Tag Archives: Lowell

Lost Stories and Found Mysteries: Old Group Photographs

If you’ve spent any time researching ancestors, or the history of your town, or even history in general, you’ve likely come across old group photographs.  A workplace outing from long ago, an annual gathering of some institution or society, or maybe a family gathering.  If you’ve stared into the faces of those who gathered for the photograph, you’ll likely come across a familiar face of a grandparent or long-lost cousin and you’ll soon determine the likely connection that brought the photograph into your collection.  Sometimes, old group photographs provide a wealth of insight into your ancestors’ lives; sometimes, they create more questions.  Often, they do both.

The mystery you didn’t know you had 

Sometimes, you get lucky.  Sometimes, someone made the effort to identify the people in your old group photos.  And, sometimes, yes, they were wrong.  Among the photographs I inherited from my grandmother was this one, showing a group of school age children, with their teacher, outside their school.  On the back of this photograph, someone helpfully wrote that this photo showed my grandmother’s Colburn School class.  Given that she was born in 1904, that would date this photograph to about 1910-1912.  And, so it became family lore.  It was perfect, my grandmother (identified as the third from the right, in the top row), grew up only a few doors down from the school, on Lowell’s Lawrence Street.

A group of Lowell schoolchildren, with their teacher, in front of their schoolhouse

It was perfect, until I researched it – and tried to verify the description on the back of the photograph.  There was a problem.  The Colburn School, one of Lowell’s first and built in 1848, was certainly old enough to be my grandmother’s childhood school.  But . . . it was made of brick, as seen below.  My photograph clearly shows light-colored wooden siding covering the school’s exterior.

Lowell’s Colburn School – Lawrence Street

And so the mystery endures.  Among the followers of this blog, I know there are a lot of experts in Lowell history.  Does anyone have any ideas on when and where (in Lowell) this photograph may have been taken?  There is a chance that it’s much older than the 1910-1912 date I had originally assigned to it.

Only Half of the Story

Among the treasured stories in one’s family tree research are the tales explaining how your ancestors met – those sometimes chance encounters that seem to drive destiny – or at least the existence of entire families today.  As my family’s story goes, my maternal grandmother met my grandfather while she was performing in a Portuguese musical group, based in Lowell, Massachusetts.  As rumor had it, she was on the rebound from a bad break-up and my grandfather happened to be in the right place, at the right time.  Someone helpfully circled my grandmother’s head on the photograph I have to prove the story, included below:

A Lowell-Area Musical Group, Tied to the Local Portuguese Community, ca. 1930

The group, which may have had ties to Lowell’s St. Anthony’s Church, remains nameless in my records – which has thwarted my attempts to learn more about them and their members.  Is there anyone out there who has heard of any Portuguese musical groups, based on Lowell, Massachusetts, from the late 1920’s?

Photographs are windows into the past.  But, the details of the past become fuzzy with time, and often are lost as those who remember them leave us.  Even without knowing the full story behind old group photos, they make for interesting browsing – showing life as it was in those days now reflected in our family trees.  And, with a little bit of luck, sometimes, you can add some insight into your ancestors’ lives by learning about the groups they belonged to, and the friends and associations that they had.

Readers, do you have any old group photos that have added insight, or mysteries, to your family trees?


The Story of Lowell’s Shedd Park

The gates are familiar to all who pass Lowell’s Shedd Park at the intersection of Rogers Street (Route 38) and Knapp Avenue in the city’s Belvidere section.  And they tell a story of some of the greatest generosity ever experienced by the city of Lowell.

The Shedd Park Gateway, as it was envisioned in 1910. (Source: Lowell Sun: 7/16/1910)

Today, Lowell’s Shedd Park is home to fifty acres of  tennis courts, baseball diamonds, picnic areas, and a water spray park.  Its pavilion is often used as a stage for public events and concerts.  In the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, however, the land that eventually became the park was a combination of open fields and dense forests, and it was privately owned.

Field and forest covered the land that would become Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

The land wasn’t always destined to become Shedd Park.  As late as 1896, it was considered for subdivision and development into housing lots.

An 1896 plan showed a subdivision consisting of Hoyt, Belrose, and McAlvin Avenues traversing the core of what later became park grounds.  (Source:  1896 Lowell City Atlas)

But, in the end, Freeman B. Shedd, the owner of the land, gave it as a gift to the City of Lowell, with no strings attached.  On July 14, 1910, Freeman B. Shedd sent a letter to Lowell’s mayor at the time, John F. Meehan.

