Showing posts with label Boston. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boston. Show all posts

Saturday, February 1, 2020

A Sticky Disaster in the North End

Clarke at Hanover St. in Boston's North End about 1893-courtesy of the photo archives Boston Public Library
This is Boston's famous North End neighborhood, just before the turn of the century. My Cooke relatives weren't living here at this time; they were living in Dorchester near Michael's workplace in the stoneyard. It gives you some idea, however, of what the neighborhood looked like. There were the famous buildings, the home of Paul Revere and the Old North Church, and then there were squalid tenements. The neighborhood was teeming with Irish immigrants. Indeed, the Cookes moved to 164 Endicott Street and were shown there on the 1900 census.

They didn't live there long. Michael moved the family across the Charles River to Charlestown and died in 1913. By the time our story takes place in 1919 the neighborhood was largely Italian immigrants. Michael's widow was in Everett with her daughter and my grandmother, grandfather and their family were living in Charlestown. But I tell this story as an illustration of what happened in immigrant neighborhoods in many cities at this time where there were industries side-by-side with poor housing and little regulation to protect the residents.

The story actually began before the first World War when the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Company began work on a very large tank on the waterfront on Commercial Street in the North End. The company planned to house large amounts of imported molasses awaiting shipment to its distillery to be turned into explosives. Right from the beginning, the enormous tank was cursed. It was put up quickly, with substandard sheet metal, it was never properly tested and when problems became evident, the company covered them up. Molasses ran down the sides of the tank inviting the poor neighborhood children to collect it in buckets. The company painted the tank rust brown to disguise the leaks. Workers heard shrieks and moans coming from inside the tank. People standing near the tank reported feeling the sides of the tank pulsing with the fermentation and gases inside. It was a disaster waiting to happen. 

On January 15, 1919, disaster happened. The tank failed in a spectacular way and all at once. Rivets shot like artillery fire, metal panels buckled and an explosion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses created a 15 foot tidal wave on Commercial Street. It slammed into buildings, cellars, people and animals burying everything in its path. A section of the sheet metal sliced through the supports of the elevated train track, collapsing it. Only quick thinking saved two operating trains from coming down with it.
The arrows point to the tank and the former Cooke home. the dots outline the extent of the molasses flood
Buildings were inundated or destroyed completely. Horses could not escape the sticky mess and had to be shot. Twenty-one people died either immediately or within the week. Many more were injured. A firehouse immediately next to the tank was lifted from its foundation and moved trapping several firefighters inside. Some people were swept into the frigid Charles River and not found for weeks. One child, who had been collecting firewood from the train track, was crushed by a train car and drowned in molasses.
These pictures are from the archives of the Boston Public Library. They tell the story best.
An overview of the area immediately after the disaster

Fireman attempting to rescue people- the Cloughty house, in the background was directly across the street from the tank. Maria Cloughty was crushed instantly
the collapsed train track with a combination of molasses and sea water underneath
My father would have been a baby at the time, but his twelve-year-old cousin Catherine, who was living with them on Mount Vernon Street would certainly have been aware.  I can't even imagine what that would have been like.

It took weeks of cleanup with salt water and fire hoses. That part of the North End was never the same. Today, the land is a park and ball field.  They say that even today, on a warm summer day, you can smell molasses on Commercial Street. A lawsuit ensued, of course, and the company tried to pin the incident on dynamite planted by anarchists. They were not successful and damages were awarded. Cold comfort to those who lost their means of support or lived in pain the rest of their lives.

The Great Molasses Flood has become a piece of Boston history, albeit a rather bizarre one. It was well documented in Dark Tide by Stephen Puleo. Laws were eventually strengthened to protect the public, but it was the court case that had the most lasting effect as Puleo points out in this video.

