Category Archives: Massachusetts

The Day North Billerica’s Hospital Nearly Burnt Down, 1938

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane:  Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane: Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

In the wake of the New England Hurricane of 1938, Oscar Grenier found work with the W.P.A. cleaning up storm damage near the Farnan Private Hospital for the Aged on North Billerica’s Mt. Pleasant Street.  Grenier first noticed the smoke rising from the hospital just after 10 AM on September 30, 1938.  He, George Lindsay, and Robert Louvering, all W.P.A. workers from Billerica, rushed into the burning hospital, up to its second floor, and discovered flames engulfing a bedroom.  The men began pulling the patients, all between 60 and 92 years old, through the smoke and flames to the safety of the hospital’s porch.

Oliver Damon, of Mt. Pleasant Street, saw the commotion, ran 500 yards to the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Billerica Avenue and pulled the alarm box.  Rushing back to the fire, he helped the other men carry patients, some against their will, from the burning hospital to his house across the street.   Some were in their beds, others in their wheelchairs.  Some were blind or suffering from shock.  One had no legs.

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas.  At the time, the future Farnan Hosptial was owned by F. Clarke

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas. At the time, the future Farnan Private Hosptial was owned by F. Clark.

Meanwhile, Billerica’s fire department answered the alarm, from the Billerica Central and North Billerica stations.  Chief Bartlett arrived to find flames shooting from the hospital’s eaves.  He immediately sought help from Lowell, which sent five more engines to the two-alarm fire.  Hose lines were laid from every hydrant.  Ladders were raised to every section of the roof.  For a while, the fire threatened to engulf the entire building.

Hundreds watched the firemen’s progress from Mt. Pleasant Street.  Inside the Damon home, Louise Saber, the nurse-in-charge, directed the care of the patients, and ensured that the beds and cots were set up.  First aid was administered.  Quickly, the nurses  determined that the patients had suffered no serious injuries.

The "Red Gables", as it appears today.  (Image Credit:  Google Maps - May 2009)

The “Red Gables”, as it appears today. (Image Credit: Google Maps – May 2009)

In the end, the firemen extinguished the flames, and Merle Farnan promised to quickly rebuild her hospital.  Even in 1938, North Billerica valued the historic building, which had been built as the Red Gables estate of Frederic Clark, a Talbot Mills treasurer, superintendent, and president.  Investigators later traced the cause of the fire to the open flame of a first-floor fireplace, which had shot up the partitions, and burst into the second-floor bedroom entered by the W.P.A. men.  At the time of the fire, the fireplaces were being used for heat because the building’s electrical service was out due to the recent hurricane.

Merle Farnan did rebuild her hospital.  During the rebuilding, North Billerica showed its generosity and hospitality when the Damon family and other neighbors took in the hospital’s patients.    The following Independence Day, in 1939, Farnan treated hospital patients, and their gracious neighbors, to an elaborate display of fireworks.  The building still stands today on Mt. Pleasant Street and is an apartment house.


The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source:  Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source: Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

In the years following the US Civil War, roller skating really came into its own.  As the design of the roller skate improved over the second half of the 19th century, so did its popularity.  Many became fans of the new hobby.  Many others viewed it as immoral and a threat to the order of things.

By the 1880s, a craze had developed, and roller skating rinks began opening in many US cities.  Boston had three.  The largest, on the corner of Clarendon and St. James Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood, featured a roller skating surface some 180 feet long by 70 feet wide.  Two others were in Boston, at the time, one on Washington Street, near the intersection with Dover, in the South End.  Another stood on Shawmut Avenue.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a December 1884 editorial in the Lowell Sun took aim at the Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, stating it was ” the cause of more and worse immorality . . . in the city.”    It went so far as to claim that the city’s theaters, themselves often criticized for contributing to society’s immorality, were a “Sunday school” compared to the roller skating rinks.  While the editorial acknowledged that some of the city’s most “moral and estimable” people visited the rink, it questioned whether the rink also attracted some of the city’s most immoral citizens, like “prostitutes” and “libertines”.  And, the editorial went on to insinuate that it was much more likely that the immoral would corrupt the moral classes, rather than the other way around.  The 1884 writer wondered:

“Does it improve a young girl’s modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor, in the gaze of hundreds, with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head?  Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?”

