City Purchasing Agent Eddie Foye thought it was a joke . . . those wacky park commissioners were pulling his leg.
It was October 29, 1915. A requisition came across his desk to purchase five deer for Belvidere’s Fort Hill Park. It was no joke.
Foye remembered having seen deer at Canobie Lake Park; he got in touch with officials there, who said he could purchase the animals from their facility, assuring him their stock came from “good family and have no mean or bad tricks.”
The following April, and 86-inch long, 12 foot high wire fence was built on a ¾ acre parcel on the westerly slope of Fort Hill. The city water line was extended to the enclosure.
Parks Superintendent John W. Kernan faced a predicament – how to get the deer from Salem, NH to Lowell. After coming up with a few bad ideas, like walking them here, the deer were loaded onto a flat electric car on the trolley line. While getting onto the car, one of the deer caught his leg in a fence, broke it and was shot. Another deer took his place.
In the city’s annual report, Kernan noted the addition of the deer increased attendance at the park threefold; although, one of the deer died shortly after arriving. It was suspected the cause was accidental poisoning. Visitors liked to feed the deer and it was suspected one may have fed this deer leaves of trees in the park that had recently been sprayed with arsenate of lead.
And so it began . . . the Fort Hill Park Zoo that, while providing a fun destination in the city, was also fraught with its share of debacles in the three decades it existed.
Over the years the zoo was home to many deer (including twins Pete and Repeat and twins Amos and Andy) and bears including two cubs shipped to Lowell in a soap box (Nip and Tuck) by a Maine trapper and three cubs purchased for $100 from a Wisconsin trapper and named Tinker, Evers and Chance after the famous Chicago Cubs trio.
There was a zebra, originally called Jailbird, but later known as Marty, gifted to Mayor John J. Bruin by the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus for his support of the circus. There was the burro, gifted to the city in 1922 by Dr. Mason M. Bryant of Harvard Street, who had acquired the animal when serving on the Texas border with the First Mass Ambulance Corps; the goat, named Polley after George Polley, famous at the time as the ‘Human Fly’ for his ability to scale tall buildings that was fond of escaping; and the two baby skunks taken in by a Chelmsford woman after their mother was killed by a car on Acton Road.
For the first five years, only deer populated the Belvidere hot spot. On September 28, 1917, poor Superintendent Kernan spent his entire morning chasing two bucks around the enclosure in an effort to capture them and swap them out for two other bucks with the Franklin Park Zoo, to prevent inbreeding.
“But, at noon his efforts had been fruitless,” the Sun reported.
The first non-deer to arrive at the young zoo was an adult female bear, secured from the Vermont wilderness. Her April 1921 arrival brought much excitement to the city.
“And with the addition of the bear, the municipal zoo will begin to take on a real metropolitan appearance,” the Sun wrote.
The newspaper published a lengthy poem to welcome the city’s newest attraction, which ended with this clever stanza:
The dry condition of prohibition
Will certainly find its ruin
For at Fort Hill Park from dawn until dark
There will always be something bruin.
The bear’s presence drew visitors from near and far. On April 27, 1921, 646 people visited the zoo from 2 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
The very next day, the need for the city to appoint a zookeeper, rather than trust the care and security of the animals, which now also included a 7-year-old, 72-pound Shetland pony, to Parks Department staff who had other duties, became very apparent.
It was mid-day when a group of boys began hurling rocks at the pony, while another group of boys and girls shouted at the animal as it ran around its pen.
“The pony was seemingly in such a condition of terror that it did not think to take shelter in the hut which has been provided for it,” wrote The Sun, adding the pony, prior to coming to Fort Hill was on the entertainment circuit performing tricks like saying his prayers, walking on his hind legs like a soldier, and kissing the cheek of any boy or girl who asked nicely, in various places including “New England’s great summer amusement resort, Revere Beach.”
Delving into the pony’s psyche, the newspaper surmised the he was “unable to comprehend the brutal treatment which has been accorded him by unfeeling ragamuffins.”
The bear, Miss Bruin, was not impacted by the stones because she was in her cage, the bars of which were too close together to be penetrated by stones. She did have an altercation earlier the same week, however, with a dog someone let into the enclosure.
The next month, police were stationed at the zoo; a month after that four Parks Dept. employees were appointed as special police.
Ostriches Need Not Apply
Lest I leave you with the impression that the Parks Department would take in any random animal that was offered, there were a few that were refused.
In November 1917, the Franklin Park Zoo offered Lowell two ostriches. The gift was refused due to the cost of feeding the birds, which were said to be grain eaters with an appetite that would put an elephant to shame.
In May 1921, a firm in Hattiesburg, Mississippi offered to sell the zoo baby alligators at a cost of $25 a pair. No deal.
In August 1928, a Lowell businessman offered the city 12 monkeys. The offer was declined because the city did not have a place to shelter them in the winter.
