When the new Lowell depot of the Boston & Maine Railroad opened to the public in 1877, riders were pleased to have an alternative railroad route to Boston and delighted in the many comfortable features of the station, especially the protective train shed, equal to any in Boston but there was skepticism about one feature – the radical decision to eliminate the ladies-only waiting room. The location of the new depot had also inspired the transformation of a shabby neighborhood into one of the major commercial centers of the expanding city. What’s more, its architects were nearly as colorful as the Victorian building itself.
The Richard and Nancy Donahue Performance Center at Middlesex Community College is at least the fourth chapter in the life of the depot building in Towers Corner. Built as the head house for the Lowell depot of the Boston & Maine railroad, it was later reused in turn as a telephone exchange, a movie theater, a pool hall and a bowling alley, and in its persistence over 140 years and its adaptability, it embodies the resilience of Lowell itself. What’s more, the struggle to build the railroad it served is a quintessentially Lowell story, one that began twenty-five years earlier with the attempt to build the first of what would be three railroads by that name. It was a struggle not just to build a competing railroad but a grapple for control of the future of the city.
Lowell was distinguished from the industrial cities that followed, not just because it was the first, but also because, as was observed by a writer in the Lowell Daily Courier (undoubtedly the lawyer and historian Charles Cowley), it possessed “…men of means with large landed and permanent interests here.” These were not the Boston merchants and investors who controlled the corporations, but the ambitious young men from New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and beyond who came to build the new city explore its commercial opportunities and remained. Their wealth and continued prosperity was bound up in the city more intimately than the fortunes of Boston investors. And if their wealth depended on the economic success of Lowell’s manufacturing corporations, they also knew that their interests were not always mutual. Some made their fortunes in construction, building Lowell and the new cities that followed like the great lumber king Nicholas Norcross controlled thousands of acres of forests across northern New England and Canada. Others were also manufacturers partially or completely independent of the great corporations, like the Nesmith brothers, who sold the family farm in New Hampshire to finance their Lowell investments, or Oliver Whipple with powder mills in Lowell, New Hampshire, and Maine that had an alarming propensity to explode. For Many, like the Hildreths, Tylers or Rogers, whose wealth lay in real estate, the continued growth of Lowell was essential. Many of these men brought their up-country Democratic political beliefs in free trade with them, which often put them in opposition to the Whig manufacturers, who vigorously upheld protective tariffs and legislatively bestowed corporate privileges.
This by 1845, a quarter of a century after the founding of Lowell, the most prescient might have foreseen the future. There were troubling signs. The great Locks and Canals land sell-off and reorganization and the ambitious development of the new cities of Holyoke and Lawrence signaled that the great expansion of Lowell manufacturing by the Boston merchants, was over. They weren’t abandoning the city, far from it. Corporations would continue to expand and modernize, the water power system would be made more efficient, but now the Lowell interests had new incentive to take control of the engine of growth and that engine would be railroad.
O! The Railroad!/You’re the way for me;/No other way is half so sweet,/So jolly fleet and free!
Railroads were the first of the “disruptive technologies” of the 1840s, changing overnight people’s relationship to time and geography and revolutionizing communications. As Charles Cowley would comment in 1868, “It is time that counts now. Space is extinguished.” Railroads were also expensive, dangerous and accident prone, and there was a fear of a speculative railroad “bubble” caused by too much expansion which would bring on a financial disaster. But railroads had quickly become indispensable for transporting people and goods.
Rail traffic between Boston and Lowell, the two largest cities in Massachusetts, was monopolized by the eponymous Boston and Lowell Railroad, one of the first in the railroads in the country. The B & L was financed by the same conservative investors as the Lowell corporations, and it had a cozy relationship with them, seeing its primary role as serving their interests. The standard freight cost was $1.50 a ton, but “with the Lowell factories we have a special bargain…we…charge them $1.25 for all cotton and wool.” In fact, the B&L’s charter legislation gave it a monopoly on travel between the two cities. This benefited the large corporations but the monopoly in freight and passengers hurt and hindered the local interests.
