Tag Archives: Massachusetts

The Great White Hurricane – New England’s Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888 in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast.

A wet, swirling snow began to fall around dawn on Monday, March 12, 1888, in Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of about 65,000 residents.  Many of Lowell’s residents, workers in the textile mills, gingerly picked their way along slick sidewalks as they began their workweek.  Most did not know that a blizzard was approaching and that it would drop increasing amounts of snow in Lowell on that day and the next.  As they took their places behind their spinning machines and warpers, the morning’s light breezes intensified into winds and then gales.  Temperatures, near freezing in the morning, never warmed.  Outside the mills, milkmen shoveled passages through drifts that had grown several feet high.  Patrolmen struggled through blinding snows before being forced to suspend their rounds later that afternoon.  Most agreed that they had never before seen such a storm.  Almost all had thought these kind of storms only happened in the “west”, which had suffered through the Schoolhouse Blizzard just two months before.

Windows, and even their buildings, rattled in the howling winds as heavy, wet snow began to blanket Lowell, Massachusetts.  Communication with other cities was soon lost as strong gusts brought down telephone wires and telegraph poles, already heavy with snow and ice.

Travel to, from, and around Lowell soon devolved into chaos.  Snow drifts grew to ten, or twenty feet high on some train tracks.

Front Page Headlines from the Boston Globe - March 13, 1888

Those lucky enough to arrive from surrounding towns and cities came late.  Some unfortunate souls ended up stranded with their disabled trains in a dark, white wilderness.  The heavy, wet snow just proved too much for the steam engines.  To make matters even worse, downed telegraph wires meant that the stalled trains had lost all means of communication, leaving the stranded passengers and crew completely cut off.

For those relying on horse-cars to travel within Lowell, the situation was hardly any better.  Snow had settled into the horse-car tracks far more quickly than the plows had been able to remove it.  This, and the increasing number or passengers seeking refuge on the city’s horse-cars, began to overtax the city’s work horses.  Newspaper accounts recorded the concern expressed over the horses’ welfare.  When one of the horses dropped dead from overexertion early in the evening, the horse-cars were called back into the stables for the night and any attempts to keep the tracks clear of snow was given up.  Those stranded in Lowell remarked at the city’s oddly quiet streets, deserted without a single horse-car, or even any visible horse-car tracks for that matter.  Sleighs gradually claimed the streets, no longer needing to be mindful of the usual risk of overturning in the horse-car tracks.

City officials fretted that an electrical surge would take out the city’s fire alarm system.  At 5:30 that afternoon, officials shut down the city’s electric light system, after sending a notice to shopkeepers advising them to convert to their gas lights.  Most closed at dusk instead, sending their employees out into the evolving chaos that had been the city’s transportation system.  City officials tried to light their way using the old gas light lanterns that still hung along most streets.  They soon abandoned the effort, however, when they learned that the glass was missing from most of the lantern panes.

The increasing weight of the wet snow proved too much for telegraph wires too.  Communication with Boston was lost by 3 PM on March 12; New York fell silent several hours earlier.  New England Telephone Company suffered extensive damage to its telephone lines as well.

The sun finally reappeared by the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, but failed to melt much as temperatures failed to hit even 30ºF.  Throughout the day and evening, teams of men picked away at the deep drifts covering the horse-car tracks with their picks and shovels.  Horse car service began to be reinstated on the following morning.  By dusk on March 14, nearly all horse-car service was available.

Train service, too, began to return to a state of normalcy.  Trains that had spent the storm trapped within deep drifts began arriving during Tuesday, March 13.  A train that had left Fall River, Massachusetts at 5:45 AM on that day arrived in Lowell almost 12 hours later, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  By Wednesday, March 14, train service too had returned to normal schedules, even though even a passing snow squall had dropped even more snow on the area.

