Tag Archives: Merrimack Street

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.


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990’s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930’s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840’s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870’s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930’s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990’s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


The Grand Fires of 1904: Huntington Hall; Lowell, Massachusetts

A sign posted at the site of Huntington Hall provides a history of the building.

Huntington Hall/Merrimack Street Depot

By 1904, the building that housed both Huntington Hall and the Merrimack Street Depot had served as the city’s main public gathering place for generations.  The City of Lowell and the Boston & Lowell Railroad entered into a joint agreement to build the hall in 1853, providing the railroad with the Merrimack Street Depot and the city with a public hall.  Named for the early longtime Lowell mayor, Elisha Huntington, the building housed the hall in its upper stories, and the train depot on its bottom story.

The hall was very prominent during the city’s Civil War years.  In 1861, the Union’s Sixth Massachusetts Regiment left from the hall on its way to Washington, D.C., before meeting a tragic fate in Baltimore that left four of its soldiers dead, including Luther Ladd and Addison Whitney, now buried at Monument Square under the obelisk that bears their names.   During the 1880’s, the hall housed memorial services for President Garfield and Generals Grant and McClellan.  And a few years later, General Benjamin Butler made his final speech in the Hall shortly before he was laid in state there in 1893.

1896 map showing the location and surroundings of Huntington Hall

A portion of the 1896 atlas. Huntington Hall appears at the bottom-right, at the corner of Merrimack and Dutton

The hall wasn’t without its problems.  As early as 1856, three years after it was built, a crowd gathering to hear US Senator Rufus Choate speak grew so large that city councilman J. Frank Page later remarked that the hall’s floor, at its center, sunk by “about an inch, but it seemed to us as if it were ten feet”.  Although his father, Jonathan Page later added two iron trusses to add support, the floor still sagged regularly under the weight of large crowds.  In 1892, the safety of the hall was questioned again when a bazaar to benefit St. John’s Hospital drew such a crowd that the floor sagged under its weight.  Just a few years later, in 1897, a fire damaged the hall so badly that the rebuilding effort took almost two years before the hall reopened on May 2, 1900.

The Second (and Last) Huntington Hall Fire – November 1904

Policeman Noye was patrolling downtown Lowell early on the morning of November 6, 1904.  He reached the corner of Palmer and Middle Streets.  He looked in the direction of Huntington Hall and noticed a strange glow emanating from the hall’s Market Street windows.  He was slowly approaching the hall when an explosion rocked the ground underneath him.  He watched as a tower of flame blasted through the hall’s roof.

He turned back, ran to the Central Fire Station, and pulled the fire alarm box.  The fire department responded quickly.  Members of Engine Company Number 6 arrived on Dutton Street within minutes of the explosion and prepared to fight the fire.  They had not had time to erect their ladders against the Dutton Street wall when a second explosion rocked the building.  Had they arrived minutes earlier, the falling bricks and debris would surely have caused severe injuries and maybe death.

The explosion moved the Dutton Street wall of Huntington Hall by one foot.  The Market Street wall, one foot thick and said to be “one of the surest in the city” – blew apart in the blast.  Falling bricks split a freight car into two and destroyed a hydrant on Dutton Street.  As the firemen prepared again to fight the fire without the hydrant, they soon discovered that the water was also drawn off in the canal – furthering complicating their efforts.  Assistant Chief Norton took in the situation and ordered a general alarm, bringing in fire apparatus from all areas of the city.  It wasn’t long before the firemen realized that the Hall was a total loss.  The water was having no effect on the flames.

From the Lowell Sun - 7 November 1904, pg.1

Firemen fight the flames claiming Huntington Hall - November 1904

The firemen next turned their efforts to saving surrounding buildings.  And they succeeded.  Flames caused little damage to surrounding buildings – though the explosion and water did.  The one exception, the W.A Mack building on Shattuck Street was severely damaged when the second blast sent a pile of bricks onto and through the Mack building’s roof.