What brought this topic to mind was an explosion at an industrial plant in the middle of a residential neighborhood- right here in Houston. Some things just don't change.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Memories Monday

Courtesy of Boston Public Library Photo Archives
This is Filene's and the date is 1954. My memories of going to Filene's at this time are of a visit to see
Santa. They had wonderful holiday decorations and amazing windows.  Everyone has heard of the wonderful Filene's basement- home to the most chaotic markdown scene anywhere. But this photo is more about walking into a real department store with one of my parents and enjoying the magic of Christmas.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Another Throwback Thursday

Filene's in Boston-Photo courtesy of Boston Public Library Archives
I can remember standing fascinated in front of the windows of Filene's when we made trips into Boston at Christmas time. They always went all out with the decorations. This particular image dates from 1954. In around 1956 or 1957 my dad and I took a trip into Boston from the suburbs. Most certainly we were Christmas shopping and very likely took a trip through Filene's. But my memory is of walking along Boylston Street past a record store. They had bins of vinyl out front and speakers overhead with whatever they were promoting that day. That particular day it was Mahalia Jackson's new Christmas album. I remember my dad stoppping, his face broke into a wide grin, and before I knew it we were headed home with a copy of the album. For years that was the music we opened gifts to on Christmas morning. Even now, it's not Christmas until I've played Mahalia.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Finding Uncle Andrew

Long Island Light-Courtesy Boston Public Library Archives
Growing up, I peppered my father with questions about the Fitzgeralds and the Cooks. He could tell me very little. One thing he did remember was going to visit "Uncle Andrew" at a hospital somewhere in Boston. My mother later confided that this was my grandfather's brother who supposedly was dying at the time of cirrhosis. I can guess why THAT story didn't make it into family lore.

I discovered that there WAS, in fact, an Uncle Andrew. Andrew Fitzgerald grew up in the house on Charles River Avenue and became a teamster like his father. There's no evidence he married and very little about him in the census in his adult years. In the1930 census I came across this:

So the April 1930 Census puts 62-year-old Andrew in the Long Island Almshouse, also known as the Long Island Prison Hospital. This is where 13-year-old John and his dad would have visited Uncle Andrew. Yet again, some facts that fit a family story. I would imagine Andrew died on the island. I'll have to make inquiries with the City of Boston. I haven't found a death record yet, but his grave is either in the small cemetery on the island or unmarked in the family plot at Holy Cross.

Long Island is one of the harbor islands inside Boston Harbor now in the control of the National Parks Service. You can take a ferry ride to several of the islands, but Long Island is still closed to the public. It has an interesting history as I found laid out in a report to Mayor Menino in 2002. It is the largest of all the harbor islands and was inhabited early on by Native Americans. Later it was used as a sort of holding facility for native tribes. The report goes on to talk about its role in the American Revolution:
"Its height and strategic location also allowed it to command both entrances to Boston's inner harbor (Broad Sound and the Narrows). In 1775, 500 Continental soldiers landed on Long Island, stole livestock, and took seventeen British sailors prisoner. The following year, a force of Continental soldiers and militia men occupied the island and built defensive batteries which were used to bombard British vessels entering Boston Harbor during the Revolutionary War."

During the Civil War it was used as a place to drill and train soldiers and was fortified with gun emplacements. Later, in a complete change of use, people began to use it as a recreational spot.
A hotel was built which remained in operation until 1885.
Courtesy of Boston Public Library Archives

In 1887, the city of Boston acquired almost the entire island to house city charities. An almshouse for the poor, a treatment hospital for chronic illness, a nursing school a prison facility and other charity facilities took over the buildings. The hospital treated chronic alcoholism at a time when this was considered more of a "defect of character" than an illness. People whose chronic drunkenness caused a public nuisance would be likely to end up at Long Island. (By 1940 they were calling it an alcohol treatment facility rather than a prison) This, I suspect, is how Andrew ended up there in 1930.

