Tag Archives: New England

New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends

This engraving from Wikimedia Commons shows the assassination of President James A. Garfield, with Secretary of State James G. Blaine standing at right. (Engraving originally published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” on July 11, 1881.)

In summer’s waning days in 1881, New Englanders read about hope for President Garfield‘s recovery from a gunshot wound suffered two months earlier, an imminent rising of the Apache Nation in the West, and a baseball game between the “Bostons” and the “Worcesters”, where unfavorable weather “kept away all spectators” and worries that Pike, the center fielder for the Worcesters, must have been “sold out” since the errors he made had given a win to the Boston team.

That all changed when the skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states.  In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads.  This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue.  New Englanders worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a hurricane coming.  They began to talk about their “Yellow Day”.  The name stuck.  Those among the more superstitious remembered Mother Shipton‘s apocalyptic prophecies with apprehension and hoped that they were not witnessing the end of the world.

By noon, the skies had darkened to the point that birds were seen roosting, and people, so accustomed to relying on natural light during their nineteenth-century days, reached for “artificial lights” to light their offices and homes.  Early afternoon trains left Boston with lamps lit, and the railroad men were seen leaving the depots with their lit lanterns in-hand, a scene usually only seen on evening and night trains.  People began to compare Yellow Day with Black Friday, New England’s darkest day, that had occurred in 1780, more than a century earlier.

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Massachusetts, in Fall River and in Lowell, students left school early.  Mills throughout New England either lit their ‘artificial lights’ or followed suit, sending their employees out into the oddly darkened streets.  Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day.  Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day.  Outside, lamplighters lit street lamps on the cities’ main roads. In agricultural communities like West Barnstable, farm work stopped for the day, as farmers watched cattle stop feeding and hens roost early.  Witnesses began to describe the Yellow Tuesday skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on.  Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues.  Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light.  Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly.  People in the street looked sickly and yellowish.  Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.

Boston's Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source:  Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

Boston’s Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source: Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

So many Bostonians rushed to the Equitable Building to view the strange day from its high roof that the roof had to be closed to further visitors in the afternoon.  People sought explanations for what they were witnessing.  The calmest theories blamed forest fires raging in Canada or Michigan, combining with fog and overcast skies in New England.  Surely, the “saffron curtain” blanketing New England’s skies was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, people reasoned.  But, no one smelled smoke.  Others attributed the yellowish hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees.   Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand.  Some took this even further.  Groups of Second Adventists in Worcester, Woonsocket, and Hartford were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end.  More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.

As the afternoon wore on toward 5 PM, the smoke began to dissipate, and by 8 PM, stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England.  New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780.  Black Friday of 1780, as it was known, followed an odd and severe winter of 1779-1780 where New Englanders frequently saw auroral displays and large spots appearing on the sun.  Snow, four feet deep, lasted from mid-November until April.  After that cold, long winter, a vast blackness opened the day on Friday, May 19, 1780, across New England, and extended beyond its borders into northern Pennsylvania and well into Canada.  The Massachusetts Spy reported that sunlight at high noon was about as bright as clear, bright moonlight.

A Map showing Damage in Michigan from the Thumb Fire of 1881. (From: State of Michigan: Department of Natural Resources)

In its aftermath, 1881’s Yellow Tuesday joined the 18th century’s Black Friday in lists of oddly memorable New England days.  The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had travelled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area (Pictured, at left) all on one day, the day before.  Yellow Tuesday long lived on in regional lore, but left everyday conversation soon after with President Garfield’s death on September 19.


Past Occupations: Ice Cutters in Massachusetts

This 1852 drawing, from Gleason’s Drawing Room Companion, shows ice harvesting on Spy Pond in Arlington, Massachusetts in the mid-19th century (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the days before refrigeration, ice was a valuable winter cash crop for enterprising businessmen.  Ice was a year-round staple in most households, and many families would give up food before they would give up ice.  As a region, New England was well-known for its quality ice.  The region’s severe cold coupled with its deep ponds produced hardy, compact ice that became quite valued for the 19th-century ice trade.

During heat waves, people depended on the harvested ice to cool lemonade and make cocktails even more appetizing, as a retreat not only from the life’s concerns, but from the heat too.  Also, iced water flavored with lemon peels had long been a 19th-century staple of Sunday school picnics.  There were other uses of ice too.  Ice was used to protect food and drink from spoiling, and it was also used to preserve bodies before burial.

