Buried in the sands of time lies the Crystal Palace, a structure which stood as an Andover landmark for over 70 years.
It was a connecting link between the first half of the 19th century and the second. Its lifetime spanned an era of rapid progress in transportation. By 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad was complete, linking our country’s east coast with its west.
As the transcontinental wound its way across the country, many short-run railroads sprang up in small to medium-sized towns. These locally-owned lines linked surrounding communities. Within the Merrimack Valley, rail lines were built in Haverhill, North and South Lawrence and Lowell. The line was extended both north and south, eventually linking South Berwick, Maine, and downtown Boston.
In 1833, the leading men of Andover – folks of no less stature than Hobart Clark, Amos Abbott, John Smith, Abraham Marland and Merrill Pettigrew – petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to grant them a charter to build a railroad — the Andover & Wilmington Railroad line. Investors bought stock and Andover soon had its own railroad. There was much to plan and accomplish before the first train arrived and the entire town turned out in welcome.
Responsibility for rail car construction, maintenance and repair fell to Captain Nathaniel Whittier a local master carpenter (Whittier Street was later named in his honor). Whittier built a blacksmith’s shop and freight houses, along with two large buildings on the north side of Pearson Street. A brick barn-like structure, called the engine house, was utilized for iron work and mechanical repairs. A second structure, a long wooden shop, was used for the construction and repair of railroad cars. It was this industrial building with its decidedly non-palace look that carried the the tongue-in-cheek moniker, the “Crystal Palace.''
After one year, 19-year-old M. Christopher Andrews succeeded Whittaker as foreman. Under his charge were some 75 employees including painters, carpenters and blacksmiths. For the next 35 years Andrews was superintendent of the repair center here in Andover, and later in Lawrence, after the repair facility moved in 1848. Along the way, Andrews served occasionally onboard trains as a conductor, engineer and fireman. Importantly, too, Andrews became a master rail car builder. Captain Whittier, in later years, was appointed Andover’s postmaster.
The Andover Depot, accredited to noted local builder Jacob Chickering, stood near the current rear entrance to Memorial Hall. It later became the Colonial Theater. Each of these support buildings was tucked between Essex Street, Pearson Street and the current Public Safety Center. In 1848, the Depot was moved to the bottom of Essex Street near its present location.
The Crystal Palace’s contributions to the railroad ended in 1848 when the repair function was moved to Lawrence. The Palace was acquired in 1858 by Herman Abbott Jr., who leased space to a wooden coffin manufacturer, a picture framing studio, and a wheelwright shop. In January 1872, the building was damaged in a fire that involved several other properties located in the Pearson Street, Essex Street and Elm Square triangle. In the ensuing years the Crystal Palace wore many different hats. From 1848 to 1865, the old shops continued to house different businesses including paint storage, ink manufacturing, and a linen mill.
The Crystal Palace was a tenement building for many of its remaining years. It had a long, varied and productive life. The building gradually fell into disrepair and the ravages of time took their toll. Condemned as a fire hazard, the building was razed in 1931. The Andover-Wilmington Railroad also faced a series of new owners including the Boston-Maine. The commuter rail was ultimately absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) as part of their Haverhill commuter rail line.