Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Baker Bridge Train Wreck of 1905

Imagine an algebra problem with potentially fatal consequences: a train leaves the station going 35 mph, with stops. Thirty minutes later an express train departs on the same track going 35 mph, no stops. Will the first train reach an exit at mile 25 before the second train catches up?
On Sunday evening, November 26, 1905, the answer was "No."

Although trains had been around for more than fifty years, train safety was still an evolving process. At the time of this accident some systems had electric-powered signals - semaphore arms by day and lights by night - to signify that another train was ahead. Additionally, if operators on a leading train thought there was a chance a following train might catch up, a flagman on the rear car (not always a caboose) would periodically throw red 'fusees' (flares) off the back. These were designed to burn for about ten minutes. And that's it for preventing rear-end collisions. No real-time train tracking, no radio communications between trains, and no collision avoidance automated braking.

The players: Boston & Maine Railroad ran local-stop passenger trains between Boston and Marlborough, using the main line to south Acton, where the trains would switch to tracks serving Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Marlborough. The night of the accident, the train, comprised of an engine, a tender and four coaches, left Union Station (same site as current North Station) at 7:16 p.m., making stops all along the way. Scores of people were returning to Maynard after Sunday excursions in Boston. Most were on the last car, as it was designated to be left behind at Maynard before the rest of the train continued onward. Behind it, the overnight Montreal Express - two engines, two milk cars, two baggage cars, a mail car, a Pullman car, a smoker and two coaches - left Union Station at 7:45 p.m.

The local was running late and the operators were aware of what was chasing them from behind. At the evidentiary hearing the flagman reported he had dropped fusees east of the Lincoln station, west of the Lincoln station, and again a goodly distance before the Baker Bridge station in western Lincoln.

According to the report from the Board of Railroad Commissioners, Horace  Lyon, the engineer of the lead engine of the express stated that he had seen the fusees, and had cut back power, but at most only lightly applied brakes. The night was in general clear, but there may have been some obscuring night fog in Lincoln, near the Sudbury River. Regardless, Lyon testified that he did not see the rear lights of the stopped train until within 100 yards, and even with emergency brakes, could not stop in time.

Burned railroad car from the Baker Bridge Station, Lincoln, MA
train wreck of Nov 26, 1905 (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)
The conclusion was operator error on the part of Mr. Lyons. There was discussion about him doing a night shift when he had just completed a day shift, but the major fault was identified as lack of experience. Lyons had only recently been promoted from fireman. Prior to the night of the accident his experience was a few weeks in the switching yard, a week driving freight trains, and this only his second day in charge of a passenger train. Although he had experience as a fireman on the Montreal Express, he may not have been aware that the local had an optional stop at Baker Bridge, 1.5 miles after the Lincoln Station stop. Lyons was only slightly injured in the accident, and fled the scene immediately after the accident, and when located later, was described as being in a state of mental collapse.  

Newspaper reports of the time reported the accident as occurring at 8:15 p.m., and resulting in 17 dead and 25-30 seriously injured. Two of the dead were fireman on the Montreal-bound engines. The others were passengers on the rear two cars of the local, either killed in the accident or from the resulting fire, set by the lead engine of the express. The death toll would have been higher except for railroad employees and passengers from both trains braving the smoke and fire and risk of a boiler explosion to extract the trapped and wounded.   

The Maynard dead, and their ages:
 William J. Barris 29
 Irving H. Barris 3
 Mary Campbell 27
 Andrew Carlson 28
 Josephine Carlson 22
 Thomas Crowley 56
 George Czujko 49
 Hannah Desmond 40
 Vladyslav Matisliewicz 26 

The Barris's were father and son; the Carlson's husband and wife. Albert and Elfrida (Collins) Batley, married just two years, were among the injured. Mrs. Batley lost part of a leg. The couple were later owners of Batley & Son Florists, with more than 7,000 square feet of greenhouse buildings on Acton Street, behind the Fowler funeral home.

One question the Commissioners asked - if the train was stopped - why not send the rear flagman back on the tracks to flag the oncoming train?  Or at least put some torpedoes* on the rails? This would have been the approved practice if the local train had broken down and could not proceed. But that was not the case. The local had just dropped off passengers, and was expected to be underway again within minutes. Being off the train would have separated the flagman from his train.

This account draws on reporting published in the Boston Globe and New York Times at the time of the accident. And the railroad investigation of the incident. 