Ice, due to its nature and its weight, was expensive and difficult to transport.  The ice of New England was viewed as among the purest and clearest ice available, and the region frequently produced ice crops that were thick, and as clear as crystal.  Even middle-class families considered regular visits from the ice man within their means, along with calls from butchers and grocers.  During the summer, restaurant owners and barkeepers needed steady deliveries of ice.  Private citizens did too.  Students were known to take small pieces of ice to suck on as they walked to school.  When local supplies fell short in terms of quantity or quality, the expense to bring ice in from Western Massachusetts or from New Hampshire was considerable.

The best ice for harvesting was thought to be between nine inches and one foot thick.  If the ice was to exported long distances, the recommended thickness grew to about 20 inches.  Before harvesting the ice, any snow was cleared off its surface by a wooden scraper dragged across the ice by a horse.  A second scraper was then drawn across the ice, which used a steel blade to scrape away the ice’s porous upper layer, which averaged about three inches.  After the snow was cleared, and the porous layer of the ice was removed, another horse then dragged a plow across the ice to cut a set of three-inch deep grooves across its surface.  Soon after,  a series of cuts was made in the opposite direction, thus creating a checkerboard pattern across the ice.

A stereoscopic view showing a scene from the Minnesota ice harvest (Source: Robert N. Dennis collection via Wikimedia Commons)

After the squares were marked off, the manual labor started as men took out hand saws and sawed out rows of ice blocks, each about 30 feet square.  After the first block was removed, the subsequent ones would either be taken out or thrust under the others.  Once the first few blocks were removed the work became easier as an ice spade could be dropped into the grooves to wrest the remaining  blocks of ice free.

The blocks of ice were sometimes floated through the canal, where, at the shore, they would be hoisted out.  Sometimes, they were hoisted free from the river, jerked with a hook at the end of a pole.  All blocks were then slid on sleds, which carried them away to the ice houses.

The ice blocks were then taken to ice houses, where they were cut into smaller ice cakes and raised up into the houses by steam-powered elevators.  At the top of the elevator, men then pushed the ice cakes into their final resting positions within the ice house.  As long as the ice kept moving, its weight could easily be managed by one man.  If the ice stopped, though, its weight of nearly one-half ton could require as much as four men to get it moving again.  The ice house itself was a huge wooden building with no windows that typically stood near a pond or riverbank.  Ice houses measured from 100 to 200 feet long, and were wide too.  The largest boasted capacities of some 20,000 tons of ice.  To better insulate the ice during warmer weather, the walls of ice houses were filled with sawdust.

Today, the once-familiar scene of ice cutters harvesting ice on area lakes, ponds, and rivers has gone the same way as the vision of the ice man delivering his blocks of ice along city streets.  Gone too are most of the ice houses where the ice was once stored.  What remains are the images and memories of the ice harvesting trade in history books, and in the family histories of those who count these men among their ancestors.

A late-19th century view of an ice house in Newburyport, Massachusetts (Photograph by H. P. McIntosh via Wikimedia Commons)


The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940.

The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940 crossed Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts within just a few days in February 1940.  Locals said it was the biggest storm to hit the region since the New England Hurricane of 1938, some 15 months before.  The first flurries started on the morning of Valentine’s Day, before progressing into a steady snow with strong winds as the afternoon wore on.  The storm didn’t stop until the morning of the next day when 14 inches of fresh snow lay across the area.  The drifts reached six to eight feet in some places.  Some reports described the drifts as approaching ten feet high.

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine's Day snowstorm in 1940.  (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine’s Day snowstorm in 1940. (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

The storm stalled train travel for hours on all of New England‘s railroad systems, and stranded many in Boston on Valentine’s Day.  Many Lowell residents attending the ice carnival at the Boston Garden were trapped in Boston after all train service was cancelled  after the 8:45 PM train left the station.  Many of the stranded spent idle hours over the next day or two at hotel bars, still clothed in their dinner jackets and evening gowns that they had been wearing on the night of the storm.  Those lucky enough to score hotel rooms paid steep premiums.  When the rooms ran out, hotel owners were required to provide cots in their lobbies and ballrooms to accommodate those made ‘temporarily homeless’ by the storm.