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source:  The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source: The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink was located on Gorham Street, and opened each year in November, right before Thanksgiving.  The season extended through April and sometimes until the middle of May, when the rink closed and skaters took to skating on the smoothest sidewalks and roads to be found in the city.  Sometimes, the rinks were also used for bicycles, bouquet parties, and competitive skating competitions.  For a while, the Lowell Skating Rink even hosted the games of Lowell’s polo team.  Despite its popularity, many saw the skating rink as a “bad institution” even it all it did was keep society’s most vulnerable, the young, out too late at night, or provide them with a plausible cover when they went elsewhere.

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s.  (Source:  Scientific American Supplement - February 24, 1877)

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s. (Source: Scientific American Supplement – February 24, 1877)

Inside, the rink was known not only for its yellow birch skating floor, but also for its ornamental railings that separated the skaters from the fifteen-foot-wide promenade.  From the promenade, spectators watched skaters from their rows of camp chairs.

The editorial concluded by claiming that roller skating could not “help having immoral effects” even if the management of the rink was sound.  The long-ago writer also claimed that roller skating was the “most mischievous form of public amusement ever introduced” and believed that it would soon be “suppressed as a dangerous evil.” In the end, roller skating was not suppressed, and actually evolved into being seen by later generations as good, clean fun.  The Lowell Skating Rink would not live to see the vindication of roller skating among the masses, though.  It closed its doors in early 1885, and was sold and torn down soon after.


The Daniel Gage Ice Company of Lowell, Massachusetts

In the Lowell of our parents and grandparents, a yellow horse-drawn wagon coming down a city street in high summer meant an approaching escape from the summer heat.  City children knew each ice man driving the yellow wagons, and often relished jumping aboard for a piece of ice and a ride down the road, or across the city.  The yellow wagons belonged to the Daniel Gage Ice Company, and many kids knew the routes better than the ice men themselves.  Even today, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember them.

An advertisement for Daniel Gage Ice, as it appeared in Lowell, A City of Spindles, 1900, by Lowell Trades and Labor Council

One of the best things about writing Forgotten New England is hearing from readers.  I recently posted an entry about the lost profession of ice harvesting and the ice cutters and icemen who helped gather and deliver ice to a world that did not yet know refrigeration.  Through a fellow board member of the Lowell Historical Society (who writes the Lowell Doughboys and More blog), I met Gavin Lambert, who shared the photograph below, as well as his mother’s memories of the ice men she remembered from growing up in Lowell in the 1940s.  She recalled Shorty, her family’s ice man, who arrived in his horse-drawn wagon with his leather shoulder shroud and ice tongs.  Shorty, as she remembered, was a friendly guy, who readily chiseled off ice splinters to give to the neighborhood kids each summer.  She remembered the wooden floor of Shorty’s ice wagon.  Although she never knew his full name or nationality, she still remembers her family’s ice man from Gage’s Ice Company to this day, almost 70 years later.

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Gage’s Ice of Lowell was, at one time, so well-known that the image of its ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River was considered so central to the identity of Lowell that it is memorialized in a stained glass window that sits in St. Brigid’s church in the village of Ballyknock, Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland.  Explaining the photograph of the window, posted at right, Gavin Lambert shares that enough people from the Jordan family left that Irish village for Lowell that the stained glass window was placed in their church in their memory.  Representing Lowell is, of course, its mills and smokestacks.  But, closer examination reveals the ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River, ice blocks belonging to Gage’s ice trade.