*A "torpedo" was a small metal packet, about half the size of a business card, filled with gunpowder. When a train's front wheels hit one, it would explode, thus warning the engineer of danger down the track. The torpedo was attached to a strip of lead four inches long. When the torpedo was set on the rail the lead would be bent down on either side in order to hold it in place.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

One Hundred Dollar Soup

In the deep South, tradition has it that people should gather on New Year's Day to eat black-eyed peas (which are actually a variety of bean) and collard or other greens to invite prosperity into the new year - the beans because they swell up (increase) when water is added, and greens being the color of money. Mysteriously, the same combination is traditional among Sephardic Jews as a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year feast, which was back in mid-September this year. Southern style adds salt pork, hog jowl or bacon, whereas the much, much older Jewish tradition uses lamb, and leeks instead of leafy greens.

Both traditions came out of Africa, which is where the beans were first cultivated. Many African foods came to the Caribbean and the United States as a result of the slave trade, while Sephardic Jews were a minority in the Muslim-dominated culture that had spread from the Middle East, across northern Africa and up into Spain. A few recipe mavens claim that the black-eyed pea tradition transferred from immigrant Sephardic Jews to enslaved Africans, but that feels like a big reach.  

Beans and greens still qualify as inexpensive ingredients, but much of what used to be foods of the poor has gotten outrageously expensive. Chicken wings were something wholesalers had to get rid of cheap, but now this food is a staple at every sports bar and the price keeps going up. Genetic engineers might as well try to breed a four-winged chicken. In Peru, so much of quinoa is exported to the United States and Europe that residents serve it only on special occasions. Same with acai in Brazil, which used to be what the poor ate when they could not afford beans and rice.

Some foods rise and fall in prestige. Back in colonial days, indentured servants complained if they were fed lobster too often. With scarcity, this became a fancy restaurant dish. Lately, with a growing annual harvest - in part due to the scarcity of cod and halibut that eat young lobsters - prices are lower, and we have dishes such as lobster mac-and-cheese.

What does this have to do with one hundred dollar soup, you ask? The latest casualty in inflated food pricing is oxtail. One ox (steer, actually) yields about three pounds of skinned, cut-up oxtail. When I recently added up the ingredient costs of what went into a batch of oxtail-barley soup, I was shocked to realize that I has spent over one hundred dollars. Ingredients included six pounds of oxtail, two pounds of stew-beef, beef marrow bones, an entire bottle of red wine, barley, carrots, parsnips, celery, mushrooms, plum tomatoes, red onions... Yes, that was for twelve quarts of soup, with a richness of flavor that makes you lick your spoon, and then your bowl, and then hasten to the kitchen to dab at the pot bottom with scraps of bread, but still!!!

My first attempt at soup was an abject failure. I was an undergraduate at college, in an apartment, and had not learned to cook at home. I purchased a large turkey drumstick, at nineteen cents per pound, and put it to boil in eight quarts of water, along with carrots, celery and potatoes. Hours later, I removed the drumstick and returned the meat to the pot. What I ended up with was the consistency and color of dishwater, taste not much better, which being a student on a student budget, I ate, anyway. And then I bought the Joy of Cooking cookbook (a used copy from 1964, the edition that still had a whale steak recipe). And so began adventures in cookery.

Coda: There are much more expensive soups than oxtail-barley, but those are unlikely to be found outside of a high-end exotic restaurant: bird's nest soup, shark fin soup and tiger penis soup (which is made with, well, you know...).   

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Maynard Post Office

Back of Post Office truck, showing logo and
website address (click to enlarge photos)
For nearly one-third of its existence as an institution, Maynard's U.S. Post Office has resided in its current building at 143 Main Street. At a recent visit the people in line in front of me were: 1) stopping home delivery for a vacation, 2) dropping off wedding invitations, 3) getting a passport photo taken, and 4) shipping a large box to a person in Russia. I was there for stamps.

Two sets of stamps are issued each year for the winter holidays season, usually one with a religious theme and one winterish. This year the choices are Geometric Snowflakes and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both available now.

There are some interesting stamps that fall outside the first class postage rate. Wedding invitations, what with RSVP envelopes inside, tend to be too heavy for the standard rate, so the post office creates Two Ounce stamps for this special need. And for those who want to think outside the government stamps, USPS recommends Zazzle (http://www.zazzle.com/stamps), a non-government entity that has hundreds of love/wedding themed postage stamps, and can also create a custom stamp from a photo of the engaged couple. Zazzle also does divorce themed stamps. (Example: silver lettered "I Do Not" on a black background.)