The storm also stalled trolley car and bus transportation, and all plane service was cancelled for three or four days. In the city, all of Boston’s major department stores closed on the 15th, something that hadn’t happened in 14 years, not even in the New England Hurricane of 1938.   The roads became so bad that Boston city police enforced a ban on all automobiles entering the downtown area.  And, snow removal efforts became further hampered by the large amounts of automobiles that had stalled and subsequently abandoned on the streets.

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine's Day storm.  (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine’s Day storm. (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

In Lowell, hundreds of public and private employees fought in the days following the storm to free the city from the vast amounts of snow covering city streets.  Snow removal moved slowly in Lowell.  In the aftermath of the storm, the city dispatched 30 plows, two bulldozers, and a 10-ton tractor to clear the snow.  Similar to the situation in Boston, they found many of the city’s main streets – Merrimack, Central, Bridge, and Rogers – all blocked with cars that had stalled in the storm.  By the 16th, even in the downtown section, huge drifts of snow remained piled high on the edges of the streets.   The Lowell Street Department estimated that some 200 streets remained blocked with snow, even on the 16th, two days after the storm had hit.  Like Boston, by the end of the second day after the storm, many of the stalled cars on Lowell’s city streets had been cleared out, allowing plows to finally complete their rounds.

In the end, the Valentine’s Day storm of 1940 claimed 31 lives in New England.  In the days following the storm, the number was feared to be much higher while searchers scoured the seas for the ten-man crew of the lost 49-foot dragger “Palmers Island”, which had sailed from New Bedford before the storm.   Three days after the storm, the Coast Guard took the “Palmers Island” in tow, some 120 miles south of Block Island, RI.  The dragger, with crew aboard, returned to New Bedford on Sunday, February 18.


A Train Accident in Lowell – 1928

Few people living today remember the 1920s – let alone the specifics of travel during the era.  Luckily, New England‘s commitment to preserving its history makes it relatively easy to envision the region as it appeared in decades past.  This becomes obvious during any ride through many of its cities.  The YouTube video below shows the Boston streetscape as it appeared in the 1920’s.  In watching it, you will see many familiar sights, and some sights, period cars and fashions, that have faded with the passage of time.

Like today, travel on the roads and rails of the 1920s carried its risks.  Auto and train accidents occurred and, at many times, were more serious than today’s accidents, given the era’s lack of safety equipment and regulations to minimize accidents and their impacts.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

At one o’clock during the afternoon of November 19, 1928, two passenger trains of the Boston & Maine railroad crashed head-on just beneath the Hale Street bridge.  Fifteen were taken to local emergency rooms at St. John’s, Lowell General, and the Lowell Corporation hospitals in ambulances, private cars, and trucks.

Three cars of the two trains derailed and overturned.  Train 10, which was travelling southbound to Boston from Woodsville, NH, had received a clear signal to enter the northbound track.  Moments later, as it was passing through the crossover and back onto its southbound track, a northbound express, Train 9, which had left Boston to travel to Woodsville struck the lead car on the 10 train.  The impact was so great, the southbound train overturned and derailed.

B&M Train Accident at Lowell, Massachusetts (Leslie Jones, Nov. 19, 1928, via BPL Flickr Photostream)

By the next day, one man had died.  John J. Hart, a Boston & Maine brakeman on the southbound train, died on the night of the accident at Lowell General after a blood transfusion had failed to save him.  A Stoneham resident and a 25-year employee of the railroad, he left a wife, and two children.  Another brakeman on the same train, Frederick  H. Lucas, of 786 Merrimack Street, was in serious condition.  He survived, along with 10 others who were also seriously hurt.

B&M officials ultimately concluded that the train accident was a result of the failure of the engineer of the north-bound train to control his speed and obey a block signal that had been set against his train.

Like today, travel in the past carried its perils and was sometimes visited by tragedy.  Unlike today, many of the regulations and laws that now prevent accidents, or at least mitigate their effects when they occur, did not yet exist. Train accidents, like the Lowell accident exhibited in this post, occurred frequently, and sometimes resulted in fatalities that affected the lives of our ancestors.


