Tag Archives: Wigginville South Lowell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lowell’s Riverside School: The Lowell Parents’ Strike – 1971

Things have to get fairly dire before your entire student body, well, 97% of your student body, boycotts your school due to “dangerous conditions”.  But, that’s precisely what happened at Lowell’s Riverside School on a Monday morning in late March, 1971.  Of the school’s 205 students in Grades K through 5, just six showed up for school.  Instead, starting at 8:15 AM on March 22, their parents – mostly their mothers – began showing up to picket in front of the school, at Woburn Street’s intersection with Eugene Street.

Robert Healy, Jr., Assistant City Manager, soon arrived at the picket line, which had been announced and expected before that Monday morning.  He arrived with little to offer.  Of the city’s $2.2 million school renovation budget ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), precisely nothing was destined for the Riverside, or any of the city’s other older ‘wooden schools’.  The picketing parents listed and responded by giving Healy a list of no less than 24 problems that they had identified at the school.

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

The Riverside, built in the years leading up the twentieth century, had once been a gem of Tewksbury’s school system in the years before Lowell’s annexation of the Wigginville neighborhood of South Lowell.  With its eight rooms (luxurious by period standards), the school was – spacious -; so, spacious, in fact, that two of those rooms were specially designated for its students’ recreation.  A 1910 Lowell Sun article lauded the school’s playrooms and greatly admired the dollhouse and doll tea set that had been built by the students.

Sixty years later, by the early 1970s, things had clearly changed.  The parents’ 24 problems included: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, dim and missing lights, a failing oil heater, shoddy wiring, and a shortage of school supplies.  That wasn’t all.  The school was actually unsafe; the parents charged.  The roof leaked so much water that the wiring in the school’s attic was submerged in puddles.  These were the days before parents worried about mold exposure.

Healy, representing the city manager’s office, wasn’t unsympathetic.  He just had a really tough position to support.  He listened to the picketing parents.  He then explained that the damage to the school’s roof had been a result of maintenance to the school.  An air raid siren had to be removed, and it was – just a month earlier.  The weight of the siren had damaged the roof.  In fact, he said, as the picketers amassed on that March Monday, public works crews had arrived for their second day of work to fix the leaks.  And, a wiring inspector would arrive later that day to review the electrical problems.  The city would fix the Riverside.

Parents picket the Riverside School, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1971.  Credit: Lowell Sun – 3/22/1971

Parents quickly pointed out that maintenance workers wouldn’t fix all 24 problems on their list.  “History is not being taught in the fifth grade because we have no books.”  One parent said.  “Geography is not being taught in the fourth grade because we have only seven books and they have pages missing.”  Another contributed.  One Riverside teacher later confided that she had been forced to use spelling books that dated from the 1920’s.

School officials responded by denying they knew that there was a problem.  The parents insisted that they had contacted the superintendent’s office.  They also reminded school officials about their promise regarding the Joseph G. Pyne School.     When the J. G. Pyne had been built, a few years earlier, the plan had been to move the Riverside children there.  In fact, the School Committee, in 1970, had voted 5-2 to move the Pyne’s seventh and eighth graders to the Moody in order to free up space for the Riverside students.  There was one problem, though.  No one made sure that the Junior High students at the Pyne minded going to the Moody.  They did.  To accommodate the “almost unanimous” wishes of the South Lowell citizenry, school committee officials left the J. G. Pyne students at the J. G. Pyne, and the Riverside students at their crumbling Riverside.

And this led to a mid-March strike where parents kept 199 of the school’s 205 students out of school for a day in protest.    The parents’ list continued.  During the previous winter, classes had been held in classrooms where the temperature hovered near 40 degrees.  With no heat, the students stayed in their coats all day.   As Assistant City Manager Healy listened to their list, he acknowledged that the parents “had a case”.  He promised to fix the school’s supply problems almost immediately, saying that he would talk with the school’s principal and central office.  All they have to do, he said, is call downtown and they’ll get new supplies.

Credit: Lowell Sun – March 22, 1971

Healy knew that the DPW had been addressing the school’s plaster issues, but also acknowledged that he knew it to be only ‘band-aid work’.  Superintendent of Schools Wayne Peters also responded to the picketing parents, saying conditions at the Riverside weren’t really any better or worse than any other old school in the city.  “We could close the Riverside tomorrow if parents and members of the PTAs would be willing to transfer junior high school out of the J. G. Pyne school and bus some students to the Reilly.”  Peters said.  Asked about the school’s extremely low attendance on the morning of March 22, 1971, Peters dismissed it, saying that they would teach the six students.  They would teach just one student.  “It’s only the students who are suffering”.

“The school is not in very good condition, but the city council voted not to include the wooden schools in the $2.2 million renovation program.  I feel for these parents.  I know the situation, but the City of Lowell cannot afford to put good money after bad and renovate these old wooden schools.”

Officials did not perform their investigations into the school’s dismal conditions publicly.  However, over the following four weeks, Superintendent Peters held two meetings with parents to iron out differences and also met with the school’s principal and her teachers.   The principal’s resignation and retirement followed one month later, in mid-April, reportedly at the superintendent’s request.  Repairs came, and the school remained in use, up through the 1981-1982 school year, when its students were, indeed, moved to the J.G. Pyne School.  From personal experience, I can say that I have fond memories of the school, and can still remember its huge classrooms, with long, shiny wood floors, and old woodwork.  I was a member of the school’s final kindergarten class.

Riverside School’s Final Kindergarten Class – Spring 1982. In the years since, I helpfully marked myself with initials that are floating above my head.  Although my five-year-old self enjoyed my time at the school, the maintenance occurring between the time of the Parents’ Strike and this photo ten years later, didn’t quite extend to repainting the main entrance doors.

Today, the Riverside School houses the B.R.I.D.G.E. (Beginnings Respect Independent Diversity Guidance Education) Program at the McHugh Alternative Middle School, a partnership between Middlesex Community College and the Lowell Public Schools.  Established in 1997 for 24 Lowell public school seventh and eighth graders, the program today has grown to serve 50 students.  The B.R.I.D.G.E. program serves students who have experienced past behavioral or attendance problems in traditional school settings.