Tag Archives: Lowell

An Early History of ‘Wild Wigginville’: Why Concord Heights isn’t a Lowell Neighborhood today

Lowell's Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street.

Lowell’s Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity, 1904)

Recently, I’ve been following some really interesting discussion on the “You Know Your from Lowell When” Facebook group.  It’s been about Wigginville, the South Lowell neighborhood that’s probably better known for its local landmarks: the Six Arch bridge, Riverside School, and the Dizzy Bridge – that ancient footbridge that doubles as a teenage dare/deathtrap and runs roughly parallel to Lawrence Street on the opposite side of the Lowell Cemetery. The thing about Wigginville is that it’s one of those places where, even if you grew up there, or even spent your entire life there, you may not have noticed that you were standing there, smack in the middle of it. I heard passing references to it, growing up in South Lowell, where it was almost always referred to as “Wigginsville”, which, surprisingly, isn’t actually the right pronunciation.

Sure, Lowell still has its neighborhoods, even today. There’s Centralville (always pronounced, but rarely spelt Centerville), Back Central, Pawtucketville, Belvidere, and the Highlands. There are some smaller, older neighborhood names that have sort of clung on, over the years. Belvidere contains the neighborhood once better known as Lowell’s Oakland section, which still survives at some level, in the name of the former fire station across the street from Shedd Park. There’s also Ayers City, which has best survived in the sign at the end of the Lowell Connector’s Exit 4. If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign contains a misspelling, calling it Ayres City. Go back a century, though, and you’ll find many more neighborhoods. Lowell’s South Lowell neighborhood, for example, once contained the Bleachery, the Grove, Riverside Park, Swede Village, and Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell's southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell’s southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

For a neighborhood name that’s been largely forgotten, Wigginville sure created quite a stir in city politics when one Councilman Wilde proposed changing its name in 1908, not even two years after it had been annexed from the neighboring town of Tewksbury. Echoing what was the general feeling at the time, his argument followed that anything annexed to Lowell from a surrounding town had to be upgraded so that it met the city’s standards and didn’t embarrass the citizenry. Wigginville, according to Councilman Wilde, did just that. First and foremost among his concerns, there was the matter of its name. Wigginville had landed upon its name as a sort of dedication to its largest developer, William H Wiggin. Wiggin had been a well-known builder in the Lowell area, contributing his efforts to such lofty and well-respected edifices as the Savings Bank Building, the Boston & Maine depot on Central Street, and the Armory on Westford Street. And, in the nineteenth century psyche, he was a valued and solid member of society. He had been born in Epping, NH in 1823, went on to graduate from Dracut Academy, and had even had the time to trace his ancestry to the pilgrims.

The Riverside School - South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910.  (Credit:  Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

The Riverside School – South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910. (Credit: Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

And he had, in the words of his supporters, developed the “beautiful suburban village” of Wigginville. Councilman Wilde was not among his supporters. Councilman Wilde also didn’t have the best sense of timing. He chose 1908 to change Wigginville’s name. Yes, that was about two years after the neighborhood had become part of Lowell, but it was also just after William H Wiggin had died. Those who had grown up appreciating Wiggin’s contributions to the cityscape, and may have even attended the Riverside School he had funded and helped build, felt that the neighborhood should not be stripped of his name. In fact, they said, Wigginville should retain his name, as a memorial to his good deeds. Wiggin’s supporters found their champion in Richard Sykes, ‘the man with the Mountain Lion’s voice’ from Wigginville.

Councilman Wilde had his supporters too. There wasn’t even an appropriate entry into Wigginville, they reasoned. Lowell city councilmen looked at the Lawrence Street bridge spanning the Concord River as a ramshackle pathway, perilous even to foot traffic, let alone horses. Now that it was part of the city, it had to be dealt with, they claimed. And, this, of course, took the conversation back to its name, Wigginville. Who would want to enter a neighborhood named Wigginville? they asked.

A 1908 Lowell Sun article purported to ask a resident of Wigginville, unnamed, what he thought of his neighborhood’s name. He claimed that he thought the name should be changed, so that electric car riders would no longer be embarrassed to board cars bound for “Wigginville” – if riders could even heard the conductor’s destination announcements over the snickers. The name should be changed, this unnamed man (or woman) on the street claimed. He went on to say that he had found that this opinion was shared by a three-to-one margin among his fellow Wigginvillians. Wigginvillians were so ashamed of the Wigginville name that they had been seen clandestinely boarding electric cars to the nearby Bleachery station, just to escape the snickers meant for the Wigginville car. And, then there were the comedians too, the man on the street continued. They were ‘always’ cracking jokes at the cost of the poor Wigginvillians.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

The problem of what Lowell city residents should call these new neighborhoods was a cause of confusion too. The deeds for these newly annexed lands carried all sorts of arbitrary, vaguely defined and unfamiliar neighborhood names, based on the many developers who had built up the area in the last couple of decades. A quick review of the deeds had turned up not just references to the unfortunately named Wigginville, but also to places called Lee Village, Gilman Hill, and Riverside Park. It just made sense to unite the rural territory under one suitable, nicely sounding name, supporters of the name change claimed.

