Lowell Since '45
The Lawrence Manufacturing Company Fire:
A Blaze For the Ages
The Lawrence Manufacturing Company Fire: A Blaze for the Ages
Mill fires have earned a reputation as particularly challenging --- a perfect storm of combustible factors. Old structures with insufficient sprinkler systems? Check. Buildings packed close together? Check. Chock full of wood beams and other flammable timber? Check. And If that is not enough, oil-soaked floorboards are primed to burn. It seems like every mill city in New England has had its turn with a major fire. There are some famous 19th century mill fires like the 1860 Pemberton Mill fire in Lawrence that killed 145 workers and the 1874 mill fire in Fall River that killed 23 women and children. And in the 20th Century, abandoned mills have been dangerous potential hazards. For instance, no fewer than a half dozen mill fires have taken place in Fall River in just the past decade. But it was in 1987 that Lowell would get its turn with a nine-alarm inferno in the old Lawrence Manufacturing Company mill complex that could only be extinguished with the help of 200 firefighters from 17 towns.
At 5:42 PM on March 23, 1987, Lieutenant John McGaughy was off-duty when he spotted a fire near the interior loading dock of the castle-like Sweeney building at the heart of the Lawrence complex off Hall Street. The Lawrence Manufacturing Company had once been a bustling part of the Lowell industrial scene. Established in 1828 (as the enormous wall sign still easily seen from the Merrimack River will tell you), it manufactured hosiery, knitwear, underwear and yarn. Although the company was long gone --- having been liquidated in 1926 --- the enormous mill complex still stood along the Merrimack, containing other smaller textile companies and offices.
As the alarms began ringing out, some 15 local fire trucks quickly arrived to deal with an increasingly out of control blaze. Soon additional alarms spurred fire departments from nearby cities and towns to mobilize. 17 towns eventually deployed crews, including an auxiliary generator truck all the way from Waltham that provided 23,000 watts of flood lighting to the western side of the complex. As the fire continued to gain momentum, firefighters were forced to aim jets of water at a tall tower near the Sweeney Building where debris and flames began shooting 80 feet into the air. The intense heat caused a swirling windstorm of fire that roared out of control and set ablaze other nearby buildings. A half hour after the initial alarm, a 70-foot wall in the Sweeney Building collapsed, sending firefighters darting for cover. Sometime later, firefighters on the roof of the Merrimack Building had to race downstairs as black smoke overwhelmed the structure. A 10,000-gallon tank of fuel exploded, further endangering the scene. And the problems were compounded by an issue with the sprinkler system. Three months earlier an problem with the thermostat has caused many pipes to freeze and crack and so the water in the Sweeney building had been shut off.
The complex was far from empty. More than 40 businesses were in the 800,000 square foot complex and many would end up either out of a home or suffering extreme water damage. Mill City Iron Works was probably hit the hardest. Because they were one of only two tenants in the Sweeney Building, they had been denied insurance for the past few years and were left with nothing. And in these days before electronic copies were saved in the cloud, Henry Woodle of Woodle Realty actually sprinted inside to his office to rescue some company vouchers, even as the walls began collapsing.
In the nearby Hub Hosiery building, firefighters and workers were attempting to keep the blaze from spreading next door. Two Hub Hosiery maintenance men, Troy Thomas and Paul Lessieur, dragged fire hoses up four flights of stairs and began attacking the fire with water. Other volunteers pitched in as well. Five separate chapters of the Red Cross were on the scene that night to pour coffee and serve hamburgers to weary firefighters.
Meanwhile, as the complex was falling apart, the scene was becoming increasingly spectacular. Literally thousands of spectators found their way to the area, some walking over from local neighborhoods and others stopping vehicles along VFW Highway. More than a thousand cars parked on the shoulder or median strip from Bridge Street all the way to University Avenue, as drivers tried to get a better view. At the corner of Aiken and VFW, Toni’s Sandwich Shop saw a huge uptick in patrons throughout the evening. Waitress Jeannie Lessard told the Lowell Sun, “We’ve been as busy as heck…It was just come in, get some onion rings and finish watching the show.”
By the early hours of the morning, fire crews finally started to get the blaze under control. But an estimated $10 million in damage had been amassed and there were other consequences as well. One loss was the oldest brick mill building in Lowell along with four other buildings that were completely unsalvageable. A second consequence would be felt in time. The University of Lowell (now UMass Lowell) had a seven-year, $300 million renovation plan for the complex. They were scheduled to tear down three of the outer buildings and put their School of Engineering Library in the Merrimack Building. Middlesex Community College was also set to place hundreds of students on the new campus. Ironically, the three buildings that survived the fire had been on the chopping block and the structures that burned down were those scheduled for renovation.
In the days that followed the fire, campus officials were quoted in the paper as saying that the project would persevere. University of Lowell President William Hogan said, “The bad news is we had the fire, the good news is everything is going forward.” But as costs were estimated to be as much as ten percent higher, plans were eventually scrapped. Meanwhile, arson investigators scoured the scene even as the flames continued to smolder for a week, but they were never able produce anything worthy of a courtroom. Governor Dukakis flew back from the presidential campaign trail in Iowa to demonstrate local leadership in the Commonwealth, touring the site by helicopter and searching for funds for the city.
While the fire was devastating financially, the city could take pride in the performance of its fire department. With help from many other communities, not a single firefighter or civilian died in this very dangerous fire and the part of the complex that was saved still stands today as renovated condos situated in a lovely park. On the scene that night had been Lowell’s 64-year-old fire chief, John Mulligan. Despite having served the city for nearly four decades, it had been the worst fire --- and the last fire --- he had seen as chief. Just a month after the blaze, Mulligan hit the mandatory retirement age and stepped down. Said to be a strict but fair disciplinarian, Mulligan had trained many of the men who succeeded that night at the Lawrence Mills. He told the Lowell Sun upon retirement, “I’ve done my best. I can walk away and hold my head high and say, ‘Mulligan, you’ve done the best you could.’” And indeed, the firefighters that he commanded could also say the same to themselves as they headed home in the early hours of March 24th, 1987.