“…treacherous, faithless, and ungentlemanly,”
The wealthy coal and lumber dealer William Livingston thought he’d found a way around this restriction when in 1845 he proposed a branch road which would connect to the Boston & Maine line in Andover and provide an alternative route to Boston. But Livingston, after believing that he had support for his Lowell & Andover Railroad, was double-crossed by William Schouler, the leader of the Lowell representatives in the legislature, an adroit attorney and former editor of the Lowell Daily Courier, the resolutely pro-corporation newspaper of the local Whig establishment.
The original 1830 charter granted the Boston & Lowell exclusive rights to a railroad between Boston, (including Charlestown and Cambridge) and any point within a five-mile radius around the Lowell depot. Schouler insisted that the new route violated that charter and to approve the new railroad would be akin to revoking the charter of the so-called Lowell Road. The legislature could certainly grant a new charter but he was determined to protect the powerful Boston interests. In a sly parliamentary maneuver, Schouler and his allies substituted an alternate route to Livingston’s plan. The new route was proposed by Hobart Clark of Andover and Samuel Lawrence and intended to link to Clark’s Wilmington and Haverhill Railroad, a branch off the Boston & Lowell, effectively eliminating any competition. An enraged Livingston characterized Schouler’s deception as “…treacherous, faithless, and ungentlemanly.” The question of the new railroad was dead. but the controversy roiled Lowell for months, and the uproar ended Schouler’s career as a representative from Lowell. He moved to Boston in 1848, where he edited the Boston Atlas, a Whig paper and he was returned to the Legislature for Boston, where he continued to shepherd the interests of the Lowell corporations and their wealthy Boston investors. Claiming he was done with politics, he later moved to Ohio to edit of the Cincinnati Gazette, but he returned to Massachusetts during the Civil War.
Livingston and his Democratic and Free Soil allies, led by Ben Butler and Fisher Hildreth, would continue the struggle over the next decade for such causes as the secret ballot, modernization of corporation law, the ten-hour workday, district representation, and the detested “ticket” system that allowed corporations to blackball workers.
Livingston got his Lowell & Andover charter from the 1846 legislation, and with a new strategy. His road would link with the new Salem & Lowell Railroad in which he was also an investor. The Salem & Lowell was a scheme to revitalize the depressed town of Salem as an alternative port to Boston. The Salem railroad inspired resort on “Lowell Island” off Salem and marketed to Lowell visitors. The railroad also encouraged the development of the Lowell summer colony at Juniper Point in Salem (after the group had been evicted from Marblehead Neck.)
When finally built in 1848, the Lowell & Andover was re-christened as the Lowell & Lawrence in recognition of the increased importance of the new manufacturing town of Lawrence. In 1852, the long awaited new service to Boston began through the cooperation of the Salem railroad and the Boston & Maine and just as quickly, the Boston & Lowell sued. The state Supreme Court in an 1854 decision found that the three railroads had exceeded their charters by creating the route. But in 1855 they received the necessary legislative approval. The corporations exploited the ensuing competition for the freight business, principally the transport of southern cotton, and the competition proved fatal to the undercapitalized Salem railroad, and the Boston & Lowell took control of the road in 1858.
“The Boston & Lowell …even more of an enemy to the Boston & Maine than the Eastern…”
By the 1870s, Lowell’s position as the Commonwealth’s second largest city was challenged by other growing industrial centers, particularly Worcester. Many thought that Worcester’s accelerating growth was powered by its superior railroad connections. the Boston & Lowell, Boston & Maine, and Eastern Railroads were battling for control of rail service north of Boston, but in Lowell, the Boston & Lowell controlled all the rails in and out of town. Nonetheless, Lowell interests saw an opportunity in the struggle among the giants. Edward M. Sargent, owner of an express business and so reliant on good, cheap rail service, proposed yet another Lowell & Andover Railroad to connect with the Boston & Maine at Ballardvale. It was conceived and capitalized locally; the Ayers with their many manufacturing interests were chief investors and beneficiaries.The Boston & Maine was invited to lease the new road, For the Boston &Lowell Railroad, this was the “raising of a club over the head of the Lowell Road,”
Building a railroad was an act of faith in the aftermath of the economic disruption of the Panic of 1873, but labor was plentiful and cheap. The contractors may have anticipated bargain-rate labor, but workers struck almost immediately, complaining they had nothing left of their $1.00-a-day pay after paying board. They won an increase to $1.25 and struck again in a few months to wrangle another increase to $1.50, with some gaining $1.75. Construction moved rapidly, and at one point, over 800 laborers were at work on the road. The operations of the new steam shovel were also of great and curious interest. The construction methodology and inevitable complications would look familiar to anyone involved with civil works today. A general contractor, Edmund Rice of Boston, won the contract in early 1874 and then let the work to sub-contractors in fourteen sections; the bridges went to still another sub-contractor. Any project manager today would recognize the problem hen one sub-contractor walked off his section. He was selling off too much valuable excavate from his area which the engineers wanted elsewhere on the job; he countered that delays in bridge construction and removal of buildings had unnecessarily delayed him. There was some truth to his claim, but if he wanted back on the job the railroad and prime contractor would require surety bonds.