Prior to finding its long-term home on Main Street the Post Office was somewhat peripatetic. The first location, circa 1850, shortly after the woolen mill opened, was next to the railroad station. Amory Maynard served as first Postmaster. Subsequent sites included inside the Riverside Block building (long before it became Gruber Bros. Furniture), the corner of the building currently occupied by Boston Bean House, another site on Main Street, then up at the corner of Nason and Summer Streets before settling in its current Main Street location. Just inside the door is a plaque: This building dedicated to public service 1963, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, J. Edward Day, Postmaster General.

Historical descriptions tell of immigrants arriving from Finland and other European countries with Post Office box number of their Maynard relatives written on a tag attached to their clothing. Supposedly, the PO workers 'delivered' the arrivers to their families. The truth may not have been as dramatic. Immigrants at Ellis Island, in New York's harbor, was required to display a "Landing Card" on their outer clothing with information including their name, name of ship and that they had passed daily health inspections, but not their destination address.

Once cleared to leave the island there were immigrant aid societies which would help get tickets for the right trains, and also provide a card to facilitate travel: "To the conductor: This person is going to this address. Please show bearer where to change trains and where to get off, as this person does not speak English." The train station was the gateway to arriving in Maynard, not the Post Office.

Little-known fact: Only immigrants in steerage, i.e., third class, went through Ellis Island. Those who had enough money to travel first or second class were subjected to a cursory medical examination while still on board, then dropped off at Manhattan.

Upgrades of post office services reached Maynard in an odd order. Rural free delivery was implemented nationally and locally in 1902. Long before then, most cities already had in-town delivery direct to homes (Boston started in 1864), but Maynard did not start home delivery until 1920. Until then, people picked up their mail at the post office. Nationally, home delivery was twice a day until the Federal Post Office scaled down to once a day in 1950.    

Mail boxes in front of building (for after-hours)
Today, the Maynard Post Office serves a population of about 10,100 people. According to Postmaster Mike Welch, employees number 18, 6 at the building and 12 carriers for home delivery. All are federal employees. The building itself is privately owned by Mass Postal Holdings LLC. The Post Office pays rent. This is not unusual - nationally, the Postal Service owns only ten percent of its buildings.

In addition to the mail boxes at the Post Office there are nine mail boxes scattered about town, the majority found at senior housing centers and condominium complexes. Neighboring Stow, serving a population of 7,100, has a post office next to the Shaw's shopping plaza and only two mail boxes elsewhere in town.    

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

History of Maynard Library

Carnegie is a name oft-associated with public libraries. Steel industry tycoon Andrew Carnegie decided to use his wealth for the public good in his lifetime. He established a system by which municipalities could apply to him for funds to build a library if the city or town promised to buy the land and commit to an annual budget greater than ten percent of his gift toward construction costs. By the time of his death in 1919 he had gifted over $350 million dollars ($13 billion in today’s value) to many causes, including more than 2,500 libraries, two-thirds in the United States. A Carnegie gift led to construction of the public library in Hudson in 1905.

Local benefactors were often instrumental in start-ups of local libraries. William Wilde of Acton paid for construction of a library in memory of the Acton citizens who had fought in the Civil War (hence Acton Memorial Library). William Munroe paid for the Concord Free Public Library. In Stow, John Witt Randall donated a collection of 700 books to start a town library in 1851, and later bequeathed the money used to build the original parts of the present-day Randall Library in 1894. Similarly, in Sudbury, John Goodnow II, who died in 1851, left land and funds to build the Goodnow Library.

The 1851 date is important. In May of that year the state of Massachusetts passed an Act to authorize cities and towns the right to tax occupants one dollar per year to create a public library and twenty-five cents per year in subsequent years for operation expenses. Personal and business bequests and donations were allowed. By 1870 there were eighty free public libraries in the state, all pre-dating Carnegie's impetus.   

In Maynard there was no significant benefactor. The Town appropriated $1,000 in 1881 to start a library, located in a room in the Acton Street School. Subsequent annual budgets were in range of $500-600 per year, mostly for more books. The library was open two evenings per week. A few years later it was relocated to rooms in the Riverside Cooperative Building, at the site of what is now the Knights of Columbus building, then in 1918 to second floor rooms in another building on Nason Street. Only in 1962 did the Maynard Public Library get its own building, next to town hall.

