Tag Archives: Fire

The Grand Fires of 1904 – St. Patrick’s Catholic Church; Lowell, Massachusetts

Note to readers:  The St. Patrick’s Church fire of 1904 occurred just one day before the Fellows Block fire covered in last week’s post.  This post marks the third installment of the Grand Fires of 1904 series.

On Monday, January 11, 1904, Sister Josephine, a teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Lowell, Massachusetts, awoke, rose from bed, and looked out her window at the pre-dawn stillness; it was just minutes after five o’clock in the morning.  Only she saw smoke – and lots of it – billowing from St. Patrick’s Church.  Sister Josephine rushed from her room and roused two other sisters.  Together, the three Notre Dame teachers found the key for the fire alarm box on Fenwick Street, just outside the church’s main gate.  Key in hand, the nuns rushed to the parochial residence, rapped at the door, and pulled the bell.  Rev. John J. McHugh, in the midst of a week of sick calls, bolted awake, threw on his clothes, and answered the knocking at the door, ready for his next sick call.

From the Lowell Sun, January 11, 1904

St. Patrick's Church - Lowell, Massachusetts, Before the Fire

Father McHugh saw the nuns – and the smoke in the churchyard behind them.  He held the church quite dear.  As a boy, he had been a student in its Sunday school and, later, an altar boy to its first priests.  Father McHugh called the Central Fire Station on the telephone, and took the key to the fire box to pull the alarm.  He struggled with the box; its door wouldn’t open.  It was either frozen or broken.  He looked back at the growing billows of smoke issuing from the church and gave up on the fire box.  He quickly ran inside the basement of the church and set to saving the host and as many sacred vessels as he could carry out.

A crowd began to gather outside the church as more and more of the neighbors, most parishioners themselves, saw the smoke.  Mary Ann Saunders, the elderly sacristan of the church and another lifelong member, pushed through the bystanders and rushed toward the burning church.  She made her way to the vestry windows on the Cross Street side, broke the glass, and climbed through.  She found the vestments, and prepared as big a pile on the floor as her frail but determined frame would allow her to carry.  The firemen arrived later to find her at her task, building a small mountain, and ordered her out of the building.  She turned, looked at the men, and refused – still determined to save as many vestments as she could.  The firemen were preparing to carry all 80 pounds of her out when another priest, Fr. Walsh, happened upon the scene.  Both were doubtful that the firemen would save the sacred vestments that Mrs. Saunders had gathered on the floor of the vestry.  Fr. Walsh mediated a compromise and the firemen escorted him and Mrs. Saunders from the building and helped them with the vestments.  Apparently, Mrs. Saunders was quite convincing.

Other parishioners rushed through the chaos to save sacred and valuable items within the burning church.  John Nugent, a member of the Holy Name Society, felt through the smoke and saved two large candlesticks that stood near the main altar.  John J. Sullivan carried out several statues, vestments, and other articles.  Professor Fred G. Bond, the director of the church choir, ran into the church at great peril to save the church’s collection of music from the choir gallery.  The music, which had been brought from Ireland by the late Father Michael O’Brien, was priceless to the church.  With the help of the firemen, Professor Bond took several bundles of music and covered others with protective blankets.

Sister Superior Theresa, of Notre Dame Academy, stood among the bystanders watching the fire, and calmly took hold of the situation.  She ordered all gas shut off in the church and all fire doors between the church and academy closed.  She thought of her grade school students at the boarding school.  Sister Superior advised her nuns not to tell the students of the fire until they were safely dressed and downstairs.  Her actions probably saved the school and lives.
The firemen, who had responded quickly, did not find much of a blaze initially, only lots of billowing, blinding smoke.  The  firemen surmised that the blaze had started in the church’s boiler room in the basement.  To gain entry, they broke through the church’s basement door and drove into the smoke escaping the church.  The fresh air fanned the flames, but the firemen’s efforts subdued the fire within a short time.  Lots of smoke and water still filled the church’s basement, but the flames appeared to be out.  Chief Hosmer dispersed some of the firemen and left a few to help in the clean-up.  The crowd breathed a sigh of relief.  Their church was saved.
But smoke still billowed from the upper part of the church.  And it seemed to be growing in intensity.  Doubts began to rise through the crowd that the fire was truly extinguished.  Perhaps the smoke  was still emanating from a fire.  Within fifteen minutes, the crowd, the remaining firemen, and Chief Hosmer looked on in horror as flames shot through the church’s roof.  The fire still lived inside the church’s walls.  Chief Hosmer frantically called back the dismissed firemen.  By now, Suffolk, Cross, Fenwick and Adams Streets were clogged with bystanders watching the fire.  The police struggled to keep them back, a safe distance from the flames.
From the Lowell Sun, January 11, 1904

St. Patrick's Church was soon ablaze. Inset: Officer Freeman lowers the fire doors.