So, what should the name of this section be? Councilman Wilde proposed changing the name of Wigginville to Concord Heights, after the name of the nearby Concord River. This name would assuage the bruised egos of Wigginvillians, and even begin to rehabilitate this poor no-man’s-land into a proper city neighborhood. Lowell would, finally, be able to hold its head high with Concord Heights, its newest neighborhood. It was hoped, he said, that the name change would encourage the Boston & Maine to improve its station stop in Wigginville (near the present-day park off Commonwealth Avenue) and help the Primitive Methodist Church being constructed on Lawrence Street to finish its construction without having to wonder how to name itself around the unfortunate Wigginville neighborhood.

Councilman Wilde seemed to have all of his supporters in lock-step. All that was left to do was put the Wigginville renaming proposal in front of the Board of Aldermen. And he did, in July 1908. And, on that night, Richard Sykes, the Mountain Lion’s Voice from Wigginville, came, ready to argue his neighborhood’s stance that the name not be changed. He had prepared a speech in defense of a memorial to the neighborhood’s benefactor, William H Wiggin. Local press came too, ready for the show. They quipped amongst themselves that he would present his argument there in the chamber, and would have his “janitors around with baskets picking up his dropped h’s.” Wilde started by presenting a petition, said to be signed by some 100 Wigginvillians, to change their village’s name to Concord Heights.

Today's Concord River Bridge on Lowell's Lawrence Street.  (From a mid-century postcard)

Today’s Concord River Bridge on Lowell’s Lawrence Street. (From a mid-century postcard)

The aldermen listened, briefly. Wigginville barely registered in their minds. The neighborhood, annexed less than two years before, didn’t even have defined borders. Chairman Wilder spoke first. He wondered why all the fuss was even worth their time. The name will die out, Wilder told Wilde, since it came from Tewksbury, and Wigginville was clearly now a part of Lowell. His fellow aldermen listened, and joked that perhaps Wigginville should be renamed Wildeville. Another alderman claimed that Wild Wigginville might be even more appropriate.

Richard Sykes prepared to speak. There was no need to fear Sykes, or his speech though. When the motion to change the name was presented, Aldermen Brennan and Gray disposed of it almost immediately, telling Wilde, whose smile must have been fading by then, that the Council had no role in naming, or re-naming Wigginville, since the name had never actually been assigned. The fact was, they said, that the residents themselves had just decided that that was how they wanted to name their neighborhood, and the Council was just fine with that. They then moved the topic of discussion to something that the “Council had something to do with”. They appropriated funds to fix that Concord River bridge so badly in need of repairs.

And the proposal to change the village’s name from Wigginville to Concord Heights seems to have died right there, on the chamber floor, because, as they moved on to the matter of that Wigginville bridge, not one voice was raised in protest, because the people of Wigginville were just fine with their neighborhood’s name, and didn’t want someone with very little connection to Wigginville renaming their community. In the weeks following the decision, or non-decision at it may be, the Wigginvillians took the momentum from their victory and formed the Wigginville Improvement Club, and elected Richard Sykes as its president. The objective of the club? To improve the village’s streets, and to perpetuate the proud, newly vindicated name of Wigginville.


The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source:  Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source: Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

In the years following the US Civil War, roller skating really came into its own.  As the design of the roller skate improved over the second half of the 19th century, so did its popularity.  Many became fans of the new hobby.  Many others viewed it as immoral and a threat to the order of things.

By the 1880s, a craze had developed, and roller skating rinks began opening in many US cities.  Boston had three.  The largest, on the corner of Clarendon and St. James Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood, featured a roller skating surface some 180 feet long by 70 feet wide.  Two others were in Boston, at the time, one on Washington Street, near the intersection with Dover, in the South End.  Another stood on Shawmut Avenue.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a December 1884 editorial in the Lowell Sun took aim at the Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, stating it was ” the cause of more and worse immorality . . . in the city.”    It went so far as to claim that the city’s theaters, themselves often criticized for contributing to society’s immorality, were a “Sunday school” compared to the roller skating rinks.  While the editorial acknowledged that some of the city’s most “moral and estimable” people visited the rink, it questioned whether the rink also attracted some of the city’s most immoral citizens, like “prostitutes” and “libertines”.  And, the editorial went on to insinuate that it was much more likely that the immoral would corrupt the moral classes, rather than the other way around.  The 1884 writer wondered:

“Does it improve a young girl’s modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor, in the gaze of hundreds, with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head?  Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?”

