First Baptist Church, Holyoke, Mass

The First Baptist Church, at the corner of Northampton and South Streets in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The church in 2017:

Holyoke’s First Baptist Church is significantly older than Holyoke itself, and was originally incorporated in 1803, back when Holyoke was still part of West Springfield. At the time, this northern section of West Springfield was known as Ireland Parish, and most of its development was centered along present-day Northampton Street. The First Baptist Church built its first permanent church building here on this site in 1826, at the corner of Northampton and South Streets, and over the next decade the congregation steadily grew, eventually peaking at 179 in 1835.

Holyoke was incorporated as a separate town in 1850, and at the time, it was being transformed into a major industrial center. However, this development was concentrated more than a mile to the east of here, along the banks of the Connecticut River. This drew people away from the old village center on Northampton Street, and First Baptist Church steadily lost members, who moved closer to the new town center. By 1879, church membership had dwindled to just 69, but, despite its small size, the congregation embarked on a building project, demolishing the old wood-frame building in 1879 and replacing it with a new brick, High Victorian Gothic-style building that was completed in 1880, on the same site as the old church.

This proved to be a wise move, because by the late 19th century, the surrounding neighborhood was being developed as a suburban residential area. Originally known as Baptist Village, the neighborhood became Elmwood, and the influx of residents helped to grow the church. By the first decade of the 20th century, membership had tripled from its 1879 numbers, requiring an addition in the right side, which was built in 1906. Since then, the exterior has not changed significantly, and First Baptist Church remains an active congregation that still worships here in this building, more than 125 years after the first photo was taken.

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.

Casper Ranger House, Holyoke, Mass

The house at 507 Appleton Street, at the corner of Sycamore Street in Holyoke, around 1892. Image from Picturesque Hampden (1892).

The house in 2017:

This elegant Queen Anne-style house was built around 1890, and was the home of Casper Ranger, a prominent local contractor. Born in 1850 in the French city of Mulhouse, Ranger came to the United States with his parents when he was six. He grew up in the Holyoke area, and apprenticed as a carpenter before becoming a workman and, later, a foreman for Holyoke builder Watson Ely. During this time, Ranger was involved in projects such as the construction of City Hall and the Opera House, but in 1877 he left Ely’s company and went into business for himself.

Ranger would later establish both the Casper Ranger Lumber Company and the Casper Ranger Construction Company, and he played an important role in Holyoke’s development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A 1917 biographical sketch estimated that his companies had built 70 percent of all the mill buildings in Holyoke, and he also built mills and commercial buildings in Springfield, many of the buildings on the campus of Mount Holyoke in South Hadley, and several mansions in Holyoke. These included his own house here on Appleton Street, which had a highly ornate, eclectic Queen Anne design and, as the first photo shows, enjoyed a prominent location overlooking the city.

Ranger and his first wife Katherine had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood. However, Katherine died in 1886 at the age of 39, and the following year he remarried to Ellen E. McDonnell. They moved into this house several years after their marriage, and they had three more children of their own. The 1900 census shows a crowded house, with the Rangers living here with seven children plus a servant, although by the 1910 census there were just three children living here with them, along with two servants. Casper died in 1912, and Ellen remained here for about five more years, before moving to Brookline in 1917.

The house was subsequently sold to the Holy Cross Church, and served as the rectory until around 1940, when it became a parish hall. Today, it is no longer owned by the church, but its exterior has remained well-preserved over the years, with few noticeable changes aside from a shortened chimney. The surroundings have changed somewhat, though, and the Holyoke skyline is hidden by trees. However, probably the most notable change in the foreground is the small park, located in the triangle of land between Suffolk, Appleton, and Sycamore Streets. Once known as Ranger Park, it is now the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza, and includes a granite bust of Kennedy, which is visible on the left side of the photo.