At the Merrimac House, a hotel which once stood on the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets opposite Huntington Hall and at the current site of the Hess Gas Station, guests inside awoke to the sound of ringing fire bells and shouts of ‘fire’ outside.  Those on the eastern side of the hotel, facing the hall, looked through their windows to see tendrils of flames shooting halfway across Dutton Street, threatening their hotel.  The bricks on the Dutton Street side of the hotel grew hot; window glass began to crack.  Guests panicked and began to cart out their hastily packed trunks.  One hotel tenant, an Ike Harris, was seen lowering his loaded trunk from a fourth-story window toward Merrimack Street below.  He, along with the other guests, were relieved to see the fire department’s water tower arrive moments later.  Those knowledgeable of fire department equipment knew the hotel was safe.  The others soon learned the same from the bell hops and night clerks.

The Merrimac House, Lowell's premier hotel, which once stood at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets, opposite Huntington Hall

The fire heaved its last breaths from the Hall’s Shattuck Street tower, which lay beyond the streams of water thrown up by the firemen’s efforts.  Out came the department’s Babcock ladder.  Volunteers would be needed to ascend to the tower and cut out an outlet for the flames.  Bill Foss and Robert Carleton, firemen long known for past heroic efforts, quickly climbed the ladder with axes, as high as the ladder would take them, and then “monkey-like shinnied up to the roof” to make holes so that the hosemen could reach the flames.

By 6 o’clock that morning, the hall was totally destroyed.  All of its interior floors had collapsed onto the ground floor and were spilling out from the Merrimack Street Depot’s street-level entrances.  At noon, the “all out” signal sounded.  The fire was out.

A scene from the 7 November 1904 edition of the Lowell Sun

The fire, occurring so early in the morning, did not attract the usual crowd.  But the aftermath did.  Thousands were said to have descended upon Merrimack and Dutton streets to view the damage.  On the morning after the fire, the Lowell Sun estimated that some 40,000 people had come to view the ruins, many from out-of-town.  The walls that remained standing were so dangerous that Mayor Howe later ordered ropes erected to keep the crowds away.  The police guarded the ruins from would-be souvenir seekers.  Photographers crept as closely as they could to snap photos.  The cause of the fire was never determined, but some postulated that the source may have been a discarded cigar stub in a dressing room near the stage or by the scenery.  Janitor Omer Smith, known as a loyal, hard-working city employee, had worked at the hall for years and believed the fire’s cause to be the electrical wiring.  As he walked through the stage and the ante-rooms before leaving the night before, he had not seen any smoking cigars, or any signs of fire.

After this second fire in seven years, the hall was never rebuilt.  Its telltale arches were reconstructed and still stand today on Lowell’s Dutton Street.  The Huntington Hall fire was the third large fire to hit Lowell, Massachusetts in 1904, and was the last major fire during a year that had opened to see fires that claimed the O’Donnell & Gilbride Department Store and St. Patrick’s Church.

Today, all that remains of Huntington Hall are the rebuilt arches of its lowest floor.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Fires of 1904 – Lowell, Massachusetts and Fire’s Constant Threat

Image of 1904 Fireman

1904 Fireman - Lowell, Massachusetts. From: Lowell Sun. 14 Jan 1904; 7.

Fire was a danger never far from the minds of our ancestors at the turn of the last century.  In 1904, Lowell, Massachusetts, then a manufacturing city of 95,000 residents and the 39th largest city in the United States¹, suffered a record-setting year in terms of fires, alarms, and losses suffered.  Before the year would end, just over 700 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department; five of those alarms included a fatality.  The year’s largest fires claimed Lowell’s iconic Huntington Hall and one of its largest department stores – O’Donnell & Gilbride’s.  The Old City Hall – dating from 1830, St. Patrick’s Church- the city’s first Catholic church, and even the Central Fire Station were nearly lost as well.  Through this post, and a series of posts to come, I will cover each of the grand fires of 1904 in detail.

All five of the city’s fire-related deaths during 1904 were women and girls who had passed too closely to open flames in an age when hemlines swept floors.  Mrs. Celia Green died in February after stepping on a match.  Two others, Mrs. Rose Churchill and Miss Alice Sullivan, just four-years-old, died after passing too closely to burning leaves.  Another woman, Mrs. Marion Ainsworth, died on September 23 after suffering from burns caused from her oil stove the day before.  The last, Mrs. Ellen Leary, 75, died on Christmas Eve after her clothes caught fire from a falling oil lamp.