Western Union and New England Telephone remained hard at work in the days following the storm.  Although Western Union began work on felled telegraph poles after the storm ended on March 13, it was several days before service was restored.  New England Telephone had restored most of its service by Thursday, March 15.  Electric light service was restored to Lowell by dusk the night before.

As repairs were completed in the days following the storm, the Blizzard of 1888 faded from local newspaper headlines.  And as communication was restored with Boston, New York and beyond, news of the extent of the damage in New York City became known, where deaths and much more serious damage had been recorded.  Lowell, Massachusetts, recorded several injuries related to the Great White Hurricane of 1888, but escaped the greatest brunt of the storm.  The Blizzard of  1888 remained the benchmark for all other snowstorms, however, for nearly a century until the Blizzard of 1978 swept across New England and became the storm of record.


Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to Lowell, 1848

If you spend a considerable amount of time reading turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century editions of the local papers of Lowell, Massachusetts, you’ll soon come across the name of Samuel P. Hadley, who presided as a Justice for the Lowell Police Court for close to three decades.  In fact, I think a few of the people I’ve researched for columns . . . and even genealogy, might have met Justice Hadley in his courtroom once or twice.  Justice Hadley was very active in local history too, and was a president of the Lowell Historical Society.

[Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illin...

Abraham Lincoln, Congress-elect from Illinois - Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Justice Hadley spent a good amount of his later years recording his memories.  As the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approached just over 100 years ago, Lowell’s historical society took note that they knew of just one man who still recalled Lincoln’s visit to Lowell some sixty years before, in 1848.  At the time, Hadley was just 16 years old, but already quite interested in politics.  He and his family considered themselves democrats, but Hadley recalled being intrigued by the rival Whig party and wanting to know more.

Hadley remembered walking up Lowell’s Central Street on September 14, 1848, and pausing when he saw a sheet of white paper, a yard long and two feet wide, with large black block letters inviting passersby to City Hall two days later, on a Saturday evening, to see the Hon. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

On the evening of September 16, 1848, a pleasant evening as Hadley recalled it, he walked into Lowell from his home in Middlesex Village.  As he turned the corner of Carleton and Hovey’s, he realized he was late, and could hear applause and laughter already escaping from the hall. He entered City Hall, and found a seated crowd, listening, entertained, to a man telling a story.  Even the ladies in the gallery had joined in the laughter.  Hadley noted that many prominent members of the local Whig party, Lincoln’s then-party, were present on the platform. Hadley later learned that the man speaking to the crowd was a young Abraham Lincoln, who would have been less than 40 years old at the time.  Hadley described him as a tall man who was dressed in dark clothing and wore a collar turned over a black silk cravat.  He noted that the man, who stood well over six feet tall, stooped somewhat and had long arms, that moved animatedly as he spoke.  He also noticed Lincoln’s dark complexion and nearly black hair.  Lincoln’s eyes, he described as bright, humorous, but reflecting a quiet sadness.   He found him forceful and candid, rather than eloquent.  While Hadley listened to him speak, Lincoln added amusing illustrations to his stories, and had a peculiar way of laughing that included shaking his sides, which caused the audience to laugh even more.  He also noted Lincoln’s strange way of pronouncing his words, “in a manner not usual in New England“.

Hadley listened to Lincoln for nearly 45 minutes, laughing at his stories.  He lamented that he couldn’t recall the details of the stories when he set down to record the memory some 60 years later.  Lincoln ended the speech to rounds of applause that filled the hall, and went to take his seat.  Before he could sit, though, Mr. Woodman stepped forward, and whispered in Lincoln’s ear.  Lincoln needed to stoop to hear Woodman, but nodded and came back to address the audience on the candidacy of General Zachary Taylor as the candidate of the Whig party for the presidency.