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source:  The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source: The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink was located on Gorham Street, and opened each year in November, right before Thanksgiving.  The season extended through April and sometimes until the middle of May, when the rink closed and skaters took to skating on the smoothest sidewalks and roads to be found in the city.  Sometimes, the rinks were also used for bicycles, bouquet parties, and competitive skating competitions.  For a while, the Lowell Skating Rink even hosted the games of Lowell’s polo team.  Despite its popularity, many saw the skating rink as a “bad institution” even it all it did was keep society’s most vulnerable, the young, out too late at night, or provide them with a plausible cover when they went elsewhere.

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s.  (Source:  Scientific American Supplement - February 24, 1877)

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s. (Source: Scientific American Supplement – February 24, 1877)

Inside, the rink was known not only for its yellow birch skating floor, but also for its ornamental railings that separated the skaters from the fifteen-foot-wide promenade.  From the promenade, spectators watched skaters from their rows of camp chairs.

The editorial concluded by claiming that roller skating could not “help having immoral effects” even if the management of the rink was sound.  The long-ago writer also claimed that roller skating was the “most mischievous form of public amusement ever introduced” and believed that it would soon be “suppressed as a dangerous evil.” In the end, roller skating was not suppressed, and actually evolved into being seen by later generations as good, clean fun.  The Lowell Skating Rink would not live to see the vindication of roller skating among the masses, though.  It closed its doors in early 1885, and was sold and torn down soon after.


The Daniel Gage Ice Company of Lowell, Massachusetts

In the Lowell of our parents and grandparents, a yellow horse-drawn wagon coming down a city street in high summer meant an approaching escape from the summer heat.  City children knew each ice man driving the yellow wagons, and often relished jumping aboard for a piece of ice and a ride down the road, or across the city.  The yellow wagons belonged to the Daniel Gage Ice Company, and many kids knew the routes better than the ice men themselves.  Even today, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember them.

An advertisement for Daniel Gage Ice, as it appeared in Lowell, A City of Spindles, 1900, by Lowell Trades and Labor Council

One of the best things about writing Forgotten New England is hearing from readers.  I recently posted an entry about the lost profession of ice harvesting and the ice cutters and icemen who helped gather and deliver ice to a world that did not yet know refrigeration.  Through a fellow board member of the Lowell Historical Society (who writes the Lowell Doughboys and More blog), I met Gavin Lambert, who shared the photograph below, as well as his mother’s memories of the ice men she remembered from growing up in Lowell in the 1940s.  She recalled Shorty, her family’s ice man, who arrived in his horse-drawn wagon with his leather shoulder shroud and ice tongs.  Shorty, as she remembered, was a friendly guy, who readily chiseled off ice splinters to give to the neighborhood kids each summer.  She remembered the wooden floor of Shorty’s ice wagon.  Although she never knew his full name or nationality, she still remembers her family’s ice man from Gage’s Ice Company to this day, almost 70 years later.

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Gage’s Ice of Lowell was, at one time, so well-known that the image of its ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River was considered so central to the identity of Lowell that it is memorialized in a stained glass window that sits in St. Brigid’s church in the village of Ballyknock, Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland.  Explaining the photograph of the window, posted at right, Gavin Lambert shares that enough people from the Jordan family left that Irish village for Lowell that the stained glass window was placed in their church in their memory.  Representing Lowell is, of course, its mills and smokestacks.  But, closer examination reveals the ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River, ice blocks belonging to Gage’s ice trade.

Another reader, Dave, recalls colder winters in the 40s and 50s, and how the ice would back up each winter along the Merrimack, so much so that one could hear it “cracking all the way to Broadway”.  Dave recalls walking to Gage’s decades ago to buy ice chips.  Some days, he would buy a huge block of ice for a quarter, and watch it descend a long slide, packed in straw.  Like another reader, he also owns a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s.

Daniel Gage, founder of Gage’s Ice was a fixture in Lowell business circles for nearly half a century, and quickly rose to prominence among Lowell’s business community.  He was born in Pelham, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1828, to Nathan and Mehitable Woodbury Gage, and was proud of his deep New England roots extending back to colonial times.  Gage even claimed descent from the band of men who helped William the Conqueror win England from Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Daniel Gage, from History of Lowell and its People, Volume 3. (Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

Gage spent his first twenty-five years in his native Pelham, NH, on his family farm, before coming to Lowell in 1854 and founding a business in the city’s wholesale beef trade.  He did this for 15 years, setting up his home and business near the Hildreth Street area, in what was then still part of the town of Dracut, Massachusetts.  He sold this off in 1869, and moved to corner of Bridge and West Sixth streets in Lowell.  Soon after, he started his ice business, which he would build for the rest of his life.  It became so successful that he eventually earned the title of Lowell’s ice king.

