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Lowell Water Supply: Exploding Toilets

Who dropped a whole truckload of fizzies into the varsity swim meet? Who delivered the medical school cadavers to the alumni dinner? Every Halloween, the trees are filled with underwear. Every spring, the toilets explode.

Dean Wormer
Animal House

Back in 1978 when I first saw the movie Animal House, that line about exploding toilets stuck with me. I assumed the combustion was caused by cherry bombs being tossed in the commodes, but as I recently researched the history of Lowell’s water supply, I learned that city residents were once plagued by exploding toilets. The cause was not fireworks.

The Lowell Gas Light Company was founded in 1849 to produce and convey coal gas throughout the city to illuminate mills, businesses, street lights and homes. Burning coal gas to produce artificial light had been done in England for several decades by that point, and had proved very useful and popular. In the age before electric lights, gas lighting was cleaner, safer, brighter, and easier to use than candles or oil lamps. (For an outstanding book on this topic, check out Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light by Dracut’s Jane Brox).

This gas was not extracted from the ground and conveyed by lengthy pipelines or in liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers as it is today. Instead, it was extracted from coal in a process called “destructive distillation.” Here’s how it worked: Coal was heated within a closed container. The application of heat changed the composition of the coal. A flammable mixture of gases was released and captured, but this first yield of gas was filled with things like Sulphur and ammonia which gave it a disagreeable odor and made it less efficient to burn.

To rid the gas that would be used for illumination of these impurities, it had to be “purified” by passing it through a filtration system. This consisted of a large container of water into which was mixed a quantity of lime. As the impure gas passed through the lime-water mixture, most of the impurities became attached to the lime. The gas that emerged on the other end had been purified and could burn brightly and efficiently without disagreeable odors.

Not all of the heated coal turned to gas. Some of it melted. This was called tar and it was captured and used for the same things we use it for today. A solid substance was also left. This was called coke which was sold as a fuel for stoves and home heating systems. Because many impurities had been cooked out of it, coke was clean-burning and burned hot, so it was a very popular fuel.

But back to the gas. The purified gas would go into large storage tanks and would then flow across the city in underground pipes. These worked fine and were as safe as advertised.

The problem came from the lime-water mixture. Because the lime absorbed so many impurities from the coal gas, it had to be changed often to continue to be effective, so a huge quantity of water was used and then disposed of. For the Lowell Gas Light Company, this meant emptying the soiled lime-water containers into the gutter where it flowed into the city’s relatively new sewer system. Much of this tainted water passed through the sewers and into the Merrimack and Concord Rivers (where it did immeasurable harm to flora, fauna, and people, but that’s another story).

Not all of the contaminated lime-water passed directly into the river. Some of it took detours from the main sewer lines and into the pipes that carried sewerage from newly installed indoor toilets in the bathrooms of some residences. Among the many pollutants in this water were flammable gases that were by-products of the coal gas process. While embedded in water, these substances were inert. But when the water that was carrying them was exposed to air, the substances were released as flammable gas.

In an unfortunate number of cases, the first time this tainted water was exposed to air was when it backed up into the bowl of some unsuspecting resident’s toilet. Since smoking while using the bathroom was apparently a popular practice back then, the collision of flammable gas escaping from the toilet with a lit cigarette caused some unfortunate instances of combustion.

Soon after this cause-and-effect relationship was established in a series of negligence lawsuits, the Lowell Gas Light Company took better care in disposing of the liquid by-products of its coal gas manufacturing process and Lowell toilets ceased to explode, at least until Animal House premiered.

“The Paper Chase” by Tim Trask

In 1969, Tim Trask returned from the Vietnam War and took a job as a guard at Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) Concord. The following is taken from his memoir about that experience. Other parts of that work, West of Walden, appeared on this site as Odysseus Wandering (on Oct. 4, 2021), and The Tipping Point, Part 1 and Part 2 (April 11 & 12, 2022).

