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.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Market Mills history

I got asked a question related to the last post on the 1979 fire:  Doesn't the Z-shaped mill on Market Street have a name?  Without digging any deeper, I said not to my knowledge.  But, I wrote a lot more than that about the history of the millyard, so I'll dump it here ;-)

You are correct that Market Mills is at least not the original name.

The original complex that today is Market Mills and Canal Place was built in the late 1820s as the Lowell Manufacturing Company.  On the side facing Dutton St, the long straight mill along the side of the National Park Visitor's Center still has that name on it.  Fun fact:  There is a canal underneath that parking lot right against that building that runs through the hydro power plant that is attached to CPI and forms the alley with CPIII.  There is definitely still water running through it as the foundation started leaking a few months ago, and the canal ended up flowing through the alley.  I'm not sure if it turns and discharges into the small wasteway on the opposite side of CPIII, or continues straight under CPII.  You can see the entrance to the canal off of the Merrimack Canal if you stand by the railing seperating the parking lot from the water.

Market Street was known as Lowell Street early on - the building on the opposite side of the garage, which many Lowellians know as the old police station and is today the NMTW Credit Union building, was built as a market...I can only guess that caused the street to be renamed.  Whether the Lowell Mfg Company being on Lowell street was a coincidence or not, I'm not sure.  They must've been built around the same time, and the Suffolk Mills (Wannalancit) used to be on Suffolk St, Prescott Mills on Prescott St, etc.

The Lowell Manufacturing Company tended to name buildings either numbers or what they were for...or at least that's what the ward maps say.  It certainly is true simple numbers worked for the early Waltham/Lowell system mills.  Today, the original pattern of the mills is best visible (and maybe only visible at this point...) at the Massachusetts Mills and Boott Mills, where the original gable-roofed mills all in a line were later connected with stair towers, and the gabled top floor was replaced with a flat one, or a few more stories, later on.  Old maps show Canal Place I as being the "Worsted Mill" for example...because they must've made Worsted fabrics there.  Interestingly, the Lowell Mfg Co. was the only one of the ten major mill corporations who made carpets, and in the nineteen-teens, they were the first of the majors to fold, getting bought up by the Bigelow Carpet Company.

Before that could happen however, the Lowell Mfg Co. began a large rebuilding project, starting with the building along the side of the parking lot around 1890, the Z-shaped building the fire was in closer to 1900, then the Canal Place buildings in the years after that (which are all nicely marked with dates) until 1912 or so...right before the sale to Bigelow.  Interestingly, I think one of the oldest structures remaining in the yard is one you'd rarely think of as a unique building:  The mail room/lobby for Canal Place I survived the rebuild.

Bigelow could not have lasted very long, as the Z-shaped building was the Lowell Silk Mills by the 1920s, or so says the former door right on Market Street where the TV station is today.

By that point, the mid 1920s, quite a few of the major mill companies were in trouble and the formerly unified mill yards were sold off to smaller interests, a process that accelerated during the Depression and never stopped.

In other words, much shorter ones, that I already stated at the beginning, I don't think Market Mills was used before the apartment conversion, but I don't know.  I do know it certainly wasn't the original name.  :-P

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fire - February 8, 1979

This is the fire Ken Coffin's photos are of.

On the afternoon of February 8, 1979, the top floor of the building that today houses the National Park Visitor's Center was the victim of arson, and it wasn't the first time.  At the time, the building was planned to be part of the new National Historical Park, and if I've learnt anything about fires in buildings with wooden structural members, had this fire happened on a lower floor, it probably wouldn't still be standing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fire - April 19, 1976

In this blog, I've referred to a few fires that happened before I was born.  The one on Market Street that Ken Coffin photographed, and a large fire in the Acre I couldn't remember details on.  Looking at my bookshelf, I remembered that I have a copy of Lowell Firefighting, which allowed me to pin down the dates.  If you haven't seen this book, it's part of the Images of America series, and includes photographs and brief histories on the Lowell Fire Department, their stations, equipment, and some of the major fires they've fought over the years.  There are some really powerful photos in there.

