The Lowell Area Historical Museum is offering a weekly feature to explore local history. This week, museum staff is telling us about the night watchmen who kept Lowell safe before the formation of the current police department. To learn more about Lowell history, visit the museum website to explore its collection of local artifacts and records.
For many years Lowell had its own guardian angel watching over the town by night, he was appropriately named “The Night Watchman.”
The duties of the Night Watchman included lighting street lamps and literally watching over the town as he walked his route. He watched for smoke and fires, suspicious activity, and checked to see that shop doors and windows were locked. He even offered to escort unaccompanied pedestrians to ensure their safe arrival at their destination.
One of the first Night Watchmen was Arthur Morgan. Though he only had one arm he was perfectly capable of filling the kerosene lamps and lighting the lamps. In 1887 however, the number of street lamps had grown to the point where he needed help lighting and tending them due to the sheer number. D.V. Dennick was hired to assist him. By 1889, Morgan did lamps on the west side while Dennick took care of lamps on the east side of town.
Hiram (Hi) Lane was highly respected and proved his value after multiple dramatic captures. In 1903, Lane was on his rounds when he was called to apprehend two intoxicated Belding men who had thrown a rock through a glass saloon sign after being thrown out for fighting. One was able to escape as Lane was arresting the other. Lane requested a special officer come to assist in the search. The escapee was shot by the special officer when he ran from the officer and Lane later in the night. The bullet entered the left side of his back and was extracted by a local physician. The Grand Rapids Press reported that “The whole town is excited over the affair, which is the first of the kind to occur here in years.”
In 1906, an attempted robbery of the Sand Lake Post Office ended in Lowell. There were two would be robbers, one from New York City and one from Philadelphia. When they fled the police in Sand Lake with a stolen horse and buggy, they were followed through Cannonsburg. The bridges and major roads in Lowell, Ada and Saranac were staked out. Men stationed at Hudson and Bridge (Main) streets heard the rig coming. The robbers were ordered to halt in front of the Waverly hotel and were shot at when they ran off. They were then confronted by Hi Lane, but they ran into a shed to hide. An officer fired twice into the shed, producing the surrender of one of the men. Lane went into the shed and dragged out the other along with a revolver that the robbers had with them.
When the safety of Lowell residents was involved, Hi Lane was very outspoken. In 1900, he appealed to the Lowell leadership to create a curfew and to Lowell parents to keep their children home at night because he felt there were just too many children running the streets during late night hours.
Criminal apprehension wasn’t always dramatic. In 1918, Night Watchman Edward C. Walker noticed that a rear basement door of a grocery store had been tampered with, and tracks had been left in the snow leading directly to a village home. He awakened the grocery owner and the culprits were arrested.
The Night Watchman’s job was comparable to today’s fire, police, and EMS services all in one. In 1937 the Night Watchman Eugene Carr was called to Richmond’s Café when employees couldn’t get into the restroom. Someone was inside for an unusually long time. Marshall Fred Gramer was also called and the door was removed. Inside was a 43 year old man who had tried to commit suicide. He survived after being taken to hospital.
When Night Watchman Eugene Carr died in 1955 he had served as night watchman for over 30 years, seven days a week with rarely a day off for sickness or vacation. It was said, “During his long career of guarding the community during the night he had many close calls, but his courage and ability to get along with people kept him safe. The protection given by Gene has never been equaled and his type of tireless conscientious is part of the passing generation.”
Watching for fires was a part of the Night Watchman’s duties. The importance of this detail was felt on a July night in 1952 when Carl Kyser saw a fire at the Municipal Utilities building. He sounded the alarm, but the fire siren sounded only briefly before it failed as the siren was in the fire. Kyser was able get the Lowell Fire Department notified, and help from Ada was even sought. While $60,000 worth of damage was caused, the main generator was not damaged. The electricity was operational by noon the next day. Without the early 3 a.m. discovery by Kyser, it would have been devastating.
Lowell also has had self-appointed night watchman who knew that old wooden buildings were apt to be fire traps. Old Mr. Gib Worden lived above one of the stores in the Old Wooden Row (300 block of E. Main on the south side). He had rheumatism and couldn’t sleep well so he “prowled around at night watching and listening for fires with one eye open and two ears to the wind.” The Old Wooden Row did catch fire and five buildings burned in 1907. In spite of Gib’s warning, Laundryman McClellan was leading his family out when the overhanging electric wires fell and he grasped them to save his family. He was electrocuted. His family lived.
With electric lights and modern transportation, the walking Night Watchman has become a thing of the past. Lowell has its own police force now.