Freeman B Shedd, (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

He said:

“I have acquired title to a tract of land containing fifty acres, more or less, which is situated south of Knapp Avenue and adjoining Fort Hill park, that I offer to the City of Lowell for its acceptance under the following conditions:

“First:  That it shall forever be used as a park and recreation or playground for the citizens and children of the City of Lowell, and for no other purpose.

“Second:  That no building or structure shall be erected on the land except such as is adapted and required for use in connection with said park and playground.

“Third:  That the city will, within a reasonable time, proceed to develop and prepare the ground for such uses on the lines indicated by accompanying plan furnished by E.W.Bowditch, civil engineer of Boston.

“Fourth:  That I shall have the right to erect, subject to the approval of the park commission, a suitable gateway and entrance, with a tablet or tablets thereon with the following transcription:  “Shedd Playground.  A gift to the City of Lowell by Freeman Ballard Shedd, A.D. 1910.”

And, with that he closed the letter, and awaited the city’s response to his offer.  Real estate experts of the day valued the land at $50,000.  There were really no strings attached.  Freeman Shedd, a lifelong resident of Lowell, and was simply and in the words of the day, an ‘ardent lover’ of his city.

The vote to accept Shedd’s park was unanimous, and a rising vote of thanks was offered to Freeman Shedd.  An appropriation of $10,000 was voted by the City Council on November 4, 1910 to clear the land and build a roadway to the entrance.  Work commenced quickly.  A roadway was built to grant better access to the future park.  Ground was cleared;  trees were felled.  The skating rink was created.   The Council intended, within 10 years to make the park one of the best outside Boston.  Freeman Shedd again stepped forward to make that happen.  Shedd’s will left $100,000 to the city for the development of the park, provided that his daughter, Mary Belle, left  no descendants when she herself died.  Mary Belle Shedd did, indeed, died childless in 1921, but was survived by Freeman Shedd’s wife, Amy.  When Amy Shedd died in 1924, the $100,000 reverted to the City of Lowell and Shedd Park was further developed.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park called for an open air theater, roughly where the little league baseball diamonds sit now along Knapp Avenue, a pond with a beach roughly where the Senior League baseball diamond sits now, and gender-specific gyms and tennis courts.  A field designated for baseball and football was to reside further down Boylston Street, where the current picnic area is.  Original plans also called for an underground tunnel to pass under the B&M railroad to connect the park with Wigginville, now better known as South Lowell.

The original Bowditch plan for Shedd Park – 1910 – Lowell Sun, 7/16/1910

In the last days of November and into early December 1910, a 6″ inch service pipe was laid into the park, and from it approximately four million gallons of water were let onto the land to flood about five acres of land for a skating rink.  City residents loved it.  The Water Department wasn’t so thrilled.  Although the Park Department paid for the pipe and its installation, they refused to pay the water bill.

The skating pond at Shedd Park in 1910.  (Source: 1910-11 Lowell City Documents)

Outside downtown Lowell, there are few Lowell landmarks as universally well-known as Belvidere’s Shedd Park.  At over 50 acres, the park is among the largest in the city.  Its story, enhanced by generations of memories among Lowell residents, traces its origins to one of Lowell’s most generous sons, who grew up to leave Lowell’s one of its greatest gifts ever.


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.


Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860’s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents


Doors Open Lowell – 2012

Downtown Lowell sure has come a long way since the early 1980’s.  My earliest memories of Downtown Lowell involve weekend visits to my grandmother, who once lived in the large apartment building at the corner of Middle and Central streets.  During those visits, we would walk up Central Street to Merrimack Street, follow Merrimack up to the left onto Palmer, and come back down Middle.  We might have walked all the way to Shattuck on a particularly nice day.  One of my favorite games was to run ahead and try the doors of all of the storefronts.  Each had a unique doorknob or handle.  And each was locked, the stores behind them closed and dark.  I never got a chance to see what lay within the stores behind those ornate door handles and darkened windows.

Years later, Doors Open Lowell comes along.  What a wonderful idea!  Finally, I got to see what lies within some of Lowell’s grandest structures and homes.  I only wish I could have arranged to see more.  For no more than the cost of a tasty lunch at Abu Nawas (and the gas to get there), we visited Doors Open Lowell.  First, we saw Tremont Yard, a system of underground tunnels created by engineer James B. Francis in 1855 as part of his turbine experiments.  Today, the tunnels lie under the new and modern home of the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.  Outside downtown, we next visited the Franco-American School, once the elaborate home of Frederick Ayer.  The mansion dates from 1876, is one of the most ornate in the city, and is well-preserved by the school.