Beech Street from Cabot Street, Holyoke, Mass

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

The scene in 2017:

Holyoke is one of the few New England cities to have a regular street grid, which was a result of its planned development in the mid-19th century. The downtown area consists of rectangular blocks, with some streets running roughly north to south, parallel to the canals along the Connecticut River, and perpendicular streets running east to west, up and down the hills to the west of the river. West of High Street, the north-south streets are all named for trees (Maple, Elm, Walnut, etc.), while the east-west streets alternate between those named for Massachusetts counties (Franklin, Hampshire, Essex, etc.) and those named for early Holyoke industrialists (Jackson, Sargeant, Cabot, etc.).

By the late 19th century, houses in Holyoke were, in general, more desirable the further up the hill that they were located. Beech Street, which is seen here around 1892, is six blocks to the west of High Street, and at the time it largely consisted of upper middle class, single-family homes. At the time, the neighborhood had not yet been fully developed. Most of the houses were new, having been built around the 1880s, and there were still vacant lots on this block, including some in the foreground on the left side.

The 1900 census gives some insight into the people who lived here on this section of Beech Street. On the far right, at the corner of Cabot Street, was the home of Lewis E. Bellows, the treasurer and manager of the Barlow Manufacturing Company, which produced store and window display fixtures. Just beyond his house, at 232 Beech, was the home of William Mauer, a German immigrant who worked as secretary and manager of Germania Mills, which produced woolen and worsted textiles. Further down the street, at 226 Beech, was the home of William Judd, who worked as a traveling salesman for a paper mill.

In the years after the first photo was taken, the vacant lots on either side of the street were developed, and new houses were built around the early 20th century. Since then, there have not been any significant changes, and most of these turn-of-the-century homes are still standing, although many have been altered with enclosed porches, artificial siding, and other changes. Only one house – the one on the right at 232 Beech – appears to have been demolished, but it has since been replaced by a modern house on the same site.

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.

Park Street from Adams Street, Holyoke, Mass

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

The scene in 2017:

This view shows the scene from Adams Street, looking north toward the triangular park between Park Street (now Clemente Street) on the left and South East Street on the right. Here, the street grid of the South Holyoke neighborhood, which runs parallel to the Third Level Canal, meets the street grid of the rest of the city. This formed a small wedge of land in the center of the photo, just south of Sargeant Street, as well as a larger one just beyond it, in the block between Sargeant and Hamilton Streets. Originally known as Hamilton Park, and later the Hamilton Street Park, this was the largest open space in the neighborhood, and the first photo shows a mix of wood-frame and brick buildings on either side of the street. Further in the distance, in the center of the photo, is the Hamilton Street School, located on part of the triangle between Hamilton, Park, and South East Streets.

When the first photo was taken, this neighborhood was predominantly French-Canadian, although there was also a considerable German population as well. The 1900 census, which was done only a few years after the first photo was taken, gives some interesting insight into this neighborhood. For example, the house on the right was owned by August Ruppert, a 46-year-old German immigrant who ran a grocery store in the first floor of the building. He had immigrated to the United States in 1882, followed a year later by his wife Mary and their two young children, Richard and Annie. They had a third child, Emma, several years years later, and by 1900 they were living here in this house, with Richard working as a plumber and Annie as a weaver in a woolen mill. The census also shows On Wo living right next door at 282 Park Street. A Chinese immigrant, he was about 38 years old, and he worked as a laundryman, probably in the second storefront on the right side of the photo.

Today, nothing is left from the first photo except for the park and the streets themselves. Even then, they have undergone changes, with the Hamilton Street Park becoming Carlos Vega Park in 2012, and Park Street becoming Clemente Street. A 1911 city atlas shows over 40 buildings in this two-block section of Park and South East Streets, but today there are only five, with overgrown vacant lots comprising most of the streetscape. The present-day photo shows the effect that the loss of manufacturing jobs has had on Holyoke, and similar scenes can be found in other once-thriving neighborhoods in the city.