Monday, November 28, 2011

Link Time: MIT-Libraries Photostream

I had forgotten about this collection, but I just followed a link to one of its photos. Unfortunately, the owner has decided not to make this images available via Creative Commons, so I can't download a photo and use it here to give you an example. I could have done a screen cap of course, but hey, if they don't wanna share, then so be it.

MIT-Libraries Flickr photostream.

I linked to a series of Scollay Square photos from the 1950s, but feel free to poke around when you get there. There are many pages that I don't find interesting, but you'll have to see what's there for yourself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Coconut Grove

Coconut Grove nightclub, between Piedmont and Shawmut streets, 1938.

Shawmut street.

Piedmont street entrance.


Corner of Broadway and Shawmut street.

It was one of the biggest news stories of the 20th Century for the city of Boston. It was the fall of 1942, and the country was at war. November 28 was a Saturday, and soldiers and sailors preparing to go overseas were out on the town, along with a Thanksgiving holiday crowd. The Coconut Grove was a popular nightclub that meandered through multiple buildings on a narrow block between Piedmont and Shawmut streets near Park Square. The location had been a speakeasy at one time.

The story of the fire is well known. Regulations were lax at the time. A single revolving door was at the main entrance. The doors at other exits opened in. One exit had been boarded up to prevent customers from leaving without paying. Much of the 'Tropical' decor was made of flammable paper, and covered the walls. Afterwards, it was claimed that an effort to replace a lightbulb lead to the initial fire. The fire spread rapidly, from walls to faux palm tree fronds. The flames ran from room to room before they could be put out.

In the panic, exits became blocked, and bodies piled up. firefighters couldn't get in the building, blocked by the bodies. Some people were found sitting at tables, glasses in their hands. The faire had taken them so fast, they couldn't respond. Four hundred and ninety two people died in the blaze.

As a result of the Coconut Grove fire, many states drew up new fire regulations for public buildings like nightclubs. Flammable materials on walls were outlawed, and doors were required to open out.

Coconut Grove Plaque, Piedmont street. Erected by the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, 1993. Photo by Tom Kelley (Creative Commons).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Link Time: Boston Fire Historical Society

Assorted history of fires and firefighting in Boston. The material speaks for itself, so I'll just let you check it out. There are some dead links and some pages that were never created, but if you poke around you'll find lots of good stuff.

Boston Fire Historical Society

Monday, November 14, 2011

Lost Train Stations: Fitchburg Railroad

Fitchburg Depot, Causeway street (photo from Wikipedia).

Fitchburg Depot, Causeway street, on the right, 1883.

(Edited to add information 1/9/13)

The Fitchburg Railroad was founded in 1842. The line originally terminated in Charlestown, but moved across to Boston in 1848. The line crossed the mouth of the Charles river to Charlestown and northwest to Fitchburg, and was later extended west through northern Massachusetts, with branches running to Vermont and New York. Part of the line ran through the Hoosac Tunnel. The Hoosac went 4.75 miles through the Hoosac range. The work took 20 years at a cost of $21,000,000, at a time when a dollar was a dollar. At the time it was the second longest tunnel in the world, and remains the longest in the United States east of the Rockies.

The Boston depot shown above was built, quite appropriately,  from Fitchburg granite, and was known a Crocker's Folly (Alvah Crocker being the president of the company) and later the Great Stone Castle.  When the line moved to the north union station, the space was used by the company for offices, There was a fire in 1925, and by 1928 the structure had been demolished.

The Boston and Maine line bought the Fitchburg Railroad in 1900.

Jenny Lind Tower (Truro Historical Society).

Here's a fun story/fact. Famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind performed in the Fitchburg depot when she visited Boston. The show was oversold, and in order to satisfy unhappy ticket holders left outside, Jenny sang from one of the turrets. When the depot was torn down, a wealthy fan had the turret removed block by block and rebuilt near Highland Light in Truro MA.

Great story, but apparently not quite accurate. Lind did perform in the second floor auditorium (then the largest in New England) in 1850, and contemporary newspaper reports describe fans rushing the stage (does that sound familiar?). However, there was no mention of Lind singing from the turret. the depot was not torn down until 1927, and the lawyer who bought and moved the turret was not born until seventeen years after the concert.

 Resource:  Boston's Depots and Terminals, Richard C. Barrett. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Perkins Institution for the Blind - South Boston

Perkins Institution, East Broadway, South Boston - early 20th Century postcard.

Perkins School, BPL Flickr photo group.

"Blind Asylum," Broadway, 1852.

Perkins Institution property marked in red, 1884.

I've already discussed South Boston's Carney Hospital - here's an institution that has its roots in the older, Yankee Boston. The Perkins Institution for the Blind was founded in Boston proper in 1829 by John Dix Fisher. After merchant Thomas Handasyd Perkins donated his Pearl street estate, the school was named to honor him.

It might be worthy of notice here that Perkins and his brother James made their money in the China trade, primarily selling Turkish opium on the Chinese black market, and entirely against Chinese law. The Perkins company and other Boston companies were the leading Americans in this notorious trade, and were different from contemporary South American and Mexican drug cartels only in that they didn't go about killing people. They simply bribed them. Thomas H. Perkins - the so-called Merchant Prince - was a pillar of the community and a philanthropic leader. And everyone knew where his money came from, and no one seemed to mind.

Originally the New England Asylum for the Blind, the institution was founded in 1829. The first leader of the schools was Samuel Gridley Howe, probably better known today as the husband of Julia Ward Howe, activist and composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This is unfortunate, because Howe's story is remarkable, and deserves to be remembered. When the school outgrew it's first home, Thomas H. Perkins allowed his Pearl street mansion to be used.

In 1839, Perkins sold the house and donated the proceeds to buy the former Mt Washington hotel in South Boston. As a side note, over time the hill the school sat on was gradually cut away over time for ease of building. The black and white photograph above shows the walls that had to be built to retain the earth around the building after the slope had been cut down, a reminder of Boston's many cut-and-fill projects.

In an effort to help blind children of pre-school age, the Perkins Institution opened a Kindergarten in Jamaica Plain. I've already discussed that institution on my Jamaica Plain blog, so please go here to read about it.

In time, the school outgrew it's South Boston campus, and moved both the main school and the Jamaica Plain kindergarten to Watertown.