Tag Archives: Lowell Massachusetts

Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.

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.

If you were to walk . . . or race a sleigh through Downtown Lowell’s Streets – 1906

Did you know that Jingle Bells was composed by James Lord Pierpoint in Medford, Massachusetts in 1850?  It’s claimed that the town’s 19th century sleigh races inspired the song, and that it was originally written as a Thanksgiving, not Christmas song.  Why “jingle bells”?  Music historian James Fuld informs that the horse-drawn sleighs of the Victorian era, passing on its snow-covered streets, moved very quickly and in almost complete silence, and needed to “jingle” their bells as they approached intersections to alert other sleighs of their presence.  The first modern traffic light didn’t see an American street until 1914.

By Timmis, Reginald Symonds [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Two-Horse Open Sleigh - in Toronto, 1913

But, as our ancestors “dashed through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh”, what did they see as they passed “over the hills” and “laughed all the way”?  In the horse-centric world of Victorian-era cities, they would have seen streets that looked much more residential (read: less congested) than today’s downtown area roads.  In Lowell, Massachusetts, for instance, if your sleigh got ‘upsot’ by drifting into a snow bank, as the song’s lesser known second verse narrates, your great-grandparents would have seen some fairly gnarled and mistreated trees surrounding them.  On Lowell’s Dummer Street, which connects the city’s Acre neighborhood with its historic downtown district, Great-Grandpa would have seen lots of trees – with some uses that would be considered quite unorthodox today.

He would have seen some trees used as hitching posts for horses, some used as trolley poles, and some even used for billboard supports!  All of these uses caused significant damage to trees in Victorian-era cities.  On two of Lowell’s downtown area streets, the aforementioned Dummer Street, and Dutton Street (one of the thoroughfares leading into the downtown area), he would have seen lots of trees, like the one below, with severe damaged caused by . . . well, hungry horses.  When the horses weren’t otherwise occupied pulling sleighs or wagons through the city’s streets, they were often tethered to trees while their owners attended to downtown business or called upon friends. The horses, hungry and bored, would then gnaw on the trees, which caused some fairly significant damage.

From Lowell's Municipal Records - 1906 City Forester's Report

From Municipal Records of Lowell - City Forester's Report - 1906

Sometimes, cities provided hitching posts for travelers to hitch their horses.  When they didn’t, people improvised.  In the Dutton Street photograph at right, you’ll notice a hitching ring protruding from the tree’s severely damaged trunk.  City foresters of the era advised that tree trunks should be enclosed to a proper height in wire netting and, evidence of what this looked like appears in the Broadway photographs below.  One might surmise, however, that the true intent behind protecting that tree, rather than roadway beautification, was to protect the tree’s use as a trolley pole.

Billboards existed even in Victorian times, and they vexed city residents even then.  Billboards escape mention in Pierpoint’s Jingle Bells, but the use of trees as billboard supports persisted in Lowell as least as late as 1905, when the city passed its own sort of early Highway Beautification Act.  By the end of 1906, the city forester’s department had spent considerable resources removing the billboards from city trees.  It’s said that Lowell’s Branch Street and Dutton Street had the most cases of signs attached to trees.

From Municipal Records - Lowell City Forester's Report 1906

Can’t you just picture dashing through the snow on a road such as this one (below) from Lowell’s Middlesex Village a century ago?  Just add a little snow and some windows glowing with gaslit lamps inside, and you’d have a scene fit for a Thomas Kinkade painting.  But – this photograph, taken in 1906, doesn’t actually show a winter scene.  Instead, these trees are lifeless due to poisoning by “illuminating gas” – the same gas used, in an era before electricity was common, to power lighting in houses.  According to period sources, a considerable leak from a gas main could kill a group of trees in a single night.  Even a very slight leak could kill trees over a long period of time.

As I ponder the third verse of Pierpont’s jingle, and how it recounts the narrator’s rival laughing at him after he falls from the sleigh:

A day or two ago, the story I must tell. 

I went out on the snow,And on my back I fell.

A gent was riding by, In a one-horse open sleigh. 

He laughed as there I sprawling lie, But quickly drove away.”

I feel I have a better idea of just what the fallen sleigh rider saw as he looked up at the long ago night sky, past his tormenting rival and into the branches beyond.  I can also envision the trunks of the trees outlining the roads he walked as he made his way home to his gas-lit home and his waiting family.

Happy Holidays, Readers!  And Best Wishes for a Successful 2012!

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

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

Huntington Hall/Merrimack Street Depot

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

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

1896 map showing the location and surroundings of Huntington Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firemen fight the flames claiming Huntington Hall - November 1904

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grand Fires of 1904 – 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.