Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church, Holyoke, Mass

The Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church, at the corner of Lincoln and Nonotuck Streets in Holyoke, arounn 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

Holyoke’s First Methodist Church was established in 1853, and met in various locations in the downtown area until 1869, when its first permanent church building was completed on Main Street. However, in the following years, the city steadily grew westward and northward, away from Main Street, and by the 1880s there was a need for a church here in the newly-developed Highlands neighborhood. As a result, this church was built in 1886, at the corner of Lincoln and Nonotuck Streets, and it originally served as a branch of the downtown Methodist church. The pastor of the downtown church, Gilbert C. Osgood, would preach here on Sunday afternoons, and this arrangement continued until 1889, when the Highlands church was organized as a separate congregation.

The Highlands Methodist Episcopal Church remained here in this building until around 1926, when it was sold to a Christian Scientist congregation, which would worship here until at least the mid-20th century. Today, this scene remains much the same as it did 125 years ago, with the church as well as the houses in the distance still standing. The exterior of the church remains particularly well-preserved, although the interior is dramatically different. It has not been used as a church since at least the 1970s or early 1980s, when it was converted into a house, and more than 40 years later it is still a private residence. However, it did recently gain national attention when, in 2016, the church-turned-house was labeled as a Pokémon GO gym, resulting in dozens of people showing up around the house every day.

Park Street School, Holyoke, Mass

The Park Street School at the corner of Park and Hamilton Streets in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The caption in Picturesque Hampden identifies this as the Hamilton Street School, but it is actually the Park Street School, which is located just across the street from where the Hamilton Street School once stood. It is perhaps the oldest surviving school building in the city, and dates back to 1868 when it opened as a public school. Like many other buildings of this period, it had Italianate architecture, and it featured a symmetrical front facade with a tower in the center. Just beyond the school, on the left side of the first photo, was the Precious Blood Church, a High Victorian Gothic-style French Catholic church that was completed in 1878.

In 1875, the Park Street School played a grisly role in one of the deadliest, yet also one of the least-known disasters in Massachusetts history. At the time, the Precious Blood Church was under construction, and the parishioners, largely French-Canadian immigrants, worshiped in a temporary wooden church, located behind the right side of the school at the corner of Cabot and South East Streets. The wooden church, built in just a month in December 1869, had a capacity of about 800, and included a large balcony that could seat about 400. On May 27, 1875, the church was filled with some 600 to 700 worshipers for an evening Corpus Christi mass, but toward the end of the service a lace curtain, blown by a stiff breeze through the open windows, touched a lighted candle and caught fire.

The fire on the curtain quickly spread to the wall, and within minutes the building was engulfed in flames. Those on the ground floor of the sanctuary had a fairly easy escape route, through any of the three front doors of the church. However, those in the balcony had only a narrow stairway that led down to the front entrances, where the crowds from the ground floor were also trying to escape. One of the doors eventually became blocked by people who had tripped over each other, and firemen worked desperately to free people from this pile in what little time they had. In particular, future fire chief John J. Lynch – namesake of the former John J. Lynch Middle School – was noted for his bravery in rescuing survivors, and thanks to the efforts of Lynch and other firemen, the death toll was not as high as it otherwise may have been.

Within just 20 minutes of the curtain brushing against the candle, both the church and the adjacent rectory were completely destroyed. The next step was to recover and identify the bodies of the victims, and the Park Street School was converted into a morgue. The bodies were laid out here in the basement by the following morning, and friends and family members of the victims arrived to identify their loved ones. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, and were only able to be identified by clothing, shoes, jewelry, and other personal effects.

The total number of deaths in the fire has been variously listed as low as 74 and as high as 97, although the lower figure is probably closer to the true count. The language barrier likely contributed to some of the discrepancies, and in some cases spelling variations of the same name were apparently recorded as two different people. Either way, though, it ranks among the deadliest fires in the history of the state. By way of comparison, the Great Boston Fire of 1872, which occurred less than three years earlier, destroyed 776 buildings in densely-populated Boston, yet had a death toll of about 20 to 30, only about a third of that of the Precious Blood Church.

At the time of the fire, the new Precious Blood Church was already under construction, but work had not progressed much further than the basement. Nonetheless, two days after the fire a funeral mass was held for the victims, and about 2,500 people crowded into the still-unfinished basement, which had been hastily roofed with boards for the occasion. So many people in such a confined, makeshift space could have posed an even greater danger in the event of a fire, but the funeral passed without incident, and most of the bodies were subsequently interred in a mass grave in the Precious Blood Cemetery, located across the river in South Hadley.

Today, despite such a substantial loss of life, the Precious Blood Church fire has been largely forgotten, and here in the South Holyoke neighborhood there are few reminders of the tragedy. The new Precious Blood Church, which was completed in 1878 and is seen on the left side of the first photo, closed in 1989, and was demolished soon after. Probably the only surviving buildings with a connection to the fire is the Park Street School, which still stands here in a somewhat altered state. It continued to be used as a school for many years after its use as a makeshift morgue, but around 1930 it was sold to the church, becoming a convent and chapel. At some point, the tower was removed, and the building saw other alterations such as additional windows on the second floor, but overall it is still recognizable from its original appearance, and stands as a good example of mid-19th century school architecture.