Another reader, Dave, recalls colder winters in the 40s and 50s, and how the ice would back up each winter along the Merrimack, so much so that one could hear it “cracking all the way to Broadway”.  Dave recalls walking to Gage’s decades ago to buy ice chips.  Some days, he would buy a huge block of ice for a quarter, and watch it descend a long slide, packed in straw.  Like another reader, he also owns a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s.

Daniel Gage, founder of Gage’s Ice was a fixture in Lowell business circles for nearly half a century, and quickly rose to prominence among Lowell’s business community.  He was born in Pelham, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1828, to Nathan and Mehitable Woodbury Gage, and was proud of his deep New England roots extending back to colonial times.  Gage even claimed descent from the band of men who helped William the Conqueror win England from Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Daniel Gage, from History of Lowell and its People, Volume 3. (Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

Gage spent his first twenty-five years in his native Pelham, NH, on his family farm, before coming to Lowell in 1854 and founding a business in the city’s wholesale beef trade.  He did this for 15 years, setting up his home and business near the Hildreth Street area, in what was then still part of the town of Dracut, Massachusetts.  He sold this off in 1869, and moved to corner of Bridge and West Sixth streets in Lowell.  Soon after, he started his ice business, which he would build for the rest of his life.  It became so successful that he eventually earned the title of Lowell’s ice king.

As Lowell’s ice king, Gage also made his mark on the city in other ways.  He served as a long-time director of the Prescott National Bank, and was its president when he died in 1901.  Later in life, he also extended his business into the coal and wood trade.  Gage also donated ice to many of Lowell’s charitable organizations, a practice continued by his business, and other businesses, well after his death.

Gage, with his wife, Abiah Smith Hobbs, had two daughters, one who died at the age of 16, and the other, Martina, who lived into old age, and eventually became owner of her father’s ice business when he died in 1901, after suffering a bout of pneumonia for about one week.

Daniel Gage, from an illustration published after his death in the March 1901 edition of Ice and Refrigeration.

Years after his death, Gage’s daughter, Martina Gage, became a well-known figure in Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood.  There, she was often seen handing out candies from D.L. Page’s candy store to the children of her workers, who lived in company housing there.  Miss Martina Gage retained control and ownership of Gage’s Ice for nearly as long as her father had.  In March 1929, Martina Gage sold control of Daniel Gage Ice Co. to the Lowell-based Kidder Company, and she gave up her role in its active management.  After 28 years leading the company following her father’s death, she passed day-to-day responsibilities to a board of directors, led by F. Arthur Osterman of the Osterman Coal Company of Wamesit.

Gage’s closed decades ago, and the need for ice from the river has long since been replaced with more modern refrigeration technologies.  Even though the ice houses and the companies that built them are now long gone from our city, their memory remains with those who saw them growing up, and remember the very human element of the ice men who were warmly welcomed regulars in the Lowell neighborhoods they loved as children.


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 Day a Cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts – 1890

On a summer morning in July 1890, the cyclone hit Lawrence, Massachusetts suddenly and without warning.  What we would today call a tornado or microburst began as soft showers advancing across the city as people made their way to work on Saturday, July 26, 1890.  As nine o’clock approached, the clouds thickened and darkened the sky.  The rain intensified.  Fifteen minutes later, a funnel cloud appeared in the skies above Lawrence.  The wind picked up.  Then, the noise started.  Later, survivors learned that those sounds were nearby houses being torn apart.

Most Lawrence residents confused the commotion for noise coming from the city’s textile mills or from the city’s busy streets.  Chaos emerged as they realized a cyclone was crashing down onto South Lawrence, sending trees, houses, and other debris flying  through the air and across the city.  In just three minutes, twenty-five houses were completely destroyed.  Another 25 received serious damage.  Dozens of people were wounded, and eight people lost their lives.

St. Patrick's Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe - July 27, 1890)

St. Patrick’s Church of Lawrence, Massachusetts, after the 1890 Cyclone (From the Boston Globe – July 27, 1890)

The cyclone struck Lawrence just west of Broadway, a main route connecting the city with Andover.  The houses on the west side of Broadway escaped with minor damage and downed tree limbs.  St. Patrick’s Church, the Catholic Church at the corner of Salem Street on Broadway’s east side, wasn’t so lucky.  It suffered broken windows and a lost roof on one of its transepts.