It’s interesting to read and consider the newspaper coverage that Lincoln’s appearance received the next day.  In his paper, Hadley provides the articles as they appeared in the Lowell Courier on the following Monday, September 18, 1848:

Alfred Gilman's report on Lincoln's Visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, September 1848

The second half of Alfred Gilman's report, 1848

Justice Hadley finished his recollection, stating that he was fairly certain that Lincoln had stayed in Lowell that Saturday night – since the trains to Boston ran no later than 6:30 in the evening during those days.  He did not know where Lincoln had stayed, but speculated that he most likely stayed with the Chairman of the Central Committee, Linus Child, or with another Lowell dignitary, Homer Bartlett, who both lived in the same block on Kirk Street in Lowell’s downtown section.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John R. Rollins School Lawrence, Massachusetts

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

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

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


If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906

Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850?  It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song.  Why “jingle bells”?  Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence.  The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.

By Timmis, Reginald Symonds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Two-Horse Open Sleigh - in Toronto, 1913

But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”?  In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads.  In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them.  On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.

He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports!  All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities.  On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses.  When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.

From Lowell's Municipal Records - 1906 City Forester's Report

From Municipal Records of Lowell - City Forester's Report - 1906

Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses.  When they didn’t, people improvised.  In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk.  City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below.  One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.

Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then.  Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act.  By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees.  It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.

From Municipal Records - Lowell City Forester's Report 1906

Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago?  Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene.  Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses.  According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night.  Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.

As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:

A day or two ago, the story I must tell. 

I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.

A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh. 

He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”

I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond.  I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.

Happy Holidays, Readers!  And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of Researching Portuguese Ancestors

If you were to visit Lowell, Massachusetts before . . . say, 1890, you would not have met many men walking about the city named João or Manuel.  The Portuguese began arriving en masse in New England in the late 19th century and had established, by the first decades of the 20th century, sizable communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Most of these Portuguese hailed Madeira or the Azores, island possessions of mainland Portugal.  The three pages attached below are taken from the Lowell, Massachusetts City Directories for 1884, 1894, and 1910.  The surname Silva, one of the most common Portuguese surnames, does not appear at all in the 1884 directory.  Just ten years later, in 1894, ten Silva men are listed in the Directory.  And, by 1910, this number had grown to 42 individuals with the surname Silva.

1884 Lowell City Directory

1894 Lowell City Directory

1910 Lowell City Directory

If you’re among the roughly 1 in 20 Americans who today claim Portuguese ancestry, you’ve likely discovered that Portuguese genealogy presents some challenges.  Records are not as widely available as they are for other Western European countries, and often are not translated from Portuguese. Additionally, vital records (birth/baptism, marriage, death) are frequently church records whose form and content vary widely depending on the time and region of the record.  As an added challenge, many Portuguese arriving in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed their names either to appear more American or so others would be more able to pronounce their names. In my own research, I’ve found Machados who became Marshalls and Pereiras who became Perrys.   To add to the challenge, first names are often translated too. José becomes Joe and João becomes John.  There’s some evidence of this in the Lowell City Directory listings above, where many of the Silvas use Anglicized names like Joseph, Frank, John, and Louis.

It took me what felt like forever to find my grandmother’s Machado family in the 1920 U.S. census and with good reason.  When I finally found them, they were listed as an Irish family with the surname “Marsh”  (Below, see lines 54-57.)  Sometimes, the errors recorded in census records tell you more than the true information that was recorded.  From this record, I can get an idea of how my great-grandfather’s pronunciation of “Machado” sounded to a native English speaker from Massachusetts.  How she ever ended up listing them as English speakers from Ireland though, I’ll never know.  They were light-skinned Portuguese folks with light eyes, but likely spoke broken English at the time.