After the visit to the Ayer mansion, we next visited the Spalding House, a Georgian-style house dating from 1761, and the third-oldest home now standing within city limits.  The Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust is refurbishing the building, located on Pawtucket Street just a few doors down from the Ayer mansion.  Our tour of the building was self-guided, but many members of the Trust were on hand to enthusiastically and generously offer information on the house’s history and its significance to the area.  Of all of the historical homes I have visited, these folks definitely win the award for being the most welcoming.  I look forward to visiting again when I have even more time to explore.

Doors Open Lowell satisfies that curiosity that’s lingered within me from those days when I first peered into closed stores to catch a glimpse inside.  There were so many other great doors that were opened as part of Doors Open Lowell that I didn’t get a chance to see.  I hope to visit these next year.  Not only does Doors Open Lowell succeed in satisfying my curiosity about some of Lowell’s most storied institutions and homes, it also serves to showcase just how far Lowell has come from the streetscape of closed doors and empty storefronts I remember from the early 1980’s.


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880’s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90’s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.


Once the Savoy Theatre, Then the Hathaway Theatre, First a Church – Lowell, Massachusetts

The site of the Casto Theatre, May 2012, Viewed from across Shattuck Street. (Photo by Author)

Parking lots aren’t usually very interesting.  And, as I found out this morning, it’s rather difficult to take an interesting photograph if your subject happens to be that parking lot.  And, usually, when one dives into the history of a parking lot, you find, as its predecessor, an open field, a burnt-out residence, or maybe a poorly constructed building that just outlived its usefulness.  There’s a parking lot in downtown Lowell with a much more interesting history, though.  It’s framed by the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets and is adjacent to Lowell’s Athenian Corner Restaurant.

The lot’s days for parking can be traced back, rather precisely, to the first days of September 1933, when a rather nostalgic downtown Lowell community bade its farewell to a building that dated to Lowell’s very first days as a city.  Since the start of its construction in 1837, the building first served Lowell as a church, then as a theatre, later as a boxing ring, and ultimately as a warehouse for one of its leading department stores.  All of those incarnations were recalled fondly as the wrecking ball came for the building in September 1933.

Lowell’s Casto Theatre, as it appeared around 1903. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity).  Located at the corner of Downtown Lowell’s Shattuck and Market Streets, the dark brick building directly behind it now houses the Athenian Corner Restaurant.

At the time of its demolition, the building’s past was best recalled by the time it was known as the Hathaway Theatre, a name it carried some 25 years before, from 1905 to 1912.  It was also well-known as the Casto Theatre.  But the building had many names during its century of existence.

Throughout its many years at the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets, the building’s architecture proclaimed its origins as a religious institution.  Indeed, the building was first dedicated as the Second Universalist Church on November 15, 1838.  The building remained the Second Universalist Church for years, nearly 50, before it changed its name to the Shattuck Street Universalist Church in 1888.  By 1892, church leadership began talk of selling the church property and relocating to a ‘more desirable’ part of town.  And, the following year, the Shattuck Street Universalist Society changed its name to Grace Universalist and purchased a lot on the corner of Lowell’s South Canton Street and Princeton Boulevard.

As the new church went up, church leadership worked out a deal with prospective buyers that would lead to the opening of the Savoy Theatre.  As the Savoy prepared to move into the old church, the first stone of the Society’s new church was laid on April 11, 1895.

The site of the Casto Theatre, as viewed from across Market Street. This is roughly the same view as the historical photograph offers above. (Photo by Author, May 2012)

The Savoy Theatre and Musee opened on February 17, 1896 as a vaudeville house.  The novelty of converting a church to a theatre was not lost on the Lowell populace.  As the scheduled opening of 2:30 PM approached that day, thousands lined Market and Shattuck Streets awaiting the new theatre.  And, it was by no means certain that the Savoy would open.  Mr. White, the state inspector of buildings had already condemned the former church once as unfit for theatrical purposes.  Those downtown on the day of the Savoy’s scheduled opening prepared for quite a spectacle as Mr. White arrived, at 2 PM, and met with the theatre’s management.  Ultimately, he did allow the doors to open at the scheduled time of 2:30.  So large was the crowd that many had to be turned away.  Among those who arrived to the theatre’s opening were members of the former church, anxious to see the ‘grand transformation’ of their building.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Savoy Theatre and Musee (Source: Lowell Sun, February 17, 1896)

That first show, in the converted church, promised some of the biggest names of the day in vaudeville.  And reports exist proclaiming the show’s grandeur.  They also record that the audience was timid in applauding in a church.  Or perhaps it wasn’t just that they were timid.  Those same reports recorded lots of issues with stage mechanics as the theatre worked out its ‘opening kinks’.  The Savoy gained some early notoriety when it found Miss Mamie Russell and her ‘Slide for Life’ act in early April 1896.  Her show, one of the Savoy’s most popular, featured Miss Russell sliding 400 feet, from the top of the theatre to the ground in front of the nearby YMCA building.