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy:  Illustrated American, 1890)

Damage caused by the 1890 Lawrence Cyclone (Courtesy: Illustrated American, 1890)

Far worse, though, was the damage to the neighborhoods off Broadway.  Among the first casualties of the 1890 Lawrence cyclone was the saddest.  Mary Lyons, 24, was outside as the cyclone approached her Emmet Street home.  Fearing for her child, she ran inside her home just moments before the winds dashed her house from its foundation and broke it apart.  Her husband, James, was just a few feet further away, in a neighboring field, and just steps behind his wife.  The winds proved too much for him and he was blown aside, never reaching the house.  Outside, pinned to the ground just feet from his home, he was forced to watch it break apart with his family inside.  When the winds died down minutes later, he regained his footing, ran for his home and, with other rescuers, found the body of his wife, with a beam that had fallen across her forehead.  As they pulled her from the wreckage of the house, they found the Lyons’ young daughter underneath her, very alive and clasping her mother’s body while crying “mamma, mamma”.

The cyclone next crossed Salem Street’s overhead railroad bridge where Michael Higgins, who was working the bridge’s switch house, was blown more than 150 feet away.  His body was later found with a broken neck.   He was 23.  The winds next hit the house of Deacon William Cutler, who lived on the corner of Salem and Blanchard Streets.  The four people in the house at the time survived with just minor injuries.  One daughter narrowly escaped death by hiding under the family’s piano.  Another of Deacon Cutler’s daughters, Helen, just 11 years old, wasn’t so fortunate when she was carried down an embankment by the cyclone and struck by debris.  She died a few hours later.

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone.  (Courtesy:  The Illustrated American, 1890)

A view of houses on Springfield Street, Lawrence, after the 1890 cyclone. (Courtesy: The Illustrated American, 1890)

Soon after the cyclone bore down on the Cutlers’ home, the wind shifted, sending the cyclone spiraling toward Springfield Street, where the heaviest devastation was recorded.  The houses there were either torn down entirely, blown over on their sides, or had entire walls torn out.  There, Elizabeth O’Connell, 32, died when she was crushed to death by the debris of her collapsing house.  Her eleven-year-old daughter, Mary Ann, affectionately known as Mamie, died with her.  After Springfield Street, the cyclone flattened a grove of trees on Union street, before demolishing another six houses on Portland Street.  On Portland Street, among the debris, Elizabeth Collins and her six-year-old daughter, Annie, were found inside their house.  Hannah Beatty, 10 years old, was also found nearby.  All died of suffocation after being trapped under debris.

Some stories of miracle cases were told where death had been averted.  A bundle of rags blowing down Springfield Street in the aftermath of the cyclone turned out to be the baby daughter of Mrs. Elizabeth O’Connell, covered in dust and plaster, but otherwise unharmed.  Another Springfield Street resident, Mrs. Lizzie Holdeworth, was sitting in her house as the winds bore down upon South Lawrence.  She heard a crash, but lost consciousness before she could react.  When she came to, she was trapped under a pile of beams, unable to move, or to even make a noise.  A rescuing party, arriving hours later, chopped her free.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

The names of the eight victims of the 1890 Lawrence, Massachusetts cyclone, as recorded in the municipal death records.

In the aftermath of the cyclone, Lawrence set upon the ruined district around Springfield Street and started clearing the debris, and planning funerals for the dead.  Half of the cyclone’s victims were parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church.  Owing to the fact that cyclones are somewhat rare in the New England region, thousands of sightseers were reported to have descended upon South Lawrence in the days following the cyclone to view the damage.  Many remarked that the loss of life was very low for such a damaging storm.  This, of course, was no solace to the family and friends of the eight victims who lost their lives during the Lawrence Cyclone of 1890.