I took some time out of the fantastic weather yesterday to wander over to the library and go over the newspaper archives, adding the print-outs to the ones I found a few years ago on the Lawrence Mill fire (that I do remember).  I have a feeling that many of my readers will have living memory of all of these.  I'll do one at a time.

First the Patriot's Day Acre fire, 1976:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Flood - 2010 Edition

I'm starting to wonder if I'm bad luck because ever since I moved here, we've had a lot more flooding than is typical.  This is two fairly high Merrimack levels in the span of a month.  However, this time, the Merrimack didn't get all that bad; the Concord did.  I went and took some photos at Pawtucket Falls the day the Merrimack crested (March 16th) at two feet or so above flood level.  I went down to South Lowell to see the Concord today (March 18th) when it crested to get pictures of the Six Arch Bridge.  This is supposedly a record flood for the Concord River, by a matter of fractions of inches.  Unfortunately, with most of Billerica Street in the Concord River, I couldn't find a good place to take the pictures from.  Instead, I climbed the bridge and took some shots from there, just missing a visit by the rush hour commuter train.  The house my Grandma-Ma lived in and then my Uncle had a yard under water - it is in sight of the bridge.  The family that lives there now was busy taking wet things out of their basement, so I didn't go talk to them or bother them for pictures.

Here are the ones I did take:

Flood, 2010

Appleton Mill, February-March '10

A month's worth of photos on the Appleton Mill progress.  Now that the courthouse has been delayed a few years (budget problems...), this is easily the most exciting thing happening in this neighborhood.

A few favorites, then the link to the full album:

Installing the window frames.  Around this time, some bricks fell from a collapse and injured a few workers and the people who came to help them.  Besides, who doesn't like Snoopy?

Didn't this used to be Revere Street? Either way, I'm glad the snow is gone.

Looks like some inside space is beginning now.

Interesting how we think of these mills being made mostly of brick, yet they are actually made mostly of windows. I'm still amazed this thing stands with only the bracing they've used.

Full album:

Appleton Mill, February-March '10

Ken Coffin, Part 2

Typical post for me:  I start it by saying I've been delaying and now have a pretty good backlog of things to post!

Ken (see Corey Sciuto: Ken Coffin) sent me some more photos, these are all of the fire at what is now the Market Mills. If anybody can get me a date range for when this fire happened, there might be a trip to the microfilm archive at the library in my future to find out more about what happened.  It must've been the late 70s, because they were repaired in the early 80s, and I have a photo ( that was supposedly taken in 1979, and shows the burnt-out building.

Update:  I found a date:  Feb 7, 1979.

Ken Coffin

Example new photo:

Ken's email again is

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Did Babe Ruth eat breakfast in Lowell?

This is also an outcome of the article that ran in The Sun:

I was asked by someone who had seen the article if I knew if The Babe had ever stopped in Lowell on his way to a hunting trip in Maine.  It seemed entirely likely from what I could figure, being a reasonable route to take and Ruth being a hunter, but I wasn't sure.  I'm not a sports-minded person in the slightest, so I wasn't sure how much I could help.  I did find out that a mentor of Ruth's from back in Baltimore, Brother Matthias, went on to teach at Keith Academy here in Lowell, but when Matthias died in the late '40s, Ruth himself was too ill to make the trip up.  So, I did all I could do: I got the email address for Chaz Scoggins at The Sun for this person (he had suggested contacting him, but it's not as if I have any special way to do that :-P), and passed that info on.