As Lowell’s ice king, Gage also made his mark on the city in other ways.  He served as a long-time director of the Prescott National Bank, and was its president when he died in 1901.  Later in life, he also extended his business into the coal and wood trade.  Gage also donated ice to many of Lowell’s charitable organizations, a practice continued by his business, and other businesses, well after his death.

Gage, with his wife, Abiah Smith Hobbs, had two daughters, one who died at the age of 16, and the other, Martina, who lived into old age, and eventually became owner of her father’s ice business when he died in 1901, after suffering a bout of pneumonia for about one week.

Daniel Gage, from an illustration published after his death in the March 1901 edition of Ice and Refrigeration.

Years after his death, Gage’s daughter, Martina Gage, became a well-known figure in Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood.  There, she was often seen handing out candies from D.L. Page’s candy store to the children of her workers, who lived in company housing there.  Miss Martina Gage retained control and ownership of Gage’s Ice for nearly as long as her father had.  In March 1929, Martina Gage sold control of Daniel Gage Ice Co. to the Lowell-based Kidder Company, and she gave up her role in its active management.  After 28 years leading the company following her father’s death, she passed day-to-day responsibilities to a board of directors, led by F. Arthur Osterman of the Osterman Coal Company of Wamesit.

Gage’s closed decades ago, and the need for ice from the river has long since been replaced with more modern refrigeration technologies.  Even though the ice houses and the companies that built them are now long gone from our city, their memory remains with those who saw them growing up, and remember the very human element of the ice men who were warmly welcomed regulars in the Lowell neighborhoods they loved as children.


Sometimes, Family Tree Breakthroughs Arrive in your Inbox

A map showing the location of the Azores, with island names. (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine receiving a stack of photographs from a second cousin you’ve never met, who received them from a fourth cousin who lives on a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa.  And that these photographs show never-before seen, everyday images from your great-grandparents’ life that they sent home to Portugal some fifty to sixty years ago.  Sometimes, family tree breakthroughs happen just like that.  They just show up overnight in your email inbox.

Genealogists collect stuff.  Names.  Dates.  Locations.  Histories.  Photographs.  Family Artifacts.  We revel in adding stories to the bare facts that form our family trees.  In the days before computerized historical sources and internet family trees, a well-researched genealogy meant at least one, and maybe several, crates of stuff.  A glimpse into one of these crates might reveal family tree charts, census transcription forms, or printouts of microfilmed newspaper obituaries and articles.  And then, if you were well-entrenched in the hobby, that crate would probably hold correspondence (via snail mail) with relatives or fellow researchers who lived in different cities, counties, states, and maybe even countries.  But, these researchers who shared your family interests were usually hard to find, and sometimes, even harder to reach.

In those days, genealogy felt more solitary.  Genealogists spent vast amounts of time, alone in a library or research center, pouring through old census records, old city directories, vital records, and microfilmed reels of newspapers.  Finding potential leads, investigating those leads, and organizing records was largely an activity genealogists did on their own.  Then, as now, some of the best breakthroughs in genealogy came through communication with other genealogists.  Back then, this meant getting lucky with finding a phone number through directory assistance, or perhaps driving to a nearby town and knocking on a door of a second or third cousin.

Nothing has made connecting with other genealogists easier than the internet and social media.  This past week, I met my second-cousin Bea through her message that popped into my Ancestry account.  I hadn’t met her before.   Her grandfather – my great-grandmother’s brother, had to that point been an un-researched name on my family tree.  Raphael Silva – born 1882, died 1969.  That was about it.  I had thought he probably had descendants, but hadn’t gotten around to researching this.  Within a few minutes of receiving her message, I figured out that Bea and I share a common set of 2nd-great-grandparents who lived in Portugal‘s Azores in middle of the 19th century.  Through her message, I also learned that she had already done some research on our Portuguese Silva family.

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, seen from a pl...

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, as seen from a plane. At the center is the Monte da Ajuda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My great-grandmother, Augusta Silva, left Santa Cruz on Portugal’s Graciosa Island in 1907.  She came to the United States a young woman, not yet 20, and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, a textile mill city with a substantial Portuguese population.  Soon after arriving, she married Joseph Machado, also from Graciosa Island, who was 11 years her senior.  Throughout her life, she kept in touch with the family she left behind on Graciosa.  I had always figured that had been the case.  What I didn’t know was that, over 100 years later, the descendants of that family on Graciosa would still remember her.  I never could have guessed that they would still have the photographs she had sent them in the 1950s and 1960s.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother's sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother’s sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her. My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

Bea and I exchanged a few emails.  One of her emails included the stack of photographs that Augusta had, decades ago, sent to her cousins on Graciosa.  In 2011, Bea had received them from another cousin who had grown up in the Azores.  I had never seen these photographs.  No one in my US-based family had seen them since Eisenhower and Kennedy were in office.  Opening them was something like opening a time capsule.  Images from my mid-century Portuguese family were downloading onto my hard drive.