Despite the excitement surrounding its opening, the theatre soon ran into the red.  Management promised a change in the theatre’s “policy” and used advertising to proclaim that they were doing away with the “curio hall” attractions.  They promised “high-class vaudeville talent” only.

Similar promises, and a succession of managers, came and went over the next few years, each bringing a new policy or approach.  None were successful in making the Savoy a profitable enterprise.  Yet another new manager promised another new policy on March 26, 1897.  However, before the month was out, the theatre closed.  The Savoy stayed dark for about a year, before it reopened in February 1898, this time devoted exclusively to vaudeville.  A few short weeks later, the Savoy closed again, this time until December.  As part of this re-opening, the Savoy changed its name to the Casino – for about four months, before changing its name back to the Savoy in March 1899.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Casto – October 1902 (Source:  Lowell Sun)

The openings and closings of the Savoy continued, with a re-opening in September 1900, and another in October 1902, this time as the Casto.  Al Haynes managed the Casto during those years, and had brought the theatre’s new name from Fall River, where he had made his name.  The Casto made headlines in January 1905, though whether it was the lollipops it gifted to patrons (the latest craze) or Miss May Belfort, an English star who attracted much attention, was not certain.

Just a few short months later, the Casto underwent another ‘grand opening’ and another new manager.  A newly hired company of actors and a newly appointed stage promised a much enhanced show.  It must have worked – maybe even a little too well.  The actors left the Casto within a few weeks and moved on to its more prominent competitor, the Lowell Opera House.  Casto management replaced them, but attendance waned, and, by Christmas Day, 1905, the Casto became the Hathaway.

The theatre’s new owner, Andrew Hathaway tried to resurrect a theatre that locals had begun to call the “white elephant’.  His program promised ‘refined acts of vaudeville’, and ‘the best the market had to offer’.  And, for a while, the Hathaway succeeded and became known as one of the region’s best houses of vaudeville.  By March 5, 1912, however, the Hathaway had followed its predecessors into financial hard times.  A newspaper article of the time announced that it had again closed its doors.  The theatre had been showing some of the day’s most popular shows, like ‘The Preacher and the Convict’.  Theatre management blamed the Lenten season for sluggish ticket sales.

Six months later, on September 16, 1912, the Hathaway became the Playhouse Theatre and Kendall Weston became its manager.  Weston had a long history with the location and had been connected to the Savoy.  He brought in an acting company known as the “Drama Players”, who performed such period favorites as ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ and ‘The Charity Ball’.  Weston also acted in some of the plays.  After some initial success, the Playhouse Theatre opened and closed, frequently, as well.  The theatre temporarily tried its hand at burlesque in March 1914, adopting it as its policy one week, and shedding it in favor of showing ‘moving pictures’ the next.  On March 29, 1914, the headlines promised that the Playhouse would show ‘the $40,000 five reel feature film sensation, ‘The Making of an Automobile Shown by Vivid Moving Pictures’.

Advertisement for the Playhouse – September 24, 1912 (Source: Lowell Sun)

The Playhouse fell quiet again after that.  Lowell High put on its annual play there. The Middlesex Women’s Club showed children’s movies there for a time.  After that, the Lowell Orchestral Society offered concerts there.  Movies came back for a while in March 1917.  The following month, the Playhouse made another go at showing burlesque and musical comedy.  This continued, through more openings, closing, and reinventions.  New movie houses like the Strand moved into Lowell, and the more influential Lowell Opera House began to corner the shrinking market for live shows.

The Playhouse eventually closed for good, in 1918, and opened only sporadically in 1919 to serve as a boxing ring for local boxing stars.  On August 7, 1919, on the same day the Lowell City Council expressed its support for Irish independence and invited Ireland’s Eammon De Valera to Lowell, the announcement came that the Playhouse had been sold to the Chalifoux Company for use as a warehouse and garage.  Fourteen years later, the building was demolished and replaced by a parking lot, which still exists at the site today.