Soon, a dozen lines of hose were directed at the church.  Chief Hosmer ordered the ringing of a general alarm.  The firemen aimed their streams of water at the steeple, the flames continued to lick at its stone and wood.  The firemen soon realized that their water would reach only 100 feet up, but the steeple was already fully ablaze – every inch of its 225-foot height.  The steeple was doomed.

Before 8 o’clock that morning, the huge, heavy cross, which had hung on the steeple for the building’s first 50 years, crashed into the interior of the church.  The flames could be seen throughout the city – thousands watched as the steeple burned in what some described as “an awful beauty”.  When the steeple failed, its spectacular crash sent timbers spilling into the church yard and into Cross Street.  Several fell atop members of Hose 11, throwing them to the ground.  They survived, though bruised and cut.
The firemen battled the raging fire, sending streams of water toward the church from all four sides.  Assistant Fire Chief Norton broke through the main door of the church, but was driven back by the smoke, and almost suffocated.  The firemen behind him directed several lines of hose into the church’s interior, but the altar, pews, and the entire front of the church was already lost to the flames.

Several firemen had close calls in the fire.  One, whose name was never recorded, was struck when a large piece of plaster, weighing several pounds, struck his helmet and knocked him flat.  The fireman remarked “Gee, that was a close call!”  as he picked himself up, cognizant of the fact that his helmet likely saved his life.  Another, a call man named John Conway, fell through a burning floor and was badly shaken, but not injured.

From the Lowell Sun, January 12, 1904

The Interior of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Massachusetts after the fire

The fire was extinguished, eventually – but not until midday.  Two firemen worked on its last sparks in the bell tower for an hour while the crowd watched from below.  By the time the fire was out, St. Patrick’s Church, the city’s oldest Catholic church with origins dating to the 1820’s, lay in ruins – its steeple destroyed, its interior gutted.  Its four walls stood, but it was clear that mass would need to be held somewhere else for some time.  The church’s marble altar, and every single stained glass window had been destroyed.  Parishioners, eager to hold onto any possible memento of their ruined church, sifted through the ruins in the hours and days after the fire to find their metal pew number markers within the ashes.

From the Lowell Sun, January 12, 1904

A man scours the ruins of St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Massachusetts for mementos of his lost church.

City official James Conlon offered Fr. O’Brien the free use of Huntington Hall.  Indeed, the church would not fully recover from the damage caused by the fire until two years later, in 1906.

From the Lowell Sun, 11 January 1904

In the aftermath of the 1904 fire that destroyed St. Patrick's Church in Lowell, Chief Edward S. Hosmer received much criticism in the local press.

In its aftermath, Chief Hosmer suffered through significant, and undue, criticism, for initially underestimating the fire, and soon after, for mistakenly concluding that the fire was out.  The fire department also received criticism for the antiquated key-operated fire box at the corner of Fenwick Street, which had not yet been replaced by a new handle-operated box.  The failure of the key-operated box had been one factor leading to a delay in the reporting of the fire.  The fire department also received criticism for not using its water tower to fight the fire and for the underperforming hydrants that provided 100-foot streams of water when streams reaching 225 feet were needed.

Chief Hosmer defended himself in the press as early as the following day, stating that many of the accounts circulating were false.  When the fire was extinguished in the basement, he, and several of the priests, had thought the fire was under control when he sent the two companies of firemen home.  As soon as he entered the church again, he found that the fire still raged in the three inches separating the wall and the plastering and that this had allowed the fire to work its way up from the basement into the church.  Hosmer immediately called the dismissed companies back; they hadn’t gone far and were able to return quickly.  Hosmer knew the gravity of the situation when he realized that the fire had progressed into the church’s main floor and he had rung the general alarm.   Regarding the water tower, Homer stated that it could not have been used in the situation.  Chief Edward F. Hosmer survived the hasty post-fire criticism and went on to serve the Lowell Fire Department for another nine years before he retired, with honor, on May 1, 1913 after 55 years of firefighting, 30 of which were spent leading Lowell’s fire department.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of 1904 Fireman

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

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

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

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

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

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

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

Lowell's Central Fire Station - Taken by Author

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

Historical Marker on Downtown Lowell's Merrimack Street

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

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

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


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

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

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

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