The first photograph, from August 1958, showed some familiar faces.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, and her sister, Olivia, stood proudly outside Olivia’s South Barre (Massachusetts) home with their families.  The back of the photograph identified Olivia’s two grandsons as being ten and five years old at the time.  The youngest child in the photo, Augusta’s granddaughter, was just 14 months old at the time.  In the photograph, Augusta’s son, my mom’s Uncle Billy, held her.  He wasn’t even 30 years old when the photograph was taken in 1958; he passed away at the age of 81 in 2011.

This photograph, dating from about 1940, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

This photograph, dating from 1939, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

The next photograph, much older, shows another of my grandmother’s brothers, John, in 1939 on his wedding day.  My great-grandmother appears in this photograph too, again with her sister Olivia.  Two things I learned from this photo:  1.  There was a close relationship between my great-grandmother and her sister that I hadn’t known about before.  And, 2. my mom’s uncle John got married on the same day as one of Olivia’s sons.  I still haven’t figured out which one.

Another photograph shows a scene I’ve come across a few times in my collection of family photographs, the first TV picture.  Most of us have them.  They’re always black-and-white, in a living room, from the early 50s.  This was the first I had seen for my great-grandparents.  They had sent it to Portugal to show that they were doing well in the US.  They proudly stand next to their brand new TV set, their first, in their Lowell, Massachusetts living room in the early 1950′s.  You can almost feel their sense of happiness and accomplishment as you peer into this glimpse of their living room.

SILVA4a Augusta and Joe with TV

There were several other photos too, a couple more showing Augusta and Olivia together, sometimes with their husbands, sometimes not.  There was one of another sister, the youngest, who had survived them all.  That photograph, of a birthday party thrown for her in the early 70s, was the most recent.  Another showed an unidentified man in a suit on Lowell’s Central Street sometime in the late 50s.  I’ll be working on that one to see if I can figure out who he is.

I’m grateful to my newfound cousin Bea for tracking me down through Ancestry and sending me photographs of my family.  It’s an interesting thought that, a half century after the photographs were mailed to the Azores, it takes just a click of a send button to return them to Massachusetts.  Through Ancestry, email, and other forms of social media, it’s so much easier these days to form the kinds of connections that allow these sorts of things to happen.  In this future, it’s becoming easier to find and understand the past.  It has become a lot easier to find and share family stories with other family historians, researchers, and cousins.


Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

Lowell’s Irish and French Canadian populations long had an uneasy relationship.  I grew up hearing about it, a century after the French Canadians first starting appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1870s.  By the time the French Canadians began arriving in Lowell, the Irish Catholics – who had started appearing a generation earlier – had been winning some hard-fought political control over their circumstances and had started arguing for labor reform in the city’s textile mills.  The French Canadians, newly arrived to Lowell, were not looking to jeopardize their chances of finding employment in the mills by becoming involved in the Irish efforts at labor reform.  As a result, the Irish viewed the French Canadians as strike breakers, and the French Canadians resented the Irish for making their quest for lasting and steady employment more difficult.

French Canadian family arriving from Montreal, 1913 (Via Wikimedia Commons, via Popular Science Monthly, Volume 83)

Gradually, as newer waves of emigrants arrived – among them the Greeks, Polish and Portuguese – the resentment between the Irish and French Canadians began to ebb as they formed an uneasy alliance against these newer groups who, like them before, so needed work that they were willing to act as ‘strike breakers’ when labor discussions turned toward reform in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  But, the tensions never really faded away entirely.

As both populations became ‘more American’, and less ‘Irish’ or ‘French Canadian’, their US-born children almost began to forget about the original divides between the two groups.  Almost.  Many mill town family trees, mine included, show evidence of marriages uniting children of the Irish with children of the French Canadians.

When Peter Foisy, of French Canadian descent, married my Great Aunt Catherine McNamara, of Irish Catholic descent, in the mid-1920s, a sense of scandal rocked the family – for a few reasons.  He was older, by more than 20 years.  He was divorced.  And – he was French Canadian – one of ‘them’.  For similar reasons, a sense of scandal also rocked his family, when their son divorced his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant – which wasn’t really a surprise to anyone since Peter had left his first wife since she hadn’t wanted children.  Their daughter, my Aunt Emily, was born in 1927, and the family lived happily, until 1929, when Peter died at the age of 47.  My Aunt Emily, was just two years old.

Grandma Foisy - the only photo I've seen of her.

Grandma Foisy – the only photo I’ve seen of her.