Men's hospital on Long Island-Courtesy BPL archives
Men's ward-Long Island hospital- Courtesy of BPL archives

The island again became a military facility during WWII and later NIKE missiles were housed there. Many buildings have been demolished, but many still remain on the island and are used to house shelters and substance abuse treatment programs.  I would imagine it is a pleasant place to be in the summer, but miserably cold and windy in Boston winters.

I came across one last tidbit of lore concerning the island- a ghost story.
Woman in Scarlet
Boston Harbor’s Long Island is home to one of the most tragic Boston Ghost Stories. At the close of the American Revolution, the British still had several ships lagging in Boston Harbor. On board one of these ships were William and Mary Burton. The newly weds, like so many others, were fleeing the chaos of this besieged city and looking forward to spending their lives together across the Atlantic. 

As their ship attempted to sail out of Boston Harbor, a cannon ball from the Long Island Battery hit Mary in back of the head. Unbelievably, she was not killed instantly, but lingered on for several days in excruciating pain before succumbing to her massive head trauma. As she lay dying, Mary pleaded with her husband not to bury her at sea. She was never fond of the sea and could not bear to have her earthly remains consigned to a watery grave. Eventually mary died of her injuries and William was permitted to venture to Long Island to bury his love. Once ashore, he sewed her body into a soft red blanket that Mary had brought aboard with her to keep warm on the long journey home and laid her to rest in the sandy dunes. He fashioned a headstone out of a piece of driftwood and as he carved her name into it he swore that he would return to Boston and give her a proper marker. He never returned.

But Mary, it seems, refuses to be forgotten. To this day, visitors to the island report seeing a woman with “muddy-gray skin” and wearing a scarlet cloak stumbling over the sandy dunes. Blood is usually seen streaming down her cloak from a gaping hole in the back of her head—the exact spot where the cannon fire had smashed her skull. 

This story sounds like a yarn to me, but I'm sure for some it was effective at keeping people away from the island.  There is a movement afoot to catalog the graveyard, where stones are few and most are undocumented on Find-a-Grave. Perhaps this will turn up one last trace of Uncle Andrew.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Irish Eyes

John J Fitzgerald Jr.
No download or reproduction without express permission
The caption on the back of this picture reads "John J Fitzgerald Jr., Age 7 1/2, June 10, 1925".
Even when I was a girl there was a photographer set up at the edge of the Boston Common taking pictures of children seated on his pony. Judging by the very serious face I would guess that the pony portrait in short pants was wrangled out of my father under duress. But it's a sweet portrait of the most Irish face I dad.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Sophronia Richardson Smith

Or Genealogical Coincidence....
South Russell Street

Yesterday I was exploring the recently indexed records that have been added to FamilySearch and of course that led down another rabbit hole. Before I knew it I was exploring the unindexed records (which you have to browse) using dates from my tree to narrow the search. I found the death record, or I should say the coroner's report, for my 2X great grandmother Sophronia Richardson Smith. Sophronia came from Litchfield, Maine, married Reuben Lowell Smith and raised their family in the area around Boston. They lived in Waltham, Groton, Concord, and Littleton. What caught my attention was the address on this record:
44 South Russell Street is an area on what's called the "back side" of Beacon Hill. The large houses were broken up into small apartments. So in 1894, at the time of her death, Sophronia was living in an apartment in that neighborhood. Maybe with one of her children. But that address seemed awfully familiar. So I did some poking in my records and found this:
This record is from the City Directory files on Ancestry. This is the 1948 directory from several pages
of Rogers living in Boston. In 1948, my mom Primrose Rogers, had left her hometown of Fitchburg and was a secretary living in Boston at 54 South Russell in a little apartment. As a child I heard many stories about her life in Boston at this time just before she married my dad.

Sophronia's great grandchild ended up living just a block away from her last home. Not a wild coincidence, but considering the size of the city of Boston??  I thought it was interesting.

Grandma Katie's Quilt

Katie Cooke Fitzgerald   We've heard the story of Katie's birth in Ireland, her immigrant family, and some tales of their life in Bo...