What’s surprising is that there were not more far more deaths in Lowell.  707 alarms were called into the Lowell Fire Department in 1904, and those were fairly well-distributed throughout the year, averaging about 60 alarms each month.  What caused these fires?  Chimneys were the most common cause in 1904, constituting about 17% of the alarms for that year.  Grass fires were a distant second at 7%.  Improper use of matches resulted in a good number of calls to the fire station during that year, as well, and resulted in about 5% of the year’s alarms.  However, the causes of the alarms truly were varied – ranging from sparks setting a roof on fire to failed attempts to thaw frozen pipes.  A wooden spittoon was blamed for one fire and rats’ nests in wall partitions were blamed for five others.

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

St. Patrick's Church - Lowell, Massachusetts; Image via Wikipedia

1904 began with three disastrous fires before January was even half over.  The first, on January 9, sparked in the Odd Fellow’s Building on Merrimack Street, and threatened to spread across a narrow alley and burn down Lowell’s Old City Hall Building, even then a valued part of Lowell’s early history.  The Fire Department responded quickly and effectively and protected the Old City Hall Building, which still stands today on Lowell’s Merrimack Street.  The damage from that fire was contained to the top two stories of the Odd Fellow’s Block.  Just two days later, on January 11, an overheated smoke pipe in the boiler room of St. Patrick’s Church (the city’s first Catholic church, dating from 1853²) started a fire that quickly spread throughout the landmark church, and grew so large that it threatened the nearby St. Patrick’s Home, a five-story women’s boarding house and Notre Dame Academy, a day and boarding school for the daughters of the city’s mill workers, housed in another five-story brick building.  In the end, the boarding house and the Academy were saved, but the fire caused losses of $160,765³ and major damage to the church’s interior, which would not be completely rebuilt until two years later, in 1906.

Lowell's Central Fire Station - Taken by Author

The worst fire, however, occurred on January 12, the night after the St. Patrick’s Church fire.  That fire resulted in an even larger loss of $161,422 and shut down one of the city’s largest department stores, O’Donnell & Gilbride.  The fire started late in the evening at the Fellows Block near the intersection of downtown Lowell’s Middle and Palmer Streets and quickly spread to three other large brick buildings on Middle, Palmer, and even Merrimack Streets.  Before it was extinguished four hours later, the fire threatened the Central Fire Station itself and even the entire downtown area.  Together, the three fires (all occurring prior to the middle of January) resulted in more than 80% of the city’s annual fire-related losses (4).

Historical Marker on Downtown Lowell's Merrimack Street

Historical Marker telling the story of Huntington Hall/Merrimack St. Depot

Although not the largest fire of 1904, the Huntington Hall blaze of November 6, 1904 left the longest-lasting scars on the downtown Lowell landscape.  Rebuilt from a previous fire of just seven years earlier, Huntington Hall was jointly owned by the Boston & Maine Railroad and the City.  Since 1853, Huntington Hall had served downtown Lowell as its main train station and public hall at the intersection of Merrimack and Dutton Streets.  The Hall was not rebuilt after the 1904 fire, but the arches that stand today in its place on Merrimack Street replicate the Hall’s first floor entrance to the train station, which was also known as the Merrimack Street Depot.

Over a series of posts during the next few weeks, I will be covering each of these fires in detail.  Each has its story to tell and, in the case of the Huntington Hall and Fellows Block fires, has left a lasting scar on the downtown Lowell landscape we see today.  The firemen fighting these blazes fought bravely and amid significant peril to their own lives.  Fire was an ever-present danger to our ancestors who were alive in the first years of the 20th century.  Stories have survived to show that citizens banded together to help each other through this fear, to escape the fires as they raged, and to recover from the losses they suffered.

Footnotes:

1.  To put this in perspective, consider that today, Atlanta is the nation’s 40th largest city, with a population of 420,000.

2.  It should be noted that the original St. Patrick’s Church was built in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1831.  The stone structure that suffered the 1904 fire was constructed a generation later, in 1853.  It still stands today in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood.

3.  This is quoted in 1904 dollars.  For perspective, consider that the annual payroll for Lowell’s entire department of 176 firemen was $110,000 that year.

4.  This excludes the damages caused by the Huntington Hall Fire, which occurred in November and was still being valued at the end of 1904.  The total valuation of that fire’s losses approximated $70,000.