  As the society’s newly-appointed Curator of Art and Artifacts, I got to spend some time with the badge, recently, and other items that came with it.

The badge, it turns out, comes from William G. Lee, a patrolman with the Lowell Police Department who retired from the force in 1948, after 37 years of service.  The Society also has Lee’s billy club and his policemans’ rule book in its collection.

Like all old stuff, the badge, club, and book all have a kind of magic to them.  I mean, face it.  Old stuff like this invokes a certain fascination within all of us.  It’s one of the reasons societies like the Lowell Historical Society exist, and why they have an archive in the first place.  Maybe that sense of wonder carries forward from our first years, when  we escaped into our grandparents’ attics as children and found Victorian punch bowl sets wrapped in yellowed newspapers, or a stack of colorful magazines from the decade before we were born.  Most of those things are gone now, disappeared into landfills, into firepits, into oblivion.  Unless we saved them, or donated them to an archive.

That’s just how the badge, the club, and the rulebook made it to the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  Almost 20 years ago, Officer Lee’s daughter donated them so that they could be maintained, and shared with future visitors to the Society’s archive.

24 Canton Street, Lowell, as it appears today (Photo Credit:  Google Maps)

24 Canton Street as it appears today (Photo Credit: Google Maps)

Touching history is a pretty cool thing.  Sure, you can read about history, watch it on TV, or even apply your imagination to it.  But touching history brings it to life.  And that’s the great thing about archives.  You can touch history.  As the Lowell Historical Society’s Curator, one of my duties is to publicize the collection, and share some of the stories I encounter as I research its items, and help bring the society’s vast holdings to life.  When you first set about researching an artifact, there’s that initial wave of information you instantly find, the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.  Sometimes, it’s the most interesting.  Often, it’s not.  A quick search on William G Lee shows that he lived at 24 Canton Street in Lowell in June 1948, when he retired from the force.

From the note that came with the badge, I also learned that he was appointed to the department’s probationary force in May 1911, and was promoted to the rank of patrolman about five years later in September 1916.

What’s really interesting, though, is the next few waves of discovery that you come across as you research a piece.  And it turns out that Patrolman Lee received some commendations during his 37 years on the force.  A quick glance through Lee’s rulebook reveals that patrolmen, while making their rounds, weren’t allowed to walk together, or even talk with one another.  They were advised not to stay in one spot, or converse with anyone, unless it was in the line of duty.  But, a little more research into Lee’s career proves that it’s good that he didn’t always follow his rulebook to the letter.

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun - 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun – 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

While he was wearing that very badge pictured above, Lee stood at the top of Dummer Street early one day on February 13, 1922, talking with fellow patrolman William Liston.  It wasn’t even four in the morning, when he and Liston first saw the flames and smoke bursting from the windows of a dry goods store on the ground floor of a building housing eight tenements.  Lee ran at once and pulled the alarm on a nearby fire box, while Liston ran to the burning tenement at 67 Dummer Street and started to rouse its residents.  Lee soon joined.  They, with the firemen who soon arrived, entered the building and awakened the tenants who lived on its three floors.  Everyone escaped unharmed, and the men carried three children out of the fire to safety.

Three years later, Lee received a commendation again, when he made an arrest in the early morning hours of January 26, 1925.  While likely carrying the very billy club that now rests within the Society’s collection, Lee arrested Edward Cole, a 32-year-old Lowell man who was wanted for breaking and entering into a Londonderry, NH hen house some two months earlier.  How did Lee find Cole?  He happened upon him while Cole was trying to crack a safe at the Colonial Filling Station on the Pawtucket Boulevard.

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)  From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

How did Lee treat his prisoners?  Luckily, we have his rulebook to shed some light on this.  The book advised that prisoners “shall be made as comfortable as possible,” and reminded officers that they were entitled to clear water.  The water could be purchased using the prisoners’ own money, the book continued, but only if that money hadn’t come from the offense for which they had been arrested.  Even if it turned out that the prisoner was broke, the police officer could purchase the refreshment from his own money, get a receipt, and get reimbursed for these expenses once monthly.  Officers were required to check on their prisoners once every half hour, but were strictly forbidden to “bandy words with prisoners” or to speak to them unnecessarily.  The book also stressed that the use of obscene or profane language was prohibited.

Lee’s guidebook also provides a glimpse into the daily life of patrolmen.  The book specifically reminded policemen that they were to look for anyone of ‘known bad character’ and that it was their duty to seek out disturbances and to restore quiet.  They were also encouraged to evaluate anyone who he saw walking Lowell’s streets after 10 PM.  In making his rounds, we also learn that Lee ensured that Lowell’s sidewalks remained unobstructed, and that he was to gauge the purpose of anyone he saw selling door-to-door.  Lee was also responsible for checking the doors of all dwellings upon his route to make sure that they were properly locked.

While Lee was fulfilling these same duties, in March 1933, he found Mrs. Sofie Boumilla, 37, on the floor of her unheated Cady Street home, weak and nonresponsive.  She had spent the night before on her floor, suffering with a broken leg.  She had fallen on the sidewalk on Chapel Street at 6:30 PM the prior evening and had dragged herself home, nearly half a mile away.  A neighbor who heard the woman’s weak moaning summoned Patrolman Lee who entered the home and rescued her.

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Source:  Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

Source: Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

The badge, billy club, and police rulebook are just a few of the many historical treasures that form the holdings of the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  The LHS has been in existence for years, and traces its roots to 1868 when it was founded as the Old Residents’ Historical Association.  In the coming months, I’ll be writing regular posts researching some of the many interesting items held by the Society and trying to find some of the forgotten history behind the Society’s art and artifacts.