The site selected for the new depot in Towers Corner, a block bound by Central, Green, Williams, and Warren streets, was a deteriorated neighborhood yet home to five hundred people who would all be displaced and nearly two dozen or so houses on the site would need to be removed. The local real estate man Hugh Morrison bought a number of them. Buildings were commonly moved in a time when materials were more costly than labor, but by the 1870s the streets were clogged with traffic. So when Morrison announced that he was moving his houses half a mile away up busy Gorham Street to Elm Street in Chapel Hill, there was an uproar. It wasn’t just the disruption and traffic impacts, there was a bit of NIMBYism as well. Neighbors in the new vicinity, represented by the venerable Tappan Wentworth, were not certain that Morrison’s deteriorated houses would attract the best class of tenants and might will cause their homes to depreciate in value. That was the opinion of neighbor, Mr. Fordyce Coburn, a mill overseer, who had taken it upon himself to investigate the Green Street buildings. Some of them, he noted, were there when he first came to Lowell in 1840. Morrison countered that one three-story house he intended to move was only a year old and said he “intended to fix [the] houses up as good desirable tenements for such persons as would seek them in that locality.” But when the moves began, buildings blocked streets for days, damaged trees, and had to be removed by the City. Morrison did reconstruct his buildings on his lot and made good on fixing them up with stylish “French” roofs and other modern features, but his dismantling and reconstruction must have cost him dearly.
“In 1868 I quit medicine and found relief and cure…”
The train shed for the new Boston & Maine Depot, 467 feet long with trusses spanning 70 feet, was constructed in 1874, but the head house itself would not be completed for another two years. The most significant of the buildings to be removed for the depot was the First Universalist Church. Coincidentally the Universalist Church had been to this location in 1838. Liberal in their beliefs and views, including equality among men and women members, the congregation of this church was also prestigious and affluent. The family of the future architect, Frederick W. Stickney, were members. They weren’t happy with the railroads offer for their building so they sued and debated a new location among themselves.
After the abrupt departure in 1858 of James H. Rand, there was no single Lowell architect of stature (or pretensions) in the city. There were a number of competent carpenter architects, such as William Patterson and George Pearson, and there was the curious Thomas G. Gerrish, the embezzling former City Treasurer who had reestablished himself as an architect but still later found success as distiller of bitters. Consequently, important works often fell to architects from Boston. Hocum Hosford dispensed with architects altogether and turned to the Architectural Iron Works Company of New York for his Merrimack Street replacement for the old Concert Hall. But more typical was the experience of The Eliot Church, formerly the Appleton Street Congregational Church, which selected the Boston architect Samuel S. Woodcock. Woodcock was well known in Lowell when he partnered with George Meacham in the design of the Ladd & Whitney monument. He also designed the imposing Ayer Mansion on Pawtucket Street.
Original 1838 First Universalist Church
Thus it was no surprise that the First Universalist first turned to Thomas Silloway of Boston, to design a wood structure for an Appleton Street lot. Silloway was a celebrated architect, who already had to his credit many of the 400 churches he would design during his career – including the Branch Street Tabernacle in Lowell -and he was also a Universalist minister. So it’s even more surprising that the Universalists rejected Silloway’s plans and selected a young 23-year-old Worcester architect, Frank Cherrington, for a new site on Hurd Street opposite Saint Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Cherrington provided them a fashionable, if unremarkable, High Victorian Gothic design in stone — a competent enough design, but not the equal of Silloway’s contemporaneous Eliot Church.