A month later, I got the following reply, forwarded along to me and credited as c/o Mr. Scoggins:
On November 25, 1933, a Sunday morning, a large and powerful automobile pulled up in front of the Waldorf Restaurant at 245 Central street in downtown Lowell.  Many citizens were in church, and the street was nearly deserted.  There were only a handfull of diners inside the restaurant, and at first they paid scant attention to the big, moon-faced man who climbed out of the car and approached the entrance.  A day later, The Lowell Sun recounted what happened next.
"Ambling up to the door, he grinned a Ruthian smile at the first breakfasting patron who stared ... (Babe) Ruth was recognized immediately.  Baseball's greatest figure was surrounded in no time by customers, and when word spread to the street, he was the central figure in a chattering ring as napkins, envelopes, and even felt hats were extended him for autographs.  
"The personality that was Ruth's was exemplified at best there.  He wasn't annoyed.  He smiled from ear to ear, talking back and signing papers when he could. 'Now give me a chance, boys,' he said finally, 'and I'll tell you what I'll do.  I'll set up doughnuts and coffee all around.  Just give me your checks, but don't run up my feed bill.'  The countermen were busier than opposing pitchers with the Sultan at  the plate.  And the Babe made good his bargain. He laid a couple of bills in front of the cashier with the comment, 'Clean up those chow checks, mister, and thanks for everything.'
"After his breakfast snack Ruth walked away with a last wave of a mighty arm to Lowellites who today idolize him more than ever.  Just a regular guy,' remarked one. That's Ruth."
To people struggling in the grip of the Great Depression, Ruth's generosity was particularly appreciated.  The aging but still charismatic New York Yankees star climbed back into his car and drove off toward Maine, where he had planned a hunting trip.

So, what's at 245 Central Street today?  Cappy's Copper Kettle.  I wonder if they're aware of this connection!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

What is the acceptable premium for buying local?

This morning, I took an additional hour to get into the office and did a long overdue book run at the Barnes and Noble in the Bon Marshé building on Merrimack Street.  I picked up The Paddy Camps, The Black Swan, and Outliers.  I had a nice but brief conversation with a woman who worked there over how wonderful she thought my book selection was, then headed over to Market Street to go to Brew'd.  I picked up What is the City? by Paul Marion, who blogs over at Richard Howe's blog as well as -of course- a coffee.  The barista mistook me for someone else and had the wrong type of coffee pre-made for me, but either way... After that, I dropped into Market Street Market for my usual early week run for fruit to bring to work, and a loaf of bread.  I ran into the same barista in there as well as having a conversation with Janette Nason about the horrible hours that Barnes and Noble maintains (M-Sat 10-5, closed Sunday) and CVS (which is a little better.  Fun fact if you didn't know it:  the first CVS was on Merrimack Street).  We discussed how one of my favorite things about her store is the hours cater to those of us who live downtown, and then, who exactly her customers are.  I pointed out that due to the markup, my take was much of the elderly, disabled, and otherwise low income crowd that lives in the area most likely are doing most of their shopping at Market Basket.    From my own experiences in there, this certainly isn't universally true - but a small store can't possibly compete price-wise with the Demoulas's (Demouli?).

So, I get to work, happy with the amount of shopping I was able to do on foot in my own neighborhood that morning, and discussed my purchases with a co-worker.  He pointed out that on two of my books, I paid $5-$10 above what I would've at say, Amazon.  Even Barnes & Noble's website (and probably their large stores in Nashua and Burlington) was significantly less than I had just paid.  While I defended, to an extent, the extra cost (in some cases, 50% extra) as buying local, it is true that that is a very significant premium to pay - and not even to a company that is locally owned and operated...or even likely self-supporting as it is associated with UMass Lowell (one of the biggest visible benefits that school has downtown).  It reminded me of the new Lowe's in the Highlands, versus driving to South Nashua and buying the same thing tax-free.  I had this to say on Topix (yes, I'm sadistic and post in opposition there from time to time, knowing I'm going to often just get screamed down with no real discussion.  That didn't happen here, I'm happy to report):

For people in Lowell, Lowe's in Nashua is an extra 30 minutes and will burn a gallon of gas getting there and back. Plus, Lowes in Lowell pays taxes to our community, our state, and employs our residents. By the time the real extra costs of shopping on the DW is factored in, Lowell might be the better deal.
 So, where do we draw the line?  What are the intangibles and the real cost benefits of spending extra down here?  Or in the Merrimack Valley in general as opposed to New Hampshire?

What's good?