The Paper Chase

By Tim Trask

Nearly thirty years ago, a teaching colleague of mine was leading a course called “Introduction to Fiction” at the Bay State Correctional Institution in Norfolk, MA. He asked if it would be okay to include a short story of mine in the class and asked if I’d attend the class when they discussed it so that they could ask questions about how and why I’d written the story. I told him I’d like to do that and thanked him for thinking of it. The class, a small one, went very well. The inmates seemed to like my story, and I got a glimpse of a group of people doing time wisely, earning college credit.

The next semester, this same friend was teaching the same course at MCI Norfolk and asked me to once again be a guest in his class. It had been twenty-three years since I’d first toured that prison. On the appointed evening, we drove together to Norfolk and entered. I signed in as all visitors have always had to do in prisons, and we were directed once again to the trap, where we had to remove our jackets and shoes and empty our pockets before being checked with a metal detector. Our books, papers, and shoes were checked, also. We then surrendered our driver’s licenses, were given visitor IDs, and were escorted to the classroom.

We had a few minutes to spare before the students arrived, and my friend continued to fill me in on the class as we waited. The students, about eighteen in number, ranged in age from early twenties to late forties. There were black students and white students, and neither group seemed to have much to do with the other. There was tension in the classroom, but it was mild.

My story was scheduled for the second half of the class. We discussed another story in the first half, a story by Tim O’Brien from The Things They Carried. There were two Vietnam veterans in the class. One of them had seen combat. The other, as I recall, had been in the Navy and had spent most of his time just offshore, making occasional visits to Saigon and other ports.

The class was lively. Not everyone participated, but most did. All of them had read the stories under discussion. My story, “Wake of a Whale,” is about a storm that overtakes a father and son fishing on a lake in Maine just after the son has returned from Viet Nam and is trying to figure what he’s going to do with his life. The father’s response to the storm leads to an epiphany for the son in which he acknowledges the completeness of his life and accepts his own death.

A few of the students in the class didn’t like the story very much, but most of them did. The most interesting discussion followed a statement by one who said that the problems the son in the story faced were just like those that he would face on getting out of prison. They all could relate to that predicament. The son in this vaguely autobiographical story has had failures. These failures and his war experiences have become baggage he’ll always have with him. He sees the world through a lens clouded by death, misery, and despair.

It’s when he sees his father enjoying the spectacle of the storm that threatens to kill him that the son relaxes and accepts the storm as part of the terrible majesty of life and nature.

One of the oldest students in the class, who revealed himself to be a grandfather, who seemed as full of life as any human being I’ve ever met, had eyes that startled me. They were ice blue and striking on their own, but it was what they revealed about his person that was startling. He had a look of childish wonder and delight that was unforgettable. I’d seen those eyes before, and I was pretty sure I knew whose they were, though I didn’t want to say; I didn’t think it could be possible.

Before going to the class, my friend and I had discussed whether or not we should tell this class that, years ago, I’d worked for the department as a Correction Officer. He thought it might distract attention from the story, and neither of us knew how, to be honest, it would affect the discussion, so we decided not to. I wish we hadn’t made that decision.

After class, I asked what he knew about that particular student.

“Oh, Rocky,” he said with a smile. “He’s been there forever. He was a bank robber or something and knew some real celebrities in Vegas and other places.”

I wasn’t sure of the name, but I was pretty sure I’d first seen him and his eyes just before leaving Concord. I knew him as Apollo’s friend. I’d seen him only a couple of times, so I’m sure he wouldn’t have remembered me. It was my last summer there, and I didn’t often work in the East Wing during that time, but I’d been assigned there a few times, and that’s where I’d encountered Rocky, who probably had arrived at Concord during the fall of 1972 or the spring of 1973, while I’d been on leave to finish college. Even then, he’d been a source of curiosity to me. Although the other guards called him Apollo’s kid, since he was so much younger than Apollo and was always with him, it seemed clear to me that this was no ordinary “kid.” He, like Apollo, was a highly skilled safe man. Despite his youth, he was even then treated by other inmates as a biggie. Within the prison, he had status, he had confidence, and he did his time as if he were in a nightclub with all his friends. At least that was the feeling I got from him. I don’t remember ever having talked to him, but there are some people who carry high levels of the life force with  grace. He was one of them, and you don’t put such people easily out of your mind.