Past Occupations: Lamplighters in Lowell, Massachusetts

Gas lighting early 20th century (via Wikimedia Commons)

Lamplighters turned night into day.  A staple of the urban Victorian streetscape, the nostalgic image persists of a lone man, walking a darkening city street as dusk descended behind him, extending his staff to ignite each dark, cold lamp stem to life with a small flame.  He would light the way along the lonely city lanes, so that those who were out after dark would not lose their way.

A lamplighter stood on his street corner, leaning on a long brass-tipped staff.  There, he would watch the time.  As dusk approached, he  hefted the end of his staff to light the street lamp overhead.  He would then walk quickly from one side of the street to the other, lighting the street lamps as he went.  When all the lamps were lit, the lamplighter was done for the night, until daybreak approached, when he walked the streets once again, to extinguish the flames.  Lamplighting wasn’t known to be a particularly grueling job, but most lamplighters were assigned routes of 70 to 80 lamps each.  They were paid about $2 a day.  Unlit gas jets within the lamps were known to immediately draw taxpayer complaints to the department’s superintendent.

The amount of work required to do the job varied by season.  The number of lamps rarely changed, but the work required to complete the route and light them did.  After the lamplighters extinguished their street lamps, they ate breakfast and then starting cleaning.  Cleaning was the most work.

In practice, in Lowell – a city of about 78,000 residents in 1890, the whole lamplighting system worked a little differently.  Up through the 1880’s, Lowell’s Department of Street Lamps employed a foreman, five other men, and 28 boys.  All under the direction of the city’s fire department chief, Edward S. Hosmer, the boys were charged with lighting almost all of the city’s 876 gas-powered lights.  Only 35 gas-powered streetlights in the city’s outskirts were lit by one of the five men employed by the Department of Street Lights.  When these men weren’t going out to parts less travelled to light these street lamps, they cleaned the lamps, and set, fitted, and sometimes reset posts, as needed.

Lamplighter

Lamplighter (Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis)

By 1888, 876 gas lights still dotted Lowell city streets.  They were beginning to be replaced by electric lights, but the city was still adding more gas lights than it was turning off.  The city also had 397 gasoline and kerosene-powered lights, and was gradually replacing these with gas-powered lights as gas mains were laid in the streets.  Through the 1880’s, the Lowell Police Department was charged with putting the lamps out as the wee hours of the morning approached.  In 1887,  the police complained that this rather cumbersome duty not only distracted them from other more important duties, but also provided criminals with a way to predict when and where the patrolmen would be busy.  The police were required to extinguish 850 lights each night, 750 at 1 AM, and another 100 at 3 AM.  Most of these lights were outside of the city’s main downtown area, where electric lights had begun to be substituted.  Sometimes, it took as much as three hours a night for a policeman to extinguish his lamps on a given night.  The remaining lamps on the outskirts were extinguished by the Street Lamp Department’s regular men.

The Lowell Police got their wish granted in 1890, when the Department of Street Lamps no longer hired boys to light the street lamps or required policemen to extinguish them.  On July 1, 1890, five men were hired into the Street Lamp Department, bringing its total headcount to 11 men.  The city was divided into 10 districts, each having 90 to 106 lamps.  Each of the ten districts was assigned to one of the men; the last man acted as the group’s foreman.  Immediately, the new system gained favor as it was found to lead to better cleaned lamps and also decreased the number of frozen or broken lanterns, which were more quickly reported.

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yel...

English: Illustration from Volume 2 of The Yellow Book, “The Lamplighter” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The job of the lamplighter was not an altogether solitary one.  The warm months brought company to the lamplighters as they made their rounds.  “Bug cranks”, or “naturalists” as they were more politely known, followed after the lamplighters to collect moths, millers, and beetles that had been attracted to the flames and had lost their lives.  Lamplighters could earn an extra quarter, or even a half-dollar, if they brought especially rare specimens to these bug collectors.  Lamplighters recalled that the oddest folks were met in the mornings.  One lamplighter recalled meeting an old man each morning, rain or shine, who followed the horse railway track, with his eyes never leaving the ground.  Each morning, he searched the ground for valuables that had been lost from passengers’ pockets as they caught, got off, or rode the horse railway.  He was known to find coins, jewelry, opera glasses.