Unitarian Church, Holyoke, Mass

The Unitarian Church at the corner of Maple and Essex Streets in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The first Unitarian church in Holyoke was established in 1857, but it only lasted for about a year, and the city’s Unitarians would not form another church for more than 15 years. Finally, in 1874, the Liberal Christian Congregational Society was established with 55 members, and the church met in several different temporary locations for the next two years. In 1875, the Holyoke Water Power Company donated this lot at the northeast corner of Maple and Essex Streets, and construction of a church building began later that year.

The building was completed in 1876, and originally consisted of just the section on the left side of the first photo, to the left of the tower. However, in 1889, the building was significantly expanded to the right, with a matching addition that more than doubled its capacity. The church remained here until about 1930, but by 1931 it was demolished to build the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company building, which still stands here on the site. Its exterior has been altered over the years, and the first floor windows and doors have been bricked up, but it remains as one of the few Art Deco-style buildings in Holyoke.

Maple Street from Essex Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking north on Maple Street from the corner of Essex Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

Maple Street runs parallel to High Street, which is located a block to the east. While High Street was developed as a major commercial center, Maple Street was primarily residential in the late 19th century. The first photo shows several homes on the left side, a group of brick rowhouses in the distance on the right, plus two churches closer to the foreground on the right side. Most of these buildings were fairly new when the first photo was taken, and probably none of them had been built before the 1870s. Perhaps the oldest building is the Unitarian Church on the far right, which was built in 1876, although it was significantly expanded in 1889. Further in the distance, near the center of the photo, is the Second Congregational Church, which was built in 1885 after the congregation moved out of its old building at the corner of High and Dwight Streets.

Today, the Second Congregational Church, now the United Congregational Church of Holyoke, is the only noticeable building still standing from the first photo, although most of it had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1919. All of the other 19th century buildings are gone, and today this block includes the 1930 Elks building on the left, the 1936 War Memorial beyond it, and the 1931 New England Telegraph and Telephone Company building on the right, which stands on the site of the Unitarian Church. Further in the distance is a group of early 20th century apartment buildings, and in between is a single 19th century rowhouse, which is barely visible to the left of the church tower. Built around 1880, it is the sole survivor of the long block of rowhouses that can be seen in the first photo, and it is now surrounded on both sides by parking lots.

High Street and Dwight Street, Holyoke, Mass

The corner of High and Dwight Streets in Holyoke, sometime before 1885. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene around 1891. Image from Holyoke Illustrated (1891).

The scene in 2017:

The first photo shows the Second Congregational Church, which was once located here at the corner of Dwight and High Streets, directly across from City Hall. The church was organized in 1849, and worshiped in several different locations until 1853, when this building was completed, at a cost of $12,000. It was designed by prominent New Haven architect Henry Austin, and was large enough for 800 people, although the congregation only had 36 members at the time. Holyoke was still in the early stages of its industrial development, with a population of a little over 3,000, but over the next few decades both the city and the church saw steady growth. By the mid-1880s, the congregation had outgrown the building, and in 1885 a new church was built a few blocks away, at the corner of Maple and Appleton Streets.

The old church was sold and demolished soon after the new one was completed, and later in 1885, Delaney’s Marble Block was built on the site. The building was owned by John Delaney, and was designed by local architect James A. Clough, with an exterior that was built of Vermont marble. Like many of the other commercial blocks on High Street, the building had stores on the ground floor, with professional offices in the upper floors, and it enjoyed a prominent location at one of the busiest intersections in the city. In later years, the building housed a W. T. Grant store, but around 1950 it was demolished to build a new, more modern-looking building for W. T. Grant. This chain of stores has long since gone out of business, but its architecturally nondescript building still stands here as somewhat of an anomaly, on a street that is otherwise still predominantly lined with 19th century commercial buildings.

Mosher Street from Main Street, Holyoke, Mass

Looking east on Moster Street from the corner of Main Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The scene in 2017:

The railroad bridge in the foreground is located just south of Holyoke’s historic railroad station, and carries the Connecticut River Railroad over Mosher Street. This railroad line, which was acquired by the Boston and Maine Railroad soon after the first photo was taken, is the primary north-south railroad route through western Massachusetts, linking the major cities and towns of the Connecticut River Valley with Vermont to the north and Connecticut to the south.

Several blocks away in the distance of the first photo is the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, which was built in 1887 at the northeast corner of Mosher and West Streets. It was one of many Catholic churches built in Holyoke during this time, and both the church and its parish school served the large numbers of Catholic immigrants who came to Holyoke as mill workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first pastor of the church, Michael J. Howard, died in 1888, only a year after the church building was completed, and he was succeeded by Thomas D. Beaven, who served the parish until 1892, when he became bishop of the Diocese of Springfield.

Today, only the railroad itself still exists from the first photo. The church was demolished in 1976, and the rest of the buildings between the railroad and the church are also gone. A large apartment building now dominates the left side of the 2017 photo, and the surrounding streets now consist primarily of modern duplexes, interspersed by occasional historic buildings. The old railroad station, just out of view to the left, is still standing, although it has been vacant for many years. Passenger rail was recently restored to Holyoke, with Amtrak’s Vermonter now running through the city, although it currently uses a small platform located a block south of here at Dwight Street, instead of the abandoned 19th century station.