Decades later, I grew up hearing the story of how Aunt Emily’s French-Canadian grandmother tried to convince my aunt’s newly widowed mother to place her in the Franco American Orphanage in the months after her father’s death.  The stories led me to envision this woman as a ‘wicked witch’ sort of grandmother.  And, years later, when I found her photograph among my aunt’s things, that image wasn’t exactly disproven.

The Franco American School, as seen from Pawtucket Street, (By Emw, via Wikimedia Commons)

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The orphanage, to me, as a child hearing the story, seemed like it would have been a big, scary, lonely place to send a newly fatherless toddler in the late 1920s.  Now, after the passage of a few decades and a chance to further study the Franco American Orphanage, it turns out that it wasn’t such a desolate, lonely place after all.  The original building, shown above, dates to the 1870s and was built for Frederick Ayer, one of Lowell’s most prominent nineteenth-century businessmen.  Today, his former estate, once known as the Ayer estate and later as the Franco American Orphanage and School quickly became one of Lowell’s most recognizable landmarks on the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets.  Frederick Ayer, in life, was a successful Lowell businessman whose business pursuits included partnering with his equally well-known brother, J.C. Ayer, in his patent medicine business.

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell's Market Street.  On the building's Central Street side, the company's painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author.  Oct. 2011)

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell’s Market Street. On the building’s Central Street side, the company’s painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author. Oct. 2011)

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought the Ayer estate in 1908 and soon received Cardinal O’Connell‘s blessing to open an orphanage to serve the orphans of the city’s growing Franco American population.  Father Joseph Campeau, OMI, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, helped found the orphanage, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.  They had their work cut out for them, trying to refurbish the estate and turn it into an orphanage and school.  The estate had been vacant since 1890, when Ayer had moved to Boston.  In the end, they succeeded in renovating the estate, and the nuns welcomed the orphanage’s first sixteen orphans on October 15, 1908.

The orphanage prospered, and as times changed, it began to admit day students as early as the 1950s.  The number of day students continued to grow through the 1960s, when the Franco American Orphanage officially became the Franco American School in 1963.  Fifteen years later, in 1978, the Franco American School discontinued its boarding school services and moved to the day-student-only format that continues through today.

By the time I came around, the Franco American School had stood on Lowell’s Pawtucket Street for decades, where it still provides a Catholic education to the city’s youth.  Although additions have been added to the original Ayer estate over the years, the front building, the original, still retains much of its original historical charm.  Fortunately, very little remains today of that initial resentment between Lowell’s earliest Irish and French Canadian populations, except when recalled in family stories and old newspaper articles.  My aunt passed away in 2004, and never lost pride in either heritage – although I think she more readily claimed her Irish Catholic background just to spite that French Canadian grandmother who almost sent her to the orphanage all those years ago.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

The first alarm sounded just after midnight on April 28, 1924. Lowell’s firemen arrived soon after to find tendrils of smoke wafting from the Associate Building’s fourth floor windows. Inside, the Portuguese Club was ablaze. By the time firemen gained access to the downtown Lowell landmark, they found the fire well underway inside and quickly sounded a second alarm. As one o’clock in the morning approached, a general alarm was sounded and help was called in from Lawrence and Dracut.

The Associate Building was well worth saving. Built more than thirty years earlier, it was set on the corner of Merrimack and Worthen Streets, in the heart of Lowell’s downtown, overlooking City Hall and Monument Square. By 1924, its five stories of yellow brick housed the Brockton Shoe Store, the City Hall Drug Store, Freeman & Co. Clothiers, as well as several dentists, tailors, and chiropractors. Its basement even had its own bowling alley.

In this excerpt from a 1924 Lowell City Atlas, the lot where the Associate Building stood is marked with “J. Bateman”.

As the hours wore on during that late April morning, Lowell’s Monument Square was filled with clouds of sparks and smoke as the Associate Building burned. Lowell’s fire department fought the flames from the ground, from ladders hoisted against the building, and from inside the building. Lowell’s Engine 3 streamed water from inside the Associate Building’s fourth floor dance hall. Lowell’s Engine 6 fought the flames from ladders outside, far above Worthen Street. They were making progress. The fire was coming under control.

Captain Edward Cunningham

Until the massive hot air explosion. In that flash, firemen inside were blown back into a hallway, against walls. Some were thrown flat on their backs. Outside, Hoseman John W. Gray, atop the ladder at the time of the explosion, was hurled, ladder and all, across Worthen Street into the brick wall of the opposite building. His life belt saved his life, but still left him with multiple injuries, including a broken nose. He was sent to St. John’s Hospital for treatment. His Captain, Edward Cunningham, didn’t fare as well. The explosion crushed Captain Cunningham under a falling wall of bricks. His fellow firemen risked their lives as they pulled him free from the rubble. He was still conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance bound for the Lowell Corporation Hospital. His comrades later learned that he died before he ever got to the hospital.