In 1935 the Sun noted: “Beef-eating animals have been offered to the city in the past, but those in charge are quite content to accept only those of the herbivorous variety, the docile types that are not liable to seek a human arm for luncheon.”
In 1926, Kernan made the mistake of telling the keeper of the Philadelphia Zoo to send any “extra” animals his way. Well, on November 8 of that year, three crates arrived at City Hall, containing a timber wolf, a coyote and a badger.
Kernan said at the time he would send them back, but apparently he never followed through because a year later the timber wolf and coyote came to a violent end.
The two animals had contracted a contagious skin disease, which city officials feared would be spread to the bear. Lowell Humane Society Agent Harrison Baker was called in; he was told to bring his gun.
The coyote and wolf in a shed, Baker entered the enclosure, quickly shutting the door behind him to prevent the animals from charging at the light.
“Pistol loaded and ready, the agent crept within range of the wolf, which he decided was best to put out of the way first,” the Sun reported. “One shot dispatched the timber wolf but the noise of the shot together with the instinct of danger snapped the coyote into action and he swayed and crawled with teeth bared, setting himself for a spring.”
Baker shot the coyote in the right eye, prompting “an agony of snarls,” then shot him again, ending his misery.
“I’m tickled to death to be out of that fix,” Baker told the newspaper upon emerging from the shed.
The Captured Wild
The Parks Dept. did take in some wild animals from the area, including a few deer caught running through the city. The most dramatic capture came on February 4, 1934.
A 5-year-old buck was spotted running through mill yards on Lawrence Street. It then ran through the downtown and into the Acre, sprinting in an open back door of a home on Fletcher Street, through Marie Normandin’s kitchen and out another door. From there, he made his way up to Pawtucket Street, entering a house through the back door, running into the living room and jumping through the front window, shattering the glass and breaking the frame.
He escaped up to Wannalancit Street, where he was found hiding in Clarence Edward’s barn, captured and taken to the Fort Hill Park Zoo.
Two weeks later another 5-year-old Buck was rescued from the Western Canal by 17-year-old Raymond Donovan of Middlesex Street, treated by Dr. Harold N. Eames for “frozen ears,” treated to “a few shots of good whiskey” and taken to the zoo.
A Slow, Steady Demise
It appeared the zoo was done for in April 1938 when two dogs got into the deer enclosure and bit a young doe to death.
Following that gruesome incident, the Humane Society advised the city to either fix the fence or get rid of the animals. Mayor Dewey Archambault told the LHS the zoo animals, which by that time only consisted of a few deer and a bear, would be turned over to the state to be placed on a state-controlled reservation.
Kernan, who often butted heads with Archambault (who the prior year eliminated the entire Parks Department for several months), said the fence was not in need of repair, the dogs had burrowed under it, they had not busted through the fence. Kernan added the Mayor had not spoken to him about ridding the city of the zoo.
The zoo remained.
In May 1940, the Sun noted the zoo’s occupants included a mother bear and her three “mangy” cubs and a “dwarf-sized” deer. The roadways and walkways around the park were in great disrepair and visitors were few and far between.
By 1949 the sole occupants of the Fort Hill Zoo were “two bedraggled deer.” The fences were in disrepair and there was no caretaker in sight.
By June 1951 the zoo was empty.
“The only animals in the park now are the squirrels,” noted the Sun.
Remnants of the Fort Hill Zoo can still be seen today on the westerly slope of the hill:
I remember when I was a child in the 1940’s, during World War II, meandering over to Fort Hill and contemplating what I recall as being a big, giant mommy bear and her cute, wee children. I also remember the lovely deer. The bear was not “mangy” in my memory/imagination, and the deer was not a “dwarf-sized” animal. It was elegant and extraordinary for this lad to view. It was an exciting and rare change from the odors of the nearby tannery, and enchanting for a boy of age four, five or six… It was better than hanging out with ‘gangs’ of dogs that I had the pleasure of accompanying at Bleachery Field on Newhall St. in the Flats. The fallow field of rocks, dirt, and wild grass was located on the banks of Hale’s Brook and bordered on one side by the factory of a piece-working shoe-shop on Newhall St.
Occasionally a few friends and I would ride the current of the brook downstream near the ‘dungeons’ (an abandoned cellar of a factory) and under the mills into the shallow Concord River. We would then rock-jump across the low water, summer-burst river and around the Tannery railroad cars (whew!). The boys of the Flats hightailed it up into Fort Hill to see the wondrous fairy-tale animals. Time stood still and was filled with marvelous adventures and fabulous creatures. These miracles were not within reach of other neighborhoods in our piece of Little Venice of mythical bears and graceful reindeer.
–Daniel Patrick Murphy
How interesting! Thank you for this great story. I lived here my whole life and had no idea about this WILD history!
My grampie (grandfather) William O’Brien used to feed and take care of the bears and deer when he worked for the Parks Department. I used to hear stories about the bears. Thank you for doing this story about the zoo. — Mary Lou Bolduc