Admittedly, the challenges of Portuguese genealogy are many, but the Portuguese people have a rich history. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about one’s ties to a culture that gave us some of the world’s great explorers, e.g., Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, as well as fellow present-day descendants like Tom Hanks and Meredith Vieira? The Portuguese even had their own crazy set of royals (which they overthrew during the Revolution of 1910).  And Portuguese history is full of interesting stories that are not well-known in the English-speaking world.  Perhaps one of the most curious tales to have occurred during the nearly eight-century history of the Portuguese monarchy is that of the legend of Pedro I.  The legends goes that Pedro I was so distraught that his wife, Inês de Castro, had died before he became King that, when he eventually ascended the throne in 1357, he exhumed her body, put her upon the throne, bejeweled and dressed in a rich gown, and then required each of his new vassals to kiss her hand as a show of fealty to their new queen.

By Litografia Epaminondas Gouveia. Rua do Rangel, 16. C. Frese [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cigar wrapper depicting Ines de Castro upon her throne

When I first started researching my grandfather’s family, I vaguely knew that he had come from Madeira, a Portuguese island about 600 miles from mainland Portugal and 400 miles from Morocco that had first been settled by the Portuguese about a decade after Henry the Navigator had sponsored a voyage there in 1419. When I later read his obituary, it rekindled a memory that he had been born in its capital city of Funchal.  I also knew his parents names had been John and Frances.  With his birthdate, it was a good start.

While genealogy records seem to abound for ancestors from the British Isles, Portugal’s ancestral records are relatively unexplored. Even a few years later I started researching, online resources were still fairly limited. There were a few people in Portugal willing to help out through the internet, but with the foreign currency issue (how to pay them), and the vague unease associated with internet transactions, it seemed more trouble than it was worth.  I tabled further research for a while, content to know that my ancestors came from Madeira, from its capital city Funchal – until I was fortunate enough to land a temporary work assignment in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. In April 2004, I arrived in Lisbon to work the assignment, and to perfect the Portuguese I had been learning in Brazil.

Three things about Portugal: 1. the Portuguese of Lisbon is very distinct from the Portuguese of Brazil; it varies verbally and grammatically to a greater extent than American English differs from British English. 2. the Portuguese of Madeira sounds a lot different from the Portuguese of Lisbon. 3. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and is considered somewhat separate, both culturally and geographically, from mainland Portugal.

Even from Lisbon, Funchal is still a two-hour flight.  But, by 2004, Portugal had begun to put some of its genealogical information online. Already armed with my grandfather’s date of birth and his birth city, I requested his birth record from the government-run website. A few weeks later, the baptismal record arrived.  And, as I opened it, I thought ‘what luck!’ The certificate included not only details around his birth, but also details about his parents and even grandparents. And, it showed that my family had come from an even smaller village on Madeira a generation earlier, called Caniςo.

Topographic data from the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain)

Topographic and administrative map in French of Madeira

Even in 2004, a few well-planned online searches for Caniςo popped up some very specific hits, including one to a distant cousin who had, several years earlier, researched the family back almost 500 years to the early 1500’s. A quick email, and a day later, he had sent me an Excel spreadsheet listing out every ancestor and cousin in the family, their baptisms, marriages, and even how they were all related to each other. I later found a book indexing all of the Madeira records and tied out all of the records and verified his accuracy.  These days, much more is available online for Madeira, and you don’t really need a book only available in Portugal.  You can research marriages, baptisms, passport applications, and more at the Madeira Archives website at:

http://www.arquivo-madeira.org/homepage.php

At this point, the website and its indexes are only available in Portuguese, but with the knowledge of a few terms, you should be able to navigate the website quite easily.  From the homepage above, click on “bases de dados”.  For marriages, search “casamentos”.  Baptisms and Passports are the next two links in Portuguese words that will look familiar to English speakers.

I still stare sometimes at the earliest names on that list.  When I look at the earliest, a direct ancestor who was born in 1535, I  wonder what his life was like all those years ago on Madeira, and just how many descendants he has in New England, the United States, and in the many other regions of the world.  In years, 475 are a lot.  I don’t have his date of death (those seem to be less consistently recorded than dates of baptisms and marriages), but it’s probably a safe bet that he had long since passed away before the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock in 1620.