Another lamplighter recalled finding a woman late one night.  Asleep and leaning against one of his street lamps, she held an infant in her arms.  The lamplighter stopped and roused her lightly.  She started at once and rose to her feet.  She begged the man that he not take her, and tried to convince him that she had not hurt the child.  She told him that, after she had reached the city the day before, her husband had left her and ran off with their money.  He had left her and their child on the streets in October.  The lamplighter was a sympathetic man and took her home, housing her for a few nights until her family arrived to get her.  In the end, the woman’s family sent a “pretty little present to remember her by.”

With the coming of electricity, lamplighters began to disappear from the Victorian city streetscape.  As electricity came to the cities, the task of lighting the roads depended more on some invisible someone flicking a switch at the electric company, rather than a team of men individually lighting each street lamp.  In the years leading up to the twentieth century, electric lights continued to replace their gas- and gasoline-powered counterparts.  In 1888 alone, 33 electric lights were added to the 119 that had been in place in Lowell when the year began, not including the eight electric lights on Fort Hill Park by 1888, which ran during the summer months.  The number of gas street lamps continued to decline as Lowell progressed into the twentieth century.  By 1909, Lowell had outsourced the care of its remaining gas lights to an outside provider.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Associate Building, 1924

The first alarm sounded just after midnight on April 28, 1924. Lowell’s firemen arrived soon after to find tendrils of smoke wafting from the Associate Building’s fourth floor windows. Inside, the Portuguese Club was ablaze. By the time firemen gained access to the downtown Lowell landmark, they found the fire well underway inside and quickly sounded a second alarm. As one o’clock in the morning approached, a general alarm was sounded and help was called in from Lawrence and Dracut.

The Associate Building was well worth saving. Built more than thirty years earlier, it was set on the corner of Merrimack and Worthen Streets, in the heart of Lowell’s downtown, overlooking City Hall and Monument Square. By 1924, its five stories of yellow brick housed the Brockton Shoe Store, the City Hall Drug Store, Freeman & Co. Clothiers, as well as several dentists, tailors, and chiropractors. Its basement even had its own bowling alley.

In this excerpt from a 1924 Lowell City Atlas, the lot where the Associate Building stood is marked with “J. Bateman”.

As the hours wore on during that late April morning, Lowell’s Monument Square was filled with clouds of sparks and smoke as the Associate Building burned. Lowell’s fire department fought the flames from the ground, from ladders hoisted against the building, and from inside the building. Lowell’s Engine 3 streamed water from inside the Associate Building’s fourth floor dance hall. Lowell’s Engine 6 fought the flames from ladders outside, far above Worthen Street. They were making progress. The fire was coming under control.

Captain Edward Cunningham

Until the massive hot air explosion. In that flash, firemen inside were blown back into a hallway, against walls. Some were thrown flat on their backs. Outside, Hoseman John W. Gray, atop the ladder at the time of the explosion, was hurled, ladder and all, across Worthen Street into the brick wall of the opposite building. His life belt saved his life, but still left him with multiple injuries, including a broken nose. He was sent to St. John’s Hospital for treatment. His Captain, Edward Cunningham, didn’t fare as well. The explosion crushed Captain Cunningham under a falling wall of bricks. His fellow firemen risked their lives as they pulled him free from the rubble. He was still conscious when they loaded him into the ambulance bound for the Lowell Corporation Hospital. His comrades later learned that he died before he ever got to the hospital.

In the wake of the explosion, all men were recalled from the building. Moments after their escape, the walls and floor of the hall where they had been failed. The truck that had hoisted Capt. Cunningham’s ladder was split into two from the force of the explosion. Its engine had been crushed into its front wheels. Some men were temporarily trapped in the building. Others had to be pulled from the rubble in the street. The explosion also spread the flames far beyond the Associate Building. In moments, the Academy of Music building and Sparks’ Stable were now seriously threatened.

