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High Rock battles back: A smelly, crumbling, besotted mini-slum pulls itself up by the bootstraps

By Dean Shalhoup - Senior Staff Writer | Oct 31, 2020

Dean Shalhoup

Longtime reporter, columnist and photographer, is back doing what he does best ñ chronicling the people and history of Nashua. Reaching 40 years with The Telegraph in September, Deanís insights have a large, appreciative following.

By the time Nashuans, like all Americans, were wondering if the day would come when young men of a certain age would start finding draft notices in the daily mail, a wave of civic pride was wafting over a tiny downtown quadrangle where local folks lived, worked, shopped and played.

Why this little neighborhood came to be known as “High Rock” is something of a mystery, for there were no known high rocks in High Rock, nor even a rock of any considerable size at all. Other than the very slight incline to its main “thoroughfare” – High Street – “High Rock” was, and is still today, quite level.

But it’s not its geographics or topographics that earned High Rock prominent mention in Nashua’s history, from its period as a village of Old Dunstable to its incorporation as a city in 1853 and on through its World War II-era industrial and residential boom.

I explored in last week’s Part I of my two-part lookback of High Rock the troubles the little neighborhood faced in the latter 19th century and early 20th century, much of which had to do with deteriorating tenements, rotting barns, an aging sanitation system that fell into neglect and the generally poor infrastructure upkeep.

Indications are that it was a combination of High Rock tenement dwellers sick and tired of substandard living conditions, businessmen and merchants who had a vested interest in restoring High Rock to its industrious past, and conscientious, progressive city fathers who banded together around the turn of the 20th century toward a common goal: Clean up High Rock and bring it back to life.

But first, I promised last week that I would recount this week the highlights of the “sensational” police raid of a popular High Rock saloon, which a Telegraph reporter not only covered in detail but did so in rather whimsical, storyteller fashion.

“The Regans, Bridget and Patrick, two alleged liquor dealers, have flown de coop,” the writer began.

It was mid-January 1902 when the Regans, who had recently married, high-tailed it out of High Rock, embarking on an “unceremonious flight … from Nashua,” in their haste “forgetting to notify their friends – more particularly the police – of their future address.”

Their saloon, named Bridget Spellman’s Place until she married Patrick, when it became “The Regan,” was on Washington Street, a narrow, steep cut through that connected Water Street with High Street when shays and wagons dominated downtown Nashua’s transportation scene.

Today, Washington Street still connects Water and Factory streets, but only by a wide stairway flanked by grassy strips. The section from Factory to High streets is now part of the High Street parking garage.

As for the Regans, it was around 6 p.m. one evening that a city marshal and two cops walked up to The Regan, “dispensed with all formalities, and entered the place.

“Going in they met Patrick coming out of a rear room,” one of his arms wrapped in cloth like he was injured. But the cops discovered he was hiding “two little pint bottles of forty-rod, giving a delightful amber hue in the soft light.”

How’s that for reporting? And forty-rod, for those unfamiliar with the art of urban moonshining, was a strain of whiskey so strong it could kill someone from a distance of 40 rods – roughly 660 feet.

At that moment, “Patrick had a very pressing engagement out of doors … he left sudden like, leaving behind the contraband.”

The cops looked around, and found a rope tied to a basket that was “apparently used for hoisting bottles from subterranean depths.” In the basket were a half-dozen “very, very cold bottles of lager” that the cops surmised were waiting for a customer who would never come.

The next morning, Patrick and Bridget were charged in absentia with three counts each of “keeping spirituous liquors for sale,” and presumably warrants were issued for their arrests.

But, the reporter noted, the city marshal – a position similar to today’s police prosecutor – “took considerable satisfaction” in the results of the raid, “whether or not” the Regans were found and arrested, because theirs is “one saloon that is now closed for keeps.”

It’s not known whether the Regans ever returned to Nashua, or if so, if they played any role in their former neighborhood’s metamorphosis from a shabby, smelly slum into an attractive destination everyone could be proud of.

High Rock’s gradual return to grace picked up steam over the first decade of the 20th century, and not long after the Armistice was signed and the boys began returning home, the time had come to think about how Nashua should celebrate the new and vastly improved High Rock district.

As summer 1923 gave way to fall, plans for an appropriate celebration were falling nicely into place. When it came time to choose a date, “the committee of merchants and citizens” in charge of the project picked Nov. 26, a Monday that was three days before Thanksgiving that year.

“High Street has taken on a gala appearance and everything is in readiness for the big celebration … in connection with the dedication of High Rock,” the Telegraph reported ahead of the event.

The High Rock project, according to the Telegraph, “has evidenced the march of progress in Nashua’s business section,” and because of “the rich historic atmosphere of High Rock, its citizens propose to inaugurate its renaissance … with an ‘old neighbors’ night’ and lots of festivities of all kinds.”

In an era when cement meant “high-end construction,” the Telegraph delighted in reporting High Rock’s new “cement concrete road bed and sidewalks,” and cheered the committee for making “the new businesses establishments look their prettiest,” and for installing new street lights in the district.

The itinerary for the memorable celebration included a parade featuring military veterans’ groups, marching bands and various vehicles, which stepped off at Railroad Square. On a route that would encircle High Rock, marchers took a right onto High Street, a left onto Walnut to West Pearl, back to Main Street, then left onto Factory Street to Walnut, where it disbanded so participants could take part in the festivities.

At the time, there was a good-sized building, owned by a Tom Backer, on the south side of High Street somewhere between School and Main streets. It was outfitted with a rooftop stage, where speakers spoke and bands played.

Meanwhile, down at street level, according to the Telegraph, the “old neighbors” of High Rock chatted and reminisced, many of them no doubt marvelling over how far the neighborhood had come from its years as a rundown shantytown.

Today the district bears little semblance to the High Rock of yesteryear. Gone are many of the mostly brick-faced, three and four-story buildings, replaced by parking lots and the parking garage, necessities in an automobile-dependent society.

“Next Monday evening will be red letter night for High Rock,” the Telegraph predicted about a week before the grand celebration in November 1923.

Here’s betting it was – even though Patrick and Bridget Regan were no longer there to prescribe a little forty-rod to liven things up a bit.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears weekly in The Sunday Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.


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