Before there were fireworks, there were bonfires, BIG bonfires.
The Fourth of July has always been celebrated enthusiastically in Salem, both in the present and in the past. This very year, Salem’s Independence Day celebration made a national top ten list of best fireworks with recognition as “best historical fun”. But before fireworks marked the Fourth in Salem, it was all about bonfires, reflecting English commemoration culture (ironically), as well as John Adams’ prescient remark that the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence would forever be celebrated as a “great anniversary festival” with “Pomp and Parade … Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other” (of course he was talking about July 2nd). From at least the 1890s, as far as I can tell, Salem had the reputation for the biggest and most patriotic bonfire in the region, and its annual conflagrations received national coverage as late as 1950.
This is a charming picture of a small bonfire on Salem Harbor in the 1890s, but in no way representative of Salem’s major bonfire, which was always held at Gallows Hill at midnight. Rather than the five or six tiers you see here, the Gallows Hill bonfires featured as many as forty, and were quite elaborately “wired” (but they still had the American flag at the top; I’m not sure why burning the American flag wasn’t a bit more controversial). The best description I could find of the Gallows Hill bonfires is in a little article by the Reverend James L. Hill, in a compilation entitled Holy-days and holidays: a treasury of historical material, sermons in full and in brief, suggestive thoughts, and poetry, relating to holy days and holidays by Edward Mark Deems, published in several editions in the 1890s and after. In a 1908 edition, Reverend Hill writes: Come to Salem, all of you who lament the absence of great gatherings with noise and music and banners on Independence Day and believe that pure clean patriotism is no longer powerful enough to give us the ardent celebrations which were once the joy and glory of our nation’s natal morning. Just as the clock is striking twelve, thus adding another year to the era of American independence, your eyes will be drawn irresistibly to a towering monument of hogsheads and barrels and casks that raises its huge form 135 feet high and bulks against the midnight sky. This topgallant monticle is stacked as symmetrically as a church steeple.
The best images I could find of this cathedralesque creation date from nearly a half-century later, as part of a Life magazine article on the Gallows Hill Bonfire Association and its patriotic work published in 1949. This was the last era of the Gallows Hill bonfires, which seem to have tapered out in the 1960s. The images create a picture of serious effort, a big bonfire, and a huge crowd in attendance: just like the fireworks display occurring tonight.