In the wake of the explosion, all men were recalled from the building. Moments after their escape, the walls and floor of the hall where they had been failed. The truck that had hoisted Capt. Cunningham’s ladder was split into two from the force of the explosion. Its engine had been crushed into its front wheels. Some men were temporarily trapped in the building. Others had to be pulled from the rubble in the street. The explosion also spread the flames far beyond the Associate Building. In moments, the Academy of Music building and Sparks’ Stable were now seriously threatened.

Soon, the fire threatened the entire area bounded by Merrimack, Dutton, Market, and Worthen streets. It became clear that the Associates Building was a total loss. The Sparks’ Harness Shop was declared a lost cause not long after. Despite the early hour, crowds began to gather and saw that the Academy of Music building, the Kennedy Building, and the Knights of Columbus Building were starting to smolder. Sparks’ Stable and the Mongeau Building weren’t far away from the flames either.

Another wall of the Associate Building collapsed and hit Sparks’ harness shop. A gasoline pump outside Sparks’ blew up in a burst of flame, but the tank stayed intact. Another wall collapsed and destroyed Kennedy’s Building. Soon after, the Academy of Music, all three of its wooden stories, caught fire, and burnt quickly. H. P. Hood’s offices, on one floor of the building, were completely lost. Soon after, the flames jumped Dutton Street, from the Academy of Music to the wooden Knights of Columbus building, which had once been the First Trinitarian Congregational Church. Firemen fought to save the building. In the end, they did succeed in saving the building’s stained glass windows. The firemen from Lawrence finally stopped the flames from advancing any further toward Market Street.

The firemen directed their streams at the Mongeau Building, which was starting to smolder. Ladder 4′s Herbert Cogswell fought valiantly before collapsing on the building’s top floor. George Hurley was later overcome in the same battle. Both were sent in clanging ambulances toward St. John’s Hospital. As the Mongeau Building was saved, the YMCA building across Dutton Street started to receive its own showering of sparks. Lodgers were drafted right out of the line of those removing their belongings to form a temporary brigade to wet down the building. Their efforts saved the YMCA from certain destruction.

One close call occurred when Sparks’ Stable, which housed some 30 horses belonging to the H P Hood Company, started to spark and smolder. An ambulance driver and a patrolman battled pandemonium as they removed the horses from the burning stable. Nervous store owners watched the sparks shower down across the downtown. As far away as Shattuck Street’s Lowell Electric Light Company, an awning caught fire. One man, never identified, was saved from a wall of falling bricks when he was pulled into a doorway by Lowell Patrolman John Mahan.

The Ruins of the Associate Building, as shown in an ad from the Brockton Shoe Store

In the end, ten firemen in all were sent to city hospitals with injuries from the blaze. Even more suffered minor injuries. The fire was then the largest in the city’s history. Every available piece of equipment in Lowell, two companies from Lawrence, and two from Dracut arrived to fight the fire and each was fully needed. Despite their efforts, the fire changed Lowell’s streetscape forever. The Associate Building, the Academy of Music, and Sparks’ Stable were all total losses. The Knights of Columbus building and the H P Hood Building were both considered beyond repair.

At one point, the blaze grew so hot that the glass on City Hall’s clock cracked. The damage was so complete that the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway would not run its cars past the ruins of the Associate Building until its ruined walls were taken down that day after.

Captain Edward Cunningham of Engine 6 lost his life fighting the fire. Appointed to the force in 1911, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1918, and to Captain in 1922. He had earned the respect of Chief Saunders, who described him as a “splendid young man, of a clear and sterling character”. He was remembered as a fearless and courageous firefighter, who had headed the movement to educate school children on fire safety. In his final minutes, Capt. Cunningham was offered religious solace from the popular Rev. Appleton Grannis, of St. Anne’s Church. Cunningham, a Catholic, was comforted by the Episcopal clergyman until Rev. Dr. McGarry of St. Patrick’s Church arrived to administer last rites. Captain Edward Cunningham left behind a wife, Helen, and three young children, Leo, Helen, and Pauline, all under ten years old.

The Cunningham Family, as shown in the 1920 census. Their youngest daughter Pauline had not yet been born.


In Search of Good Sleuths: A Downtown Lowell Treasure Hunt, 1912

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

“Are you a good sleuth?”  The headline teased, from the Lowell Sun’s front page.  One hundred years ago, on Saturday, September 21, 1912, the newspaper invited all would-be sleuths to Lowell’s Merrimack Square (today’s Kearney Square) that night, at 8 PM, ‘sharp’.  One lucky sleuth, they claimed, would win $100 ($2300 in today’s dollars) if he or she were the first to find a money order hidden somewhere within Lowell’s city limits, within the following 24 hours.

