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.

"Arson Said to be Likely Cause of Six-Alarm Mill Blaze"

Read the headline in The Sun on Friday, February 9, 1979.  The afternoon before, as a sub-article explained, a "premature night" came to Market Street.  The fire was out by evening, but hot-spots were still being fought the next day.  An accelerant, likely gasoline, was blamed, considering how quickly the fire spread.  Fifteen towns responded to the fire, and three firemen were injured.  One, Marc Boldrighini, had a heavy water-filled duct fall on his back that took ten men to remove.  All three were quickly released from St. Joseph's hospital.  The heat was so intense, onlookers ended up pushed halfway back down Shattuck Street and windows across the street at The Athenian Corner cracked in the heat.  Two families were reported to have eaten supper throughout the ordeal.  The building was covered in icicles the next day - it was early February in New England, after all.

The building had been used for various purposes: at one point, it was Stuart's Department Store, The New Market Manufacturing Company, the Furniture Warehouse Outlet, Custom Craft Bedding Company, and storage for the Merrimack Trading and Spinning Company.  After an earlier fire in May, 1977, also on the top floor, the building had become vacant, although industrial materials had been left behind.

It was said that after that 1977 fire, the sprinkler system was never repaired, and was apparently not even operable in 1979.  The roof, and many of the old wooden floors, were lost.  Today, one may notice that only the stair-tower on the Dutton St side still has the original grey-framed wooden windows.  Many of the original massive wooden beams and iron support columns seem to have survived.  I have frequently heard older Lowellians voice concern for those of us who live in these old factories that we are putting our lives at great risk, living in buildings with old, dry wooden floors, soaked with decades into over a century of machine oil and other flammables - many dating to the city's foray into the shoe manufacturing industry.

Then Senator Paul Tsongas, who had sponsored the park-creating legislation the year before, said he had asked the owner to "please make sure there is no fire in that building - hire guards if necessary."  The park stated it would not fund conversion of the building into a visitor's center until it was in the hands of a responsible owner.  Apparently alleged owner, William Conte of Haverhill, didn't count.  Tsongas stated that possible uses for the building were elderly housing, shops, and the visitor's center (which we ended up with), or a hotel complex (which was built years later).  If the building did not suffer another devastating fire for the next six months after this one, the money for the elderly housing grant was likely to be approved.

City Manager Bill Taupier (a name we still hear) was on the scene that evening, making sure the fire was contained, and Assistant City Manager Victor Normand stated "These buildings do not support themselves economically, so securing them against fire cannot be justified economically."  The previous year, a top-floor fire had destroyed the entire former location of the American Hide and Leather Corporation on Perry Street in Lower Belvidere.  More recently, a Dracut teenager was seriously injured after sneaking into one of the last remaining abandoned mills in the Mass Mill complex...and falling through a shaft from the roof to the basement.

As this fire was smaller than the Acre one, less coverage was devoted to it.  That means I printed out plenty of other events in The Sun that day:

  • The Friday paper was 34 pages and 20 cents
  • The Ayatollah of Iran promised to make changes to Iran, then resign to allow a democratically elected Islamic government to come in (oh, ok...).  The Shah remained in exile.  The hostage crisis was months away.
  • Former Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller had died shortly before, and his $66.5 million dollar estate had largely been left to his wife and sons.
  • "Name-Calling, Battling Escalate as Voke Board Debates Salary"  The position was for a producer-director position.  The fight was over if the salary should be $14,000 or $16,000.
  • Louis Saab reached an agreement with the city:  He dropped a $4.2m (!) civil-rights suit against the city, when the city agreed to revoke demolition orders on seven properties, largely in the West 4th and 5th street section of Centralville, Saab claimed he had since gotten up to code (ok...).  A property on Powell St was still facing demolition.  It looks like some of these buildings are still standing today.
  • Lowell was looking for more funding for the National Park, claiming the $200k offered for the park's second year was far too low.  It was claimed that the "door was open" for more money, and the budget request to the Carter administration had simply not been properly prepared.
  • Advertisement: "Arson is an Ugly Word: Fire for profit has an ugly Lowell put the heat on Arson.  Lowell Arson Squad"  Timely.
  • No Sales Tax at Cuomo's Appliances on S. Broadway in Salem.  I can't find a record of this place still existing, but they had 4-cycle, large capacity Whirlpool washing machines for $288.  Available on Layaway!  They take MasterCharge, Visa, and Cuomo's Credit as well.
  • "Nothing says 'Happy Valentines Day' like a season ticket to the Big Money Game" - Oh, ok.  Massachusetts State Lottery.  $25 for 52 weeks.
  • Part 5 on an investigative report into how Silresim on Tanner Street got away with dumping toxins for years.  Today, we know this Superfund Site, billed at the time as the most expensive cleanup site in Massachusetts, as a brownfield-redevelopment plan called The Tanner Street Initiative.  As I said way back on the first page of my essay site, that sounds more like the name of an experimental synth band than a cleanup project, but whatever.  The proposal calls for an incubator center for new companies to be built along Tanner Street, along with parks for yuppies with inline skates.  Oh, ok.
  • This week's Sun connection:  Silresim Chemical, which of course is long gone, still owes the city over $900k in back taxes - the largest amount owed the city by any entity, public or private.  Think we can write that off as a loss by now.


  1. "The building that today houses the National Park Visitor's Center"

    Guess it does not have a name that spans all these years? I assume the "Market Mills" is new? If so, interesting that a great mill like this one doesn't have a name that spanned beyond all the businesses it once housed.

    "Arson is an Ugly Word: Fire for profit has an ugly Lowell put the heat on Arson. Lowell Arson Squad". Leaves me wondering some rhetorical q's:

    Apparently arson was an issue in Lowell. What was the profitable aspect of this? Why was this an issue in the late 70's? Twice in two years? And only the top floor - did someone actually intend to "maim" and not "kill" the Market Mills (twice)? Wonder what was going on there.

    I would have loved to have seen Lowell in so many different historical time periods. 1800, 1835, 1900, 1960 before Merrimack was torn down...

  2. Craig,

    I just made a new post on what I do know about the naming history of the building.

    My guess with the arson is that there are numerous causes to set fires, and not all are for profit. While insurance fraud on a building that is losing you money certainly is one we hear about a lot, a lot of times, people just torch buildings to torch buildings. My guess is that's what happened here - kids playing with fire on the top floor, furthest from where they'd be likely to be caught. A lot of these 70s arsons were set by teenagers who I'd imagine wanted to see a fire without thinking about how bad it could get.

  3. This is a cliff notes version, but in essence prior to changes in the law you could insure property for more than it was worth. This made it very profitable to insure and then burn a building, especially when the city's economy and property values were in shambles. The major arson sprees that peaked in the 70's led to big hits on insurance companies and changes in regulations, which stopped a significant incentive for this practice. If it wasn't for insurance companies protecting their profitability you probably wouldn't have half the fire prevention regulations and fire protection we have in place today.

    Not all intentionally set fires are for profit. You have thrill seekers, wanna be heroes, revenge, curiosity, actual pyromaniacs and the use of fire to cover up another crime, as just a few of the other motives.

    If you are interested in the peak of America's fire problem in the 1970's check out the America Burning report. I believe you can still order a free copy online from the US Fire Administration.

  4. Thanks for the pointers, Jason!