If Ancestors Could Talk: The Words of Nineteenth-Century New England

Eastern Massachusetts has its own way of saying things. Whether you’re drinking a tonic, or slurping a frappe, or quenching your thirst with water from a bubbler, you know you’re near Boston when the letter “r” starts migrating within sentences (think ‘supah idear’).  To linguists, New England breaks into two dialect regions:  Eastern New England and Western New England.  To speak with linguists in their jargon and to make ‘supah idears’ a topic worthy of the lecture hall, Eastern New England English, including the infamous Boston accent, is academically described as having “non-rhoticity” and as having a “broad A”.  Non-rhoticity basically means that the letter “r” is only sometimes pronounced (in words like ‘ring’ and ‘caravan’, but not in words like ‘Harvard’ or ‘yard’).  The broad “A” explains why your niece from South Boston calls you “Auntie” with the broad A of ‘saunter’ instead of pronouncing the word similar to ‘ants’.
But, if you sit down with the task of re-creating New England speech from the past, the task grows more difficult.  For one thing, as you regress back through the Victorian era, things like frappes, bubblers, and jimmies (yes, the New Englandism for “ice cream sprinkles”) begin to disappear.  And, writing phonetically – think Mark Twain‘s Huckleberry Finn – takes some time and can try the patience of your readers.  So, how do you re-create the speech of Eastern Massachusetts in, say, 1840?
Just as regional accents or dialects exist today, is there a ‘historical accent’ that we would encounter if we were to talk to a New Englander of the mid-nineteenth century?  YouTube abounds with voice recordings of past presidents:
There’s the unforgettable accent of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who grew up in Massachusetts:
There’s the lesser-known accent of Calvin Coolidge, the nation’s 30th president, from Vermont:
James Russell Lowell

James Russell Lowell, Image via Wikipedia

 

But, say you’re trying to get a sense of speech from even earlier, before recordings.  Say you’re trying to recreate the speech of the “common man”, or “woman”.  As you regress further and further back into the 19th century, their recorded words grow scarcer.   Unless you come across The Biglow Papers by James Russell Lowell.  In The Biglow Papers, James Russell Lowell sought to capture the speech of mid-nineteenth century New Englanders.  Published in 1848, its fame went on to inspire similar approaches to the representation of regionally influenced dialogue by Mark Twain.

So, if you could meet some of those New England-based multi-great-grandparents in your family trees, you might start to get a sense of the words they would choose and how they would pronounce them by reading The Biglow Papers.
As you read through The Biglow Papers, you’ll see familiar pronunciations of words that we still hear today:
  • ‘Actually’ becomes ‘act’lly';
  • ‘Ask’ becomes ‘ax';
  • ‘Dirt’ becomes ‘dut’.
It’s debatable whether these pronunciations are unique to New England or just the result of having less time for formal education and for worrying about things like annunciating every syllable.  It is interesting to note that pronouncing ‘ask’ as ‘ax’ isn’t unique to our living generations, as our grade school teachers may have insinuated when they were chiding us years ago.

"Kiss me quick", a humorous 1840's Currier and Ives print that would have been considered slightly naughty at the time. Image via Wikipedia

Further examination of the pronunciations and speech captured within the Biglow Papers picks up expressions like “to deacon off”, which means “to give the cue to do something”.  Years before Lowell wrote The Biglow Papers, a custom existed within New England churches that, as deacons read out hymns at Congregational services, the congregation was to sing them back, thus giving rise to the expression.

If someone within the congregation rubbed you the wrong way in their singing, or their mannerisms, he or she would have been known as a “crooked stick” in Lowell’s time.  And if you were to tell them, you might just “wake snakes” (get into trouble) for giving them “sarse” and they would grow “ferfle ugly” (very angry).  This is where the speech of early- to mid-19th century New Englanders really comes alive, and allows us a glimpse into just what our New England ancestors in our family trees might sound like if they could speak from the still images of those tintypes and paintings.

This post marks the first in a series on New England speech of the past.  Traveling across the United States exposes us to the country’s different accents.  Traveling across time, if it were possible, would probably expose us to the different accents of each historical era.  Listening to old recordings, the words, cadence, syntax of language all seem just perceptibly different.  What would our ancestors sound like, and which words and expressions would they use, if we were able to talk with them today?

1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.


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.


Turkey Drovers – Traditions from Thanksgiving Days Past

Female wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) take...