Now it was twenty-one years later, and he was at long last nearing release. I can’t believe but that he’d been out at least once during the intervening period. If he hadn’t, it would have been highly unusual. Everything about him had changed except for his eyes and expression. It was the kind of look that you don’t expect to find on the face of an inmate doing time in a prison.

Seeing Rocky made me believe that even though Thoreau spent only one night in jail, he had it right in this: the state cannot imprison the spirit. It can’t, in other words, without your own complicity. Your attitude has everything to do with your contentedness, wherever you are. Once you know that, a prison is just another place, and when you come right down to it, as a creation of our society made up of its own parts, a prison in Massachusetts is not really different from anywhere else in Massachusetts except in a few important details and, as you can see from what I’ve written, in the intensity of the presentation. That is not to say, however, that this intensification is not significant. A prison is not a good place to live. It does, however, offer a particularly good glimpse into the ways in which we Americans manage to control our own excesses of spirit.

When Tocqueville came to study our democracy in the 1830s, he had already glimpsed the radical nature of a society that without external force (a king) nevertheless did not devolve into chaos. He was coming from a culture which, fueled more directly than ours was by the enlightenment thinkers, had, despite successive empires of force, descended into bloodshed and anarchy on more than one occasion. The enlightenment had culminated in the execution of some of its prominent leaders. Yet here, in America, without being led by an aristocracy, was a people who without an omnipresent military or police force were functioning in relative harmony. His two-volume study of this phenomenon is still one of the best descriptions of how our society works.

Moreover, Tocqueville’s study holds the key to how our prisons work as well, not that Tocqueville would have known it at the time. He visited the Auburn facility, a prison where control and silence were the principles of operation. But on entering a prison like Concord, whether in 1969 or today, one feels something akin to what Tocqueville must have felt. Unarmed guards, few in number, watch inmates going about their business during most of the day. At any moment, inmates could take over. They have the numbers, they have the force, and no weapons are arrayed against them, at least not inside the walls. Prisons, in other words, have evolved during the intervening years, to be more and more like the outside society. Constant pressure from concerned citizens and political action groups has left its mark along with an evolution of understanding both from inmates and correction officials that people, even when confined  against their will, behave rationally when treated with fairness and human consideration.

That evening in MCI, Norfolk, where my colleague and I discussed my work and the work of Tim O’Brien with a group of inmates, I was accepted as a visiting professor, one who also shared with the prisoners a bit of personal history in fictional form and participated in a discussion that reminded me once again that most of us are not much different from the others, that we all have deep personal struggles with life’s obstacles. It was the kind of discussion that I never had with a group of inmates when I was a guard. Being a professor, one who had published a story in a small literary journal, admitted me to their world in a wholly refreshing way, and I believe it introduced my world to them in a similar way. I will always be grateful to my colleague for making that meeting possible.

France’s “planète foot” – What’s up?

Readers of this site are familiar with Louise Peloquin as the author of the Boarding School Blues story that’s published in serialized installments every two weeks, but Louise is also our correspondent on all things French. So a few weeks ago when I started reading stories about turmoil on the French women’s soccer team, I invited Louise to share her perspective on what was going on:  

France’s “planète foot” – What’s up? 

Louise Peloquin 

The 22nd edition of the FIFA World Cup, hosted by Qatar in November and December 2022, turned a lot of us into football, AKA soccer, fans. I have yet to assimilate all of the lingo and am incapable of providing credible commentary on a match. Nonetheless, I can name-drop – Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann for example. And I’ve got a soft spot for Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Since I’m in France at the moment, a place where “le foot” is a religion, I can’t help but tune into the latest FFF (“Fédération Française de Football” which manages all amateur and professional teams) news, or should I say imbroglios. Here are a couple.

For all those soccer experts out there, my disclaimer – the following tidbits are neither extensive nor brought to you by a specialist of “le ballon rond” (the round soccer ball)!

Noel Le Graet

On February 28th, Noël Le Graët, 81, resigned as FFF President, a post he had occupied since 2011. The announcement came after months of controversy which shook up the sports scene. Before the FFF, Le Graët had headed the “Ligue nationale de foot” (which manages professional teams only) from 1991 to 2011.