Soon, the fire threatened the entire area bounded by Merrimack, Dutton, Market, and Worthen streets. It became clear that the Associates Building was a total loss. The Sparks’ Harness Shop was declared a lost cause not long after. Despite the early hour, crowds began to gather and saw that the Academy of Music building, the Kennedy Building, and the Knights of Columbus Building were starting to smolder. Sparks’ Stable and the Mongeau Building weren’t far away from the flames either.

Another wall of the Associate Building collapsed and hit Sparks’ harness shop. A gasoline pump outside Sparks’ blew up in a burst of flame, but the tank stayed intact. Another wall collapsed and destroyed Kennedy’s Building. Soon after, the Academy of Music, all three of its wooden stories, caught fire, and burnt quickly. H. P. Hood’s offices, on one floor of the building, were completely lost. Soon after, the flames jumped Dutton Street, from the Academy of Music to the wooden Knights of Columbus building, which had once been the First Trinitarian Congregational Church. Firemen fought to save the building. In the end, they did succeed in saving the building’s stained glass windows. The firemen from Lawrence finally stopped the flames from advancing any further toward Market Street.

The firemen directed their streams at the Mongeau Building, which was starting to smolder. Ladder 4’s Herbert Cogswell fought valiantly before collapsing on the building’s top floor. George Hurley was later overcome in the same battle. Both were sent in clanging ambulances toward St. John’s Hospital. As the Mongeau Building was saved, the YMCA building across Dutton Street started to receive its own showering of sparks. Lodgers were drafted right out of the line of those removing their belongings to form a temporary brigade to wet down the building. Their efforts saved the YMCA from certain destruction.

One close call occurred when Sparks’ Stable, which housed some 30 horses belonging to the H P Hood Company, started to spark and smolder. An ambulance driver and a patrolman battled pandemonium as they removed the horses from the burning stable. Nervous store owners watched the sparks shower down across the downtown. As far away as Shattuck Street’s Lowell Electric Light Company, an awning caught fire. One man, never identified, was saved from a wall of falling bricks when he was pulled into a doorway by Lowell Patrolman John Mahan.

The Ruins of the Associate Building, as shown in an ad from the Brockton Shoe Store

In the end, ten firemen in all were sent to city hospitals with injuries from the blaze. Even more suffered minor injuries. The fire was then the largest in the city’s history. Every available piece of equipment in Lowell, two companies from Lawrence, and two from Dracut arrived to fight the fire and each was fully needed. Despite their efforts, the fire changed Lowell’s streetscape forever. The Associate Building, the Academy of Music, and Sparks’ Stable were all total losses. The Knights of Columbus building and the H P Hood Building were both considered beyond repair.

At one point, the blaze grew so hot that the glass on City Hall’s clock cracked. The damage was so complete that the Eastern Massachusetts Street Railway would not run its cars past the ruins of the Associate Building until its ruined walls were taken down that day after.

Captain Edward Cunningham of Engine 6 lost his life fighting the fire. Appointed to the force in 1911, he was promoted to Lieutenant in 1918, and to Captain in 1922. He had earned the respect of Chief Saunders, who described him as a “splendid young man, of a clear and sterling character”. He was remembered as a fearless and courageous firefighter, who had headed the movement to educate school children on fire safety. In his final minutes, Capt. Cunningham was offered religious solace from the popular Rev. Appleton Grannis, of St. Anne’s Church. Cunningham, a Catholic, was comforted by the Episcopal clergyman until Rev. Dr. McGarry of St. Patrick’s Church arrived to administer last rites. Captain Edward Cunningham left behind a wife, Helen, and three young children, Leo, Helen, and Pauline, all under ten years old.

The Cunningham Family, as shown in the 1920 census. Their youngest daughter Pauline had not yet been born.