Wild Turkeys, Image via Wikipedia

It turns out that wild turkeys are incredibly difficult to move across long distances.  In the days before refrigerated travel, a national roadway system, and even railroads, driving turkeys across long stretches of land was the province of men called turkey drovers.  From 1790 to about 1830, turkey drovers walked turkeys to market, literally, at a top speed of about one mile per hour.  In Massachusetts, this meant driving, or walking, a flock of turkeys from Central Massachusetts to the meat market in Brighton, just outside of Boston.

Each fall during the nation’s first decades, turkey drovers could be seen driving their turkeys across the lesser travelled byways of New England; the horse traffic of the day apparently proved a worthy distraction that slowed the driving of the turkeys even more.  Turkey driving was a dawn-to-dusk activity.  At the first sign of darkness, turkeys bolt for trees, ascend into them, and roost for the night.  For this reason, turkey drovers, usually travelled in covered wagons and took turns protecting the roosting turkeys from predators (both animal fauna and humans) as well as from simply wandering off.

Another peril in turkey driving: turkeys tend to crowd together when being driven and will trample each other.  To overcome this, men called shooers divided the turkeys into lots of up to 75 birds, and led the turkeys along their route using a long pole, with a piece of red flannel attached to the end.

So, when picturing the Thanksgiving Days of yore during this year’s holiday season, add the turkey drover and his large flock of turkeys to your conjured images.  Happy Thanksgiving, readers!

 


The Etiquette of Eating Olives – Victorian-Era Table Manners

Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (detail),...

Cardinal Richelieu, Image via Wikipedia

There’s a story about the rather richly named Armand Jean du Plessis that circulated throughout Victorian-era New England during the 1880’s.  The story goes that du Plessis, better remembered by the world as the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu of  France, once exposed an impostor pretending to be a nobleman by the way the man ate his olives.  Those watching this spectacle, the Cardinal included, were nonplussed when the impostor nobleman, upon failing to find an olive fork at the table, exposed himself as a fraud when he substituted an ordinary fork when procuring his olives.  The proper thing to do, the Cardinal and his tablemates knew, was to fish those olives from the dish with one’s fingers.

This story resonated with Victorian listeners.  Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the ‘uncultivated’ who were attempting to ‘rise above their condition’ and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society.  Mary Barr Munroe, writing for the March 2, 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping, reflected on some people-watching she herself had recently done in New York.  As she sat at a New York City restaurant she “saw a richly dressed woman with every evidence a lady, handle her knife, fork, and napkin in a way that bespoke anything but gentle breeding”.  At another table, she watched “a man take from his pocket a medicine bottle, shake it, pour out a dose and swallow it with evident disgust.”

Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long.  Munroe advised that it was improper to:

  • Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
  • Grasp for food across the table;
  • Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
  • Pick that same meal from one’s teeth moments later;
  • Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal (including any bits caught within one’s teeth);
  • ‘Loll’ at the table; and
  • Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.
By Creator unknown. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Group of people lined up in front of an 'Eating Saloon'

Other table faux-paus included ordering too much from the menu or not being able to find an item there to one’s liking.  In addition to the aforementioned olives, table manners grew specific depending on the type of food consumed.  A soft-boiled egg, for instance, could be eaten in the English manner, that is, directly from its shell, using a small egg cup and egg spoon.  Alternately, the soft-boiled egg could be eaten in the American fashion, by striking the egg against the cup and then pouring its contents within that cup.

Rules were prescribed for the consumption of celery too.  ‘Strictly finger food’, the Victorians advised.  To add salt, one should hold the stalk in one’s left hand, while shaking the salt dispenser over the celery with the other.  Always be mindful, etiquette advised, that a plate is positioned under the shaking effort in order to catch any errant salt.  Corn on the cob presented a specific challenge to Victorian table watchers.  Some advised that consumers of the corn should hold the ears in “pretty little doylies”; others thought this a perfectly absurd use of table linen.  Rules even existed for the ‘after-meal': one should never pile dirty dishes or fold spent napkins.

Some claim that table manners make a pleasant dining experience possible for all.  Others argue that they serve as a method by which the upper classes of society can identify and further ostracize the ‘uncultivated’.  Before the Victorian era and even before Cardinal Richelieu‘s day, table manners were observed during what today’s society calls ‘people watching’.  But, whether you consider them important or not, they do provide some interesting viewpoints into societies of the past and the interrelations of the classes within them.