So what provoked his decision to leave “la planète foot”? Accumulated allegations of homophobia, and racism caught up with him, all exacerbated by an overwhelmingly negative audit leaked to the press. The pressure had become too heavy to brush off.

Although very few FFF executive committee members wished to speak to the media to call for Le Graët to step down, most of them are said to be relieved that he did so of his own accord. Over the last few months, the crisis had seriously tainted the image of “le football français”.

In addition to what the press has labeled his “behavioral deviations” – homophobic and racist speech – Le Graët has been under investigation for moral and sexual harassment since mid-January. He continues to deny any accusation.

Corinne Diacre

Women’s football has been making the headlines as well. In the run-up to the FIFA 2023 Women’s World Cup, to kick off in New Zealand and Australia in July, the French team has been training on pretty rocky ground. On March 9th, the day after International Woman’s Day, Corinne Diacre was dismissed as coach on the grounds that her service had become misaligned with the demands of a very high competitive level (“un décalage avec les exigences du très haut niveau”). Three of the team’s best players, including captain Wendy Renard, had decided to withdraw from the team saying that the leadership had to be completely revamped because its dysfunction had reached a point of no return.

Corinne Diacre, 48, international football player from the end of the 1980’s to the 2000’s, became a coach. In 2014, she was the first woman to train a men’s professional team – Clermont Foot 63.

As I write this on March 13th, no successor has been named to replace either Diacre or Le Graët.

For longstanding fans and neophytes alike, let’s hope France’s “planète foot” enters into more clement climate over the months to come.

Mahoney Family Fund event on March 31

Mahoney Family Fund presents:

Reducing Child Abuse by Rethinking Discipline Breakfast & Program

Friday, March 31, 2023

Complimentary Breakfast Buffet 8:00am, Program 8:30am-10:00am

Long Meadow Golf Club,165 Havilah Street, Lowell, MA 01852


Being a parent is a job that doesn’t come with a handbook. As wonderful as it can be, it can also be difficult and frustrating at times. Many parents and caregivers, drawing from their own childhood experiences or feeling there are no other alternatives, resort to physical means for disciplining children. This often well-meaning but abusive behavior can have lifelong negative consequences for a child physically, mentally, and emotionally. There are better options.

The Mahoney Family Fund proudly presents a free breakfast & educational event highlighting groundbreaking, evidence-based research with front line alternatives for reducing child abuse. Please join us for this in-person, 90-minute program with our panel of experts:

  • Stacie LeBlanc, JD, MEd, co-founder of The Up Institute and executive committee member of the National Initiative to End Corporal Punishment. Stacie is Chair of the National No Hit Zone Committee No Hit Zone. She began her career as a child abuse prosecutor in Jefferson Parish more than 30 years ago and became the chief of the Felony Child Abuse Division, began the Family Violence Program and helped open Child Advocacy Centers in rural and urban parishes.
  • Shahenda Aly, M.D., a pediatric hospitalist at Lowell General Hospital and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Tufts University. She created the RISE project to help families of special needs children navigate their way through an array of challenges. Originally from Egypt, Dr. Aly offers a global perspective and a passion for ending child abuse.
  • Shirley Pimental from the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Lowell will discuss how current behavioral issues with the children in their care often stem from maltreatment in the home and how they work with the kids to break the cycle of violence. She has dedicated 20 years to youth development where she has worked with non-profit organizations that focus on a wide array of youth programming in residential homes, youth centers, schools, and community- based organizations.

You will not want to miss this dynamic, ground-breaking event! We encourage audience participation and we welcome all of your questions and comments. RSVP.

Please consider supporting the Mahoney Family Fund’s educational outreach to reduce child abuse by making a donation.

Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) result when parents and adults in a child’s life maintain nurturing, loving relationships and when discipline is truly a means to teach and not threaten. Each speaker will discuss the significant consequences of negative discipline as well as positive alternatives that have lasting benefits to the child.

For more information about the work of the Mahoney Family Fund, visit their website or contact Maureen Mahoney at

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