Hundreds turned out for the contest, which was overseen by three men:  a Lowell Sun representative, Lowell Commissioner of Finance James Donnelly, and Henry Savage, proprietor of “The Million”, a comedy set to open at the Lowell Opera House a week later.

1912 Buick Model 43 – Touring four-door, by New York Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 8 PM, the three men would race their Buick out of Merrimack Square to find a place to hide the $100 or, more precisely, an order that the lucky finder could convert into $100.  The only rule:  the $100 order had to be hidden somewhere within the city limits.

Admittedly, finding a piece of paper that could be hidden anywhere within Lowell’s 14.5 square miles is a pretty tall order.  The Lowell Sun placed some conditions that made the contest a little bit easier.

The $100 order would speed away, at 8 PM, with the Buick leaving Merrimack Square.  Contest rules mandated that the men flash the order from the car before leaving.  Anyone participating in the contest was free to follow them, for as long as they could.  Those on foot and bicycles lost the Buick first.  Pursuers on motorcycles lasted only slightly longer.  The other cars lasted the longest.

After the contest leaders in the Buick lost their pursuers, they would hide the $100 order . . . just about anywhere.  Contest rules teased that the money could be hidden in a tree, behind a chimney, on the roof of a house, in a manhole, on an abandoned wagon, or perhaps in an awning on a public street.   The $100 order had to be found within the first 24 hours, before 8 PM on Sunday, or its value would decrease to $75.  Twenty-four hours after that, the value would drop to $50.

On that Saturday night (and the following Sunday), hundreds searched every corner of Lowell for the money.  And it did, indeed, remain hidden.  By Monday, the Sun stayed true to its word, retrieved the order from its hiding spot, and again flashed it from the Buick as it sped away from Merrimack Square that night in pursuit of the next hiding spot.

Lowell Sun – September 21, 1912

The inspiration for the contest came from “The Million”, a comedy that would come to the Lowell Opera House a week later. Coming off a wildly successful run at the Majestic Theatre in Boston, “The Million” featured “a bunch of cops, a struggling young doctor, an artist’s model, a young actress, a burglar, and others” all pursuing a million dollar prize.

In ten short minutes that Monday, the Buick had again lost all pursuers, and within 45 minutes, the order was hidden in the steps leading up to the Kasino dance hall, to the side of the fourth step, to be exact.  And, again, it was never found.  The reporter who hid the $100 order, from the Sun, watched as a man sat on those stairs that afternoon, running his foot along some grass, but never finding the order.

By Tuesday, the $100 order still hadn’t been found, and the automobile had eluded the pursuers twice.  The pursuers again attempted to follow the Buick in their own autos, motorcycles, bicycles, and even afoot.  The Buick first sped down Central, and over Prescott, along Merrimack, and up Central.  One car vigorously pursued the Buick longer than the others.  But, as the Buick climbed the hills, its driver noticed that their pursuer lost ground on the inclines.  The Buick’s driver exploited this advantage by taking hills until it had lost even this last car.

After the $100 order remained hidden through Tuesday, the Sun printed its best clue yet.  The clue promised that “the money is in the very heart of the city and in an exceedingly easy and simple place of concealment.”  The order, now worth $50, was written on pink paper and, according to the clue, hidden on Central Street, between Merrimack and Tower’s Corner.  The clue continued to say that the order was enclosed, so that it would be safe from the weather, and hidden in a ‘very open spot’, but in an “inaccessible crevice”.

Lowell Opera House – September 24, 1912

In the end, the $50 prize was eventually found.  The winning sleuth was a Marshall Street resident named Nelson La Porte.  Nelson had arrived in Lowell just two weeks earlier, looking for work. On the night of Monday, September 23, he went to the Kasino dance hall and waited with the rest of the crowd for the Sun reporter who carried the money order.

His searching efforts were not fruitful that first night.  But, he returned the following night and began his search of Central Street.  After what he thought was a thorough search, he called the Sun’s office and claimed that the whole search was bogus and that there was no hidden money order.  The Sun told him to keep looking.  He did, and searched all of Central Street again, from Tower’s Corner to Merrimack Street.  He searched the sewers, the cigarette boxes, and even all of the signs.  When he reached the sign belonging to Joe Haley’s barber shop (in the Central Block), he found the order, now worth $50.  He rushed to the Sun Office and claimed the reward.  La Porte claimed he was ‘dead broke’ and welcomed the $50 as a ‘godsend’.  La Porte received his $50, at the performance of “The Million”, from a member of the company.

The contest, which drew the interest of hundreds in the Greater Lowell area succeeded in drawing interest to “The Million”, which opened little more than a week later.  In retrospect, it seems genius in not only its concept, but its close tie with the plot of the comedy.  It’s hard to imagine such a contest happening today, with cars, motorcycle, bicycles, and even people racing through downtown streets in pursuit of a piece of paper worth something north of about $2700.