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 depot was so well received, observers demanded that the Northern Depot on Middlesex Street should be rebuilt similarly. 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 the same name, the Lowell & Andover. It was a not just a savvy plan to build a competing railroad but a struggle for control of the future of the city.
Lowell was distinguished from the industrial cities that followed it, 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 then remained committed to its future. 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 and those of the distant investors were not always mutual. Some made their fortunes in construction, building Lowell and the new cities that followed, men like the great lumber king Nicholas Norcross who 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 whose powder mills in Lowell, New Hampshire, and Maine 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 belief 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.
Thus by 1845, a quarter of a century after the founding of Lowell, the most prescient might have foreseen the future and there were troubling signs. The great Locks and Canals reorganization and land sell-off of that year 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, they imagined, would be the 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. the original investors had reason to defend their franchise, 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 protected the Boston shareholders and benefited the large corporations but the stranglehold, particularly in freight tariffs and capacity, was detrimental to the local interests and constrained them.
“…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 prior to the Civil War.
Livingston eventually got his Lowell & Andover charter from the 1846 legislation. A new strategy would link the Lowell and Andover 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.
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 competing service to Boston began through the cooperation of the new Lawrence and Salem railroads with the Boston & Maine and just as quickly, the Boston & Lowell sued. The state Supreme Court in an 1854 decision found in favor of the Boston & Lowell and that the three railroads had exceeded their charters by creating the alternate route. But the 1855 legislature granted the necessary legislative approval. The corporations may have opposed the route but quickly exploited the ensuing competition for freight business, principally the transport of southern cotton from the wharves of Salem or Boston to Lowell. The competition proved fatal to the undercapitalized Salem railroad, and the better capitalized Boston & Lowell took control of the road in 1858, effectively eliminating the hoped for competition.
“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 – a business dependent on good, cheap rail service – proposed yet another attempt at a 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 when 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. The 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 well 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.
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 moved 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. They weren’t happy with the railroad’s 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 until the 1870s. 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 turned to architecture and then to find success as distiller of bitters. Consequently, important works often fell to architects from Boston such as the Eliot Church, formerly the Appleton Street Congregational Church, which selected the Boston architect Samuel S. Woodcock in 1875. 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 not surprisingly 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 — a competent design, but not the equal of Woodcock’s contemporaneous Eliot Church. Still with his Lowell office, Cherrington established a viable and competitive architectural practice in the City.
First Universalist Church 1874
Despite the lagging economy, Lowell was busily rebuilding itself in the 1870s, 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. Many of the Lowell architects would be inspired but failed to equal Atwood’s bank block.
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. Modest wooden buildings and tenements were quickly replaced by new impressive business blocks. 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.) General Fisk selected in 1876, a rising new architect, Otis Merrill, for an imposing new Gothic styled business block on the corner of Jackson Street also across from the site of the new depot. The following year, 1877, Merrill would try his hand at Gothic again in his reconstruction of the neighboring Appleton Bank Block. But if the Towers Corner neighborhood was being reimagined as a major commercial center, progress on the depot headhouse itself was delayed by the financial dispute with the Universalists and with the City over a plan to expand Central Street. The City balked when the railroad proposed to sell the narrow strip for nearly three times what it had paid for the land. The City refused and finally by June of 1876 the railroad announced that it would not sell at all and commenced with the long awaited headhouse.
The previous year, the railroad had fitted up temporary facilities in the old church and another building which now had to be carefully removed while railroad operations continued. With his growing Lowell patronage, Frank Cherrington entered into a partnership with his brother Leroy in the new firm of Cherrington & Cherrington. The new firm was selected for the design of the new headhouse also in the de-rigueur Victorian Gothic and with a bit of whimsy in design, using two asymmetrical towers to give the small structure a more imposing profile. Also contributing to the delay of the headhouse was turmoil in the new architectural firm which was dissolved on April 10, 1876 in acrimony as the two brothers competed for reputation and business in the advertising pages of the local press. Leroy remained the architect of the depot but Frank was busy with the design of the new Southwick Block on Prescott Street.
French & Puffer Building 1874 2nd from Right. Far Right: Cook & Taylor Block (FW Stickney) 1884
“In 1868 I quit medicine and found relief and cure…”
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 beginning in 1866 and was elevated in 1872 as 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, by 1876 Frank had moved to Lowell, and the partnership ended with the brothers maintaining separate offices.
Frank continued his architectural work but 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. In their places two, young rising architects, Otis Merrill and Fred Stickney would compete for and lead architectural work in the city for the next two decades.
Following consolidation of the Boston & Maine and the Boston & Lowell Railroads, the Towers Corner Depot would be retired by a new “union” depot in 1893 on the site of the old Northern Depot at the opposite end of Middlesex Street. The handsome new depot, designed by the renowned architect Bradford Gilbert in stylish Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, was doomed from its opening because it failed to resolve the tangled traffic problems in the vicinity which only grew worse with the rise of the automobile and so it was razed in 1959 to make way for the even more disappointing Lord Overpass, leaving only the Cherrington-designed depot and its reconstructed towers to speak for an essential story of Lowell’s history.