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:

April 20, 1976: "15 Buildings Damaged in $1M Lowell Inferno.  Two Teens Charged"

Back when the Varnum Building burned, I mentioned a fire that destroyed quite a few old wooden residential structures in The Acre down by Rock Street.  I remembered it was on a holiday, but couldn't remember which one or which year.  Turns out it was Patriot's Day, 1976, it was 90┬║ out, and the fire had been intentionally set.

According to Lowell Firefighting, during some years of the 1970s, half the fires responded to were intentional, and the Acre was the worst place for it.  Without having exact numbers, Lowell's Acre, even by the 1930s, was considered an overcrowded and dilapidated slum - having been the site of a huge wave of poor Potato Famine Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s.  While urban renewal cleared out much of the neighborhood from the 1930s through the 1960s, the section down along Rock Street was left alone.  Considering the city's population as a whole fell 20,000 between 1920 and 1960, compounded by the increase in residential land use outside of the central city, it is reasonable to deduce that the Acre was thinning out - leaving abandoned, derelict, three-story firetraps behind.  Add in bored kids, addicts, landlords unable to find tenants and itching for insurance money, and a city hurting for revenue and unable to afford to demolish the structures or properly equip a fire department (some Lowell trucks that responded to the Acre blaze dated to the 1940s and failed to work properly - the suburban equipment called in for aid was far better), and disaster was imminent.

Lowell Firefighting goes on to say that at times, rocks would be thrown at firemen, or hydrants would be intentionally damaged.  The turbulence facing rapidly deindustrializing Lowell at this time was far from unique: a year after the Acre fire, a helicopter shot of the burning neighborhood around Yankee Stadium during the World Series was famously commented on by sports journalist Howard Cosell "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning."

Back in Lowell, on Patriots Day 1976, two teenagers went into the abandoned, unsecured, and already fire-damaged tenement at 78 Rock Street, soaked a few rags in gas, lit a match, and ran.  The fire spread to five other tenement houses, jumped to Broadway where it destroyed the old Locks and Canals properties owned by former city councilor George Macheras, and even ignited small roof fires downtown on Market Street.  The fire was under control in two and a half hours, but it took 200 firefighters from 36 communities to do it - it was the worst fire Lowell had seen in at least 40 years.  Had the wind been worse, it was already 15-20 MPH, it was feared the whole neighborhood would've burnt.

Nobody died, but 17 people, including Lowell Fire Chief Paul Beauregard, were injured, and six families - 23 people total - were left homeless.  Goes to show the number of abandoned buildings that must've been involved if six three-tenements left only six families homeless.  Contrary to the picture Lowell Firefighting paints of neighbors actively working to prevent the fire, in this case, many neighbors worked to wet down their properties with garden hoses, or even fire department hoses, to prevent further spread.  One such home that was saved was 44 Rock Street, which it looks like is gone today.

The Locks and Canals properties that were destroyed housed some irreplaceable historical artifacts, and the buildings themselves, some older than Lowell, were slated to become part of Lowell Heritage Park, which was in the works at the time.  The gas station that is the only structure still there today was to have its tenth anniversary opening party that day.  Instead, firefighters had to worry about fuel explosions.

Other happenings on that day:

  • The Sun (a Tuesday) was 54 pages over 4 sections, and 15 cents.
  • WLLH was advertising a morning show
  • Lowell Institute for Savings was offering a second mortgage to hlep with major bills or an addition
  • Alexander's was selling "family size" bottles of American National Soft Drinks, 4 for a dollar.  "Family Size" was 28 oz.  They also had Roast Beef for $1.29/lb and iceberg lettuce, $.29/head
Related stories in this week's papers:

P.A. Macheras Oil Co owes over $100k in back taxes.

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