Formerly known as "Creepy-chusetts, Strange-chusetts".

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Emerson's Iron Lung and Quonset Hut, Cambridge

I have a slight touch of claustrophobia. I hate being trapped in a windowless space. I hate working at a department store, I hate a long haul economy class airplane trip. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. How much do I hate? I'll prove you, I didn't get Vertigo. I mean I felt sorry for the detective suffering from acrophobia, but I was more worried about the effect of excessive peroxide on Kim Novak's scalp.

Being stuck in an Iron Lung is one of the recent entries. The fear has germinated since I saw an Iron Lung at display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Looking at the picture of an airplane hanger like space filled with hundreds of Iron Lungs at the height of Polio outbreak, I had a strange sensation that the lives of children in the equipments were detached from human warmth; they weren't  human or even machine, something else that I cannot grasp...

Iron Lungs saved many lives, but the sensation of strong fear and rejection the children must have experienced is something I would never want to experience. I couldn't laugh when Lebowski  and Walter entered a room with an Iron Lung, while them plotting to beat the crap out of a kid who stole the Dude's car (and money.) However, I enjoyed the subsequent scene where the golf club flinging Walter destroys a red sports car with 'Nam related (?) moral talk.

Forgive my jerkiness, I'm feelin' nervous. Let me knit for a while...

I'm back. As you have already realized, my fear of Iron Lung is somewhat different from the detest of a department store and crappy airplane trip. A strange fascination with Iron Lung grew like a HeLa cell, and it had some meaning, I think. One day I stumbled upon the main office of the leading Iron Lung manufacturer, J. H. Emerson Co. during a walk in my neighborhood, just a pure chance.

the empty hut was making eerie creaking noise as a wind blows

The company's office and Quonset hut -- originally a military-use prefabricated steel structure developed in 1941 -- are located along the Minuteman Trail Extension, the former railway track for the Boston & Maine. A few creaky cylindrical equipments in the hut used to be visible from the sidewalk. I first thought they were just rusty boilers.

But the every clue was telling me what they are: the Quonset hut was a  popular structure during the Polio outbreaks of the 40's and 50's. The nearby  railway  provided the mode of transportation to the hospitals. The name Emerson rings a bell. And Boston as the center for the Polio treatment...The demand for the equipment was so high that the company possibly needed to install a prefabricated hut across the street to store more Iron Lungs.

How many children or adults spend a time in this Iron Lung? Are they all right now? Somehow a series of  thoughts came up to me during the dinner time and led to lose my appetite.

The company was sold in 2007, ten years after J. H. Emerson's death. The office and Quonset hut seem to be lying vacant, and a notice for the hearings regarding zoning changes implies that the Quonset hut is going away soon. The loft looks like an ideal candidate for a new condo project.

The Iron Lung is becoming the relic of the past. But the site is historically significant and needs more attention. Next time you are on the Cambridge section of the bike path (or a virtual tour via Google), look closely for the hut. They are in a quiet residential area and I beg you, don't trespass; I'm afraid there is nothing left in those buildings.

Locate Emerson's Quonset hut @ Google map

Cambridge Historical Commission (PDF file)


  1. Wow, what a cool find right in your own backyard! Would be nice if somebody renovated that hut into a restaurant or bar or something. Not sure what the zoning is in that location.

  2. Dave,

    Upon recommendation from an archivist at my local library, I'm checking out some nice materials for the local history. Hope I'll find out more about the hut.

    I know there are few other Quonset huts in the Boston area. If you want to put them in the Backside, I'd be more happy to give you my map link. I feel the rusty Quonset huts are up your alley!

    BTW: the hut isn't demolished yet.