Library entrance dates to school that opened in 1892
Forty years later the demands for library services called for a much larger facility than could be provided at the Main Street site. After consideration of many options a decision was made to utilize the Roosevelt School building at 77 Nason Street. This elementary school opened in 1918, built on the 1892 stone foundation of what had been the wood-framed Nason Street High School, completely destroyed by fire in 1916. Roosevelt School existed from 1918 through 1988. The building then stood empty, deteriorating, until a combination of state grant, town tax funding and private donations - the last accomplished by efforts of the Friends of the Maynard Public Library - combined to total the $5.7 million needed for this project. Middlesex Savings Bank was a major contributor with a gift of $100,000.

The plan from the architectural firm Lerner | Ladds + Bartels was to retain the entrances and brick walls of the school building but construct an entirely new structure within the exterior shell. The result is a three story, 24,000 square foot building with an open core and stairwell, naturally lit from above via skylight.  

Maynard Library - looking up at skylight from first floor
Click on any photo to enlarge
An anecdote: during the empty years, the Town of Maynard used the building to store all lost bicycles that went unclaimed by owners. Some towns have annual auctions of unclaimed bicycles - sold "as is." Not here. When the building was being cleared prior to start of construction, an open topped waste container 6x8x22 feet (30 cubic yards) was filled with bicycles.

Twenty-first century libraries are so much more than books. Over time, libraries added adult reading rooms, newspapers and magazines, children's rooms, story time, meeting rooms, used book sales, use of computers, access to internet, movie nights, guest speakers, education programs, museum passes, loaning out e-books, movies and music, and so on. Inter-library book transfers allow libraries to have smaller collections on site, yet still provide access to the larger world of books.

The brick facade dates to Roosevelt School, which
opened in 1918 and operated for 70 years
Maynard's library also uses the first floor meeting room for art displays and a glassed cabinet on the second floor for historical displays. The third floor is for children's programs. To the left of the entrance is a red cicycle rack that spells out the word "BOOKS." Between in and the door is one of Maynard's fire alarm call boxes. Visit http://www.maynardpubliclibrary.org/ to learn more about what this library provides.

Annual reports mention 1,893 books in 1885 and 3,416 books in 1891.

1881-1885       Acton Street School (now Jarmo's Auto Repair site)
1885-1918       Riverside Cooperative Society, Nason Street (now Knights of Columbus site)
1918-1962       2nd floor, Naylor Block, Nason Street (now dentist's office)
1962-2006       Town Building Annex, Main Street (now Maynard Police station
2006-present    former Roosevelt School, Nason Street

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book. And at the Maynard Public Library!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hidden History of Maynard


Cover photo from 1910

128 pages. 54 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.62619.541.7
Price: $19.99 (e-book $9.99)

The book is available in Maynard at The Paper Store, as e-book at various venues, or directly from the author.

Maynard resident David A. Mark brings his years of experience as a writer to create this fact-populated collection of fifty short essays gathered into seven theme-linked chapters. The contents were originally published 2012-14 as Mark’s column in Maynard’s newspaper, the Beacon-Villager.

I continue to write for the newspaper.
My more recent columns are posted at

In this, his second book, the content is 100% history. Chapters again cover the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus a focus on the unusual people and unusual businesses that prospered here. So, from the question as to why there was a mink ranch in Maynard, to whether Babe Ruth came a-drinking here when he lived in Sudbury, here is David Mark with his well-researched and entertaining answers to those questions.  

Only in Maynard
Meet the Maynard Family
19th Century
20th Century
Unusual Businesses
Unusual People
21st Century
Click on photo to enlarge


MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors (2011)
128 pages. 53 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.60949.303.5
Price: $19.99

Maynard: History and LifeOutdoors mixes 2/3 local history with 1/3 observations on nature and local recreational activities as a means of exploring what Maynard, Massachusetts offers to anyone willing to get away from too much time looking at screens and not enough time spent seeing, hearing, touching and smelling the life going on outside. History starts with eighteenth century stone walls, then carries forward to twenty-first century river clean-ups and farmers’ markets. Nature spans skunks to skunk cabbage, deer to deer ticks, and birds to bird food. Recreational sports essays range from describing the slow-motion, nightmarish feel of snow shoeing to how to avoid overhydration – the potentially deadly opposite of dehydration.

Author selfie, one fine cold morning (5ยบ F)
Maynard – Why “Outdoors”
Eighteenth Century
Birds and Bugs
Nineteenth Century
Assabet River 
Twentieth Century
Marble/Whitney/Parmenter Farm
Twenty-first Century