Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fire - March 23, 1987

OK - here's one I do remember:  The big Lawrence Mfg. Company fire.

My dad was in an MBA class at ULowell, watching the fire nearby, and told our family about it the next morning.  At the time, I was considering a career as a fireman - as all pre-school boys do (somewhere around here, my ambitions changed to architect).  They had brought the fire trucks to KinderCare around this time, and I remember sitting in the driver's seat, and getting to play with the horn.  My aunt and uncle, who live in Dracut, went to the site of the fire, took pictures, and gave me a large collage of photos shortly after.  One of the things that interested me the most was the survival of the Hub Hosiery building.  They told me that their front steps, made of recycled brick, were from the ruins.

My mom took me in our black Dodge 400 to the scene a day or two after the blaze, and I remember watching the fire department still fighting hotspots.  We also lost a hubcap on one of the potholed streets in the neighborhood - being almost exactly 23 years ago, the winter damage to the roads must've been pretty bad.  Or maybe it was just because it was a street in Lowell.  It might be fair to say that my fascination with the city's mill buildings and history began with this fire - one that I learnt only recently burned the oldest remaining mill buildings in the city.




9-Alarm Blaze Ravages Mills


The March 24th Lowell Sun had pages and pages of coverage, photos, and diagrams - the main article was by Patrick Cook and Christopher Scott, who is still with the paper today.  Many of the photos focused on the castle-like towers of the Sweeney Building - a structure comprised of an 1855 connector building joining the two remaining 1832 mills (like all Lowell mills that survived this long, they had been made taller at some point, likely over a century before the fire).  The towers were added about 1870.  The fire had begun in this building, and by the time it was out halfway through the next day, almost the entirety of the central part of the mill complex was lost.  A building likely identical to the Sweeney Building, containing the other two original mill buildings, had been lost sometime after the mid 1930s and before the mid-1970s.

The fire, which did $6-$10 million in damage and took 200 firefighters from 17 communities to contain, was said to have begun in a loading dock at the Sweeney building, and was deemed suspicious.  Five firefighters had required hospitalization.  Fuel tanks exploded, windows were broken and cats with smoking tails jumped out.  The ruins were compared to Dresden by city officials - 300,000 out of 800,000 feet of floor space at the site had disappeared in a matter of hours.  Like the fire on Market Street eight years earlier, the sprinkler system in the Sweeney Building was non-functional.  It's useful to remember that the old reservoir in Belvidere was built by Locks and Canals to power an early sprinkler system to the millyards... and wasn't doing much good 150 years later although it was actually still in existence - the valves at the Sweeney Building had been turned off.  I have never read of a serious fire in the millyards in the days the original textile firms were in operation.

However, the sprinklers in the building that was called Lawrence Manufacturing at the time did have functional sprinklers...and survived.  This is the well known "Lawrence Manufacturing Company, a division of Ames Textile.  We Take Pride in our Product" building that still stands as part of Renaissance on the River and we all have seen from the VFW or the Riverwalk.  Ames Textile still is in Lowell, in a low-rise suburban office building on Chelmsford Street.  They are apparently the parent company of Adden Furniture, who is still downtown on Jackson Street...although apparently not for much longer.

At one point, Lawrence Mfg. Co. had employed 5,000 workers, and was one of the largest textile plants in the city.  Until they closed up completely, the paper says in 1985 but I had read previously it was the 1950s (probably when they were bought by Ames versus when Ames stopped manufacturing in Lowell?), they were the oldest textile company still producing cloth in their original building.

As for what the buildings were being used for at the time, thirty small firms were in the buildings; the fire put nearly 400 people out of work.  I missed a few pages of printouts about specific companies, but it looks like Mill City Iron Works, which seemingly became Soucy Industries, was located in the building at the time, but had been unable to get insurance due to the nature of the complex.  Soucy was moved again from the Acre a few years ago in an eminent domain case - he moved his business to Pelham this time, but built the new Jeanne D'arc headquarters on the fire-damaged site of the old Tremont Power House next to the post office.  Then US Rep Chester Atkins went to Washington to ask for money from FEMA to assist with the displaced and other costs.  The Dukakis administration promised to give whatever aid they could.

ULowell and Middlesex Community College had planned a $300M expansion, $39 million centered around these buildings, which obviously, never happened.  Many (75%) of the buildings they had planed to use burnt, while buildings they planned to demolish were still standing (and in some cases still are!).  At the time, they thought the towers of the Sweeney Building may be salvageable.  Instead, we have a lone smokestack standing in a huge plaza on the site today - which is the Renaissance on the River condo complex, and the Perkins Park apartment complex.  Computer Science and Engineering were to have moved into here, into renovated mill buildings and new buildings, the expansion bringing over $230M into the economy each year.  Middlesex eventually ended up at the Wang training center a few years later.  ULowell, now UMass Lowell, has constructed buildings in the area in the past few years.

Corey Crane began demolishing the ruins on March 26th.

Here's a few photos of the complex before the fire:

http://repository.digitalcommonwealth.org/bitstream/handle/10240/300/LHP_02077008.jpg?sequence=1

 http://repository.digitalcommonwealth.org/bitstream/handle/10240/326/LHP_02059004.jpg?sequence=1

2 comments:

  1. Interesting Story, I have it on tape during fire, and after. Do you have more photos?

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  2. I worked at the Lawrence during the summers of 1969 and 1970 so it was still active then. Hot in the building and no windows were allowed open to maintain uniform humidity. I worked beside a guy with twenty years service and he was getting paid twenty five cents an hour more then I was. The Lawrence summer experience made me realize that college was an easier way to the future.

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