  • Local businesses make your neighborhood more vibrant, attractive, and livable. 
    • It's a living situation improvement
    • It increases the value of your property to live somewhere that isn't full of empty stores
  • You often have a relationship with the employees and live nearby the other customers
  • They employ local people and pay local taxes, and are often supported by local banks
    • This money is more likely to be re-invested locally
  • Time is money, and not spending time in the car is a benefit to you, the environment, and likely, your sanity
  • You feel warm and fuzzy for doing a Good Thing.
What's bad?
  • You pay more: economies of scale.  Money you spend extra could potentially be used elsewhere for other benefits to you or your community.  In the bigger picture, you might be making the wrong choice for both you and your community
  • The selections tend to be inferior, which often makes a trip unsuccessful, and therefore, a waste of time.
  • Sometimes, the service is not superior and things take longer to get, again, wasting time
  • They are more likely to have inferior hours, which is an inconvenient waste of time.
The balance, for me, is not readily quantifiable.  I buy about 50% of my books at the downtown Barnes and Noble, because their hours suck, they are expensive, and their selection is only decent (I have about a 75% success rate getting what I'm looking for.  It would be lower but I know the types of books they carry by now).  Once that's weighed against the convenience and the coolness of being able to say you have a bookstore in your neighborhood, that's where I end up - 50%.  

I make a point to shop at the Market Street Market for my staples, because even though I know I'm paying somewhat more than I have to and sometimes walk out empty-handed and end up going somewhere else, it is a huge plus to me that they are there.  I eat food every day.  I don't like stopping at supermarkets for simple things.  I like being able to get simple edibles across the street from my house and talk to the owners.  Food is not all that expensive.  Paying $2 for a $1 yogurt isn't going to break the bank unless my yogurt intake goes up significantly.  They usually have what I came in for.

Conversely, ultimately, I feel that Olive that and More, the defunct sandwich shop, fell on the wrong side of the equation for me.  They were expensive, slow, and when they used to sell staples, often didn't have what I needed that day.  While I miss their breakfast sandwiches (I used to joke they were so slow they must fly to France for every croissant) and don't like the empty space, they simply weren't going to squeeze any more business out of me for those reasons.  I wish Northeast Pet hadn't been forced out of there.  At pet shop or a music (instrument) store would be a nice addition down here.

Even New England-Wide Newbury Comics has largely fallen out of favor with me.  They are somewhat local, but CDs are a dying format.  At this point, I have about a 50% success rate at this point getting what I came in for.  Even Best Buy is better than that, and national faceless giant Amazon has everything, doesn't require getting in a car, and is usually a better deal.  A CD store downtown would be a poor economic move, but I'd be more likely to have a relationship with the owners, discuss things I'd be likely to like, etc.  I haven't had that since my first few years of college, when the last downtown Troy record store closed.

Monday, March 1, 2010

City seeking injunction against hydropower company over flashboard height

According to The Sun Lowell is seeking an injunction against Enel North America, who runs the Boott Hydro Project on the Northern Canal.  The reason is they are apparently keeping the flashboards a foot higher than agreed to.  I had previously stated ( I wasn't going to weigh in on who is right here and who isn't out of not knowing enough to speak fairly*, but I do follow this stuff and Enel, to their credit, has a fairly lengthy report available on the situation.  Interesting to note:  The Wang Agreement, which is supposedly what Enel is their own document Enel argues they were never a party to it:

*Now, obviously if Enel is purposely keeping these boards too high, or worse, as some claim, strengthening the pins to make failure of the boards (dropping the river level) less likely, they should be punished.  And it sounds like that is precisely what is going on.  Enel's own write-up makes it clear the four-foot boards (with an extra foot as a separate board that fails very easily) is the historically correct option.  How greedy is the extra foot of head?  By the calculations I did in my earlier post, would cost the plant .4MW, or about 4% of its theoretical output.

That said, the floods in 2006 and 2007 were incredibly powerful acts of nature and Clay Pit Brook is extremely low-lying, as I also discussed a few weeks ago in that above post.  How much effect did a few extra inches on some plywood boards really have?  My guess is unless many of the boards really did completely fail to release, not much - yet that's exactly what some are claiming.