Today I attended this event at the “Telegraph” mill building in Upper Falls. This is the mill building at the corner of Chestnut and Oak Street.
It was a treat to get in there. For the last year,a huge amount of work has been done redeveloping and refurbishing the exterior of the building and they’ve done a great job. Today I got to see the inside.
I was in there about 6 or 7 years ago and it was very non-de-script and uninspiring – a maze of small rooms and wallboard. In the section of the building we were in today it was far more interesting and inspiring. They has gutted everything, opened it up, and you could get a clear sense of the physical building and it’s history.
The building does have an interesting history and it’s directly tied to a wondous19th century device – the Gamewell Telegraph Alarm.
In the 1800’s fire in cities and other developed areas was a scourge unimaginable today. A big part of the problem was that wooden buildings of the time were built much differently and burned much more easily than today. The other problem was that in this time before telephones, the time between the detection of a fire and help arriving could be endless.
In the 1850’s two Boston inventors filed for a patent for “”Electromagnetic Fire Alarm Telegraph for Cities”. In 1867 Mr Gamewell bought the rights to the patent and eventually opened shop in the “Gamewell building” here in Upper Falls – the building we were in this morning.
By the late 1800’s, Gamewell alarms were ubiquitous in American cities. In 1890 they had been installed in over 500 cities with the iconic boxes on poles and walls in every neighborhood.
When someone pulls the alarm a spring-loaded wheel turns, tapping out a pulsed electrical signal corresponding to the box’s number. The pulses received at the fire station would flash lights or tones corresponding to the box number. As technology marched on through the years, the flashing lights were replaced by pen recorders and later computers but the boxes on the street remained.
Even though every one has landlines in their house and a phone in their pocket the systems still work today in many cities (I believe Newton). In my neighborhood of Upper Falls there are still a couple of them in public areas including outside the Gamewell building. In Boston is 2018, during a 911 outage, a fire was reported via one of these Gamewell alarms.
Now you might be saying at this point “Jerry, I guess that is vaguely interesting but it seems way too much information on a random topic that has no real bearing on anything”. You might actually be saying “what the hell is your obsession with these Gamewell alarms?”
The answer I could give you is that I moved into this neighborhood of Upper Falls and discovered this interesting local history of the Gamewell alarms. While that would be true, it wouldn’t be the whole truth, the much darker, embarrassing truth. A truth that apparently is haunting me to this day.
I WAS A CHILDHOOD GAMEWELL ALARM ABUSER.
When I was about six or seven years old there was a Gamewell alarm on a pole on our block. I used to see it every day and was intrigued by it. I wondered what would happen if I pulled it. One day I did… and I waited.. and I heard sirens..and it was very exciting… and then firetrucks roared down our street… and then I freaked out and ran home.
The firefighters followed me to my house, rang the doorbell and told my mother that her son had pulled a false alarm – “MICHAEL GET OUT HERE!”. My older brother Michael was the obvious suspect since he was always in trouble, but eventually I did get busted.
So me and Gamewell alarms go way back.
All of this is to say I love what the new owners have done with that building … and they are of course free to call it whatever they want. “Telegraph” is a perfectly fine name but I prefer “The Gamewell Building”