First Universalist Church 1874
Despite the lagging economy, Lowell was busily rebuilding itself, particularly the business district and the fashion in design was Gothic. Already, John G. Stearns of the Boston firm of Peabody and Stearns had chosen the style for the Wyman Exchange on the corner of Central and Merrimack streets. But unquestionably the finest example of the style from this time was the white marble Five Cent Savings Bank by Charles B. Atwood, known colloquially as the “Marble Bank Block.” Atwood designed this jewel box of a building shortly after leaving the Boston firm of Ware and Van Brunt. Atwood would later work with Charles Birmingham on the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, and Birmingham would declare Atwood, after his untimely death, one of the four best designers in the country.
In line with the impressive reconstruction of the city’s business district, The imminent arrival of the Boston & Maine Depot sparked a transformation of Towers Corner. The Dempsey, Smith, and Costello blocks on the opposite corner of Green Street were rebuilt in unison to the designs of William Patterson. The American House Hotel a block further north was expanded, and, no doubt impressed by Cherrington’s skills, Amos French chose him to design the grand new French and Puffer’s building across from the depot (the site of WCAP radio studios today.) Cherrington was building a reputation and a professional practice in Lowell and in 1876 he the design of the new depot head house itself. With the design of the head house, also in the de-rigueur Victorian Gothic, Cherrington showed more imagination and whimsy than in previous designs, using two asymmetrical towers to give the small structure a more imposing profile. Just a block north on Central Street the rising local architect Otis Merrill would also try his hand at the Gothic style, with his design for the nearby 1877 Appleton National Bank block.
French & Puffer Building 1874 2nd from Right. Far Right: Cook & Taylor Block (FW Stickney) 1884
Frank Cherrington was born in South Boston in 1850, the youngest of nine children of Edmund and Tryphena Cherrington. Edmund was an inventive and ambitious upholsterer, acclaimed for his patented spring support system, a revolutionary idea in 1835. Son Frank appears to have shared his father’s ambitions and he apprenticed with the carpenter and architect Stephen Tourtellot in Worcester. 1872 was elevated to a junior partner in the new firm of Tourtellot and Cherrington, but Tourtellot’s death in 1873 left the young Frank the sole proprietor. Frank was joined in Worcester by his older brother LeRoy. LeRoy had had a peripatetic career as bank messenger, hardware store operator, insurance agent, and landscape gardener (an early term for landscape architect). LeRoy was dispatched to Lowell to manage the local “branch” of the firm, but as the work in Lowell grew, or because of LeRoy’s possible indifference or mismanagement of the business. (At an 1877 meeting of local investors discussing the establishment of a new cotton mill, LeRoy rashly offered the design for free,) By 1876 Frank had moved to Lowell, and the partnership apparently ended with the brothers maintaining separate offices.
LeRoy’s true passion was what was know as “ physical culture,” The nascent field of exercise and nutrition. He gave lectures on Bertha Von Hillern, the celebrated “pedestrienne,” a devotee of the competitive walking crazeof the time. He threw himself into organizing the local “Prohibitory Party,” a movement dedicated to the prohibition of alcohol. In 1878 he opened a local branch of “Dr. Butler’s Health Lift,” an exercise system he marketed aggressively to men, women and children. “It is peculiar and that is why it works,” proclaimed his advertising. When all the medicines of the best physicians failed, the Health Lift was what cured his “lazy liver.” In time LeRoy was styling himself a “hygienic physician.” He fell into “personal insolvency” in 1879 but continued practicing in Lowell until he moved to Salem in 1892. Frank, apparently beset by business problems, moved to Boston in 1880, where he died at 39. His last known work in Lowell was the 1881 Edson Cemetery chapel, but the Cherringtons designed a number of significant buildings in Lowell during their short tenure, perhaps none as significant or as enduring as the Boston & Maine Depot.
Following consolidation of the Boston & Maine and the Boston & Lowell Railroads, the Towers Corner Depot would be replaced by a new “union” depot in 189,3 on the site of the old Northern Depo, designed by the renowned architect Bradford Gilbert. Despite its stylish Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, there was disappointment that Gilbert’s depot was not sufficiently impressive, more critically, it failed to solve the traffic problems in the vicinity and it was razed in 1959, leaving only the Cherrington-designed depot and its reconstructed towers to speak for an essential story of Lowell’s history.