Tag Archives: Local Events

The Great Salem Fire: 1914 & 2014

I promise: this is my last post on the Great Salem Fire! The big anniversary is now past, and the big event thoroughly commemorated. I thought I’d finish up with some before and after and now and then photographs, as contrasts often tell the story better than anything else. I was going to take you through the whole rebuilding process, but enough is enough: I can summarize the characteristics and goals of the rebuilding effort quite succinctly: it was relatively rapid, and emphasized structures built of fire-retardant materials in rather traditional styles. The post-fire Salem was made largely of brick, with slate roofs wherever possible, and lots of Colonial Revival details to tie the new in with the old. Here are two images that just SCREAM post-fire to me: a Federal house on High Street with a stucco side, and a “Forget 1914″ advertising postcard: the Ropes Drug Company was already marketing the Great Fire even before its ashes cooled! But that was also the can-do attitude of 1914:  let’s rebuild, and be quick about it.

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Below are past and present contrasting views of the place where the fire began (Boston and Procter Streets–now a Walgreen’s parking lot just below a wooded, forlorn lot where it is believed that the victims of the Witch Trials of 1692 were buried in unmarked graves–this has been pointed out 64,000 times), where it ended (New Derby and Herbert Streets, where the notably-named Bunghole liquor store now stands), and a few other street scenes from 1914 and 2014. A few more contrasting shots, and some small but very specific physical legacies of the Fire, and then I’m done.

Past and Present Began-001

Past and Present Began 2014

The 1914 picture is taken from a bit further back and to the right; one of the few buildings in the midst of the conflagration which still stands is in the middle of both pictures.

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Past and Present Herbert

The end point of the fire–again, not a perfectly-matched perspective, but close.

Past and Present Broad and Hathorne

Past and Present Hathorne

Broad and Hathorne in 1914 & 2014.

Past and Present Chestnut

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39 Chestnut Street in 1914 and 2014: the fire did not touch the street, but blazed all around it.

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An officer guarding a leveled Roslyn Street in 1914, and the rebuilt street in 2014.

Past and Present Box

Past and Present datestone

Two very physical remnants of 1914 in 2014.

 

 

 

 


Capturing the Great Salem Fire: June 25, 1914

So finally we arrive at this day, the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, one of the last of the great urban fires which devastated downtowns in the second half of the nineteenth century and first few decades of the twentieth: Portland, Maine (1866), Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Baltimore (1904), San Francisco (1906), Chelsea, MA (1908), Atlanta (1917). I could go on. This was a fire that destroyed about a third of Salem, causing damages estimated at 15 million dollars, the equivalent of over 350 million today. I’ve been through quite a few commemorative events this year, read quite a bit about the fire and its impact, and perused hundred of photographs, and I think the best way to mark this anniversary is to simply showcase some of my “favorite” (seems like a strange word to use in this context) images, those which come closest to capturing the conflagration and its aftermath. Obviously I’m working in a very visual medium here, and I generally rely on images more than words to make my points (or at least drive them home), but still, I think there was something quite special, dare I say even unprecedented, about how the Great Salem Fire was photographed: it was one of the first disasters to be shot from airplanes, there are several amazing panoramic views, “hustlers” were employed by Boston publishers to hurry up to Salem, cameras in hand, and Salem residents whose homes were actually burning took to the streets armed with cameras in the midst of the fire. This fire was marked by a great deal of civic engagement: “civilians” fought the fire, witnessed the fire, and descended upon Salem in droves after the fire was over to view, and capture, the devastation.

Just after the fire began (at about 1:30 pm on a hot breezy June 25) and the morning after: amazing photographs which focus on the people in relation to the fire, rather than just the fire (SSU Archives and Special Collections Digital Commons). The first photo shows men watching the fire taking the first of many tanneries in “Blubber Hollow”, Salem’s leather district, and the second shoes employees (? I’m assuming) at the burned-out P.A. Field Shoe Company across town on Canal Street.

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Before and After on upper Broad Street: the Fire skirted Salem’s main historic district for the most part, but it did take out upper Broad Street–so all the buildings that you see in the first photograph below were gone in a matter of hours. Both photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Anniversary Broad Street before

Anniversary Broad Street after

The first photograph below is by the great photographer/entrepreneur/historic preservationist/author Frank Cousins, who estimated that about 10% of Salem’s historic structures were lost to the Fire (out of  1376 buildings). Cousins based his estimation partly on surviving chimneys, and this photograph below is labelled “Sentinel Chimneys”. The second photograph, also from the collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, is titled “Capricious Damage on Walnut Street”. This photograph is mysterious to me as there is I’m not sure of the location–there is no Walnut Street in Salem–I’ve been searching for that surviving Greek Revival for some time!

Anniversary 4 Sentinel Chimneys

Anniversary Capricious Damage Walnut Street

There were hundreds–maybe thousands–of photographs of the ruined yet still magisterial St. Joseph’s Church, which had been completed only three years before the Fire. Many note the survival of the statue of St. Joseph himself. The second photograph below was taken by Costas Roineus, who lost his residence to the fire: here are the “firebugs” arriving on the morning after, with St. Joseph’s in the background. Both photographs from the SSU Archives and Special Collections Digital Commons.

Anniversary 6a St. Joseph's

Anniversary 6 Costas

The National Guard occupied Salem immediately after the Fire was contained to maintain order and manage the onslaught of tourists, the relief effort, and the refugee camps that were established at the Willows, the High School, and Forest River Park. The first photograph (from SSU) shows their “cook house” before the Broad Street cemetery, which is just behind my house. The second (from the Phillips Library) show the largest “tent city” at Forest River Park, where residents were encouraged to resume their “daily lives” as soon as possible. Across town where the fire began, the first business to reopen after the fire was a tent barber shop erected by A. D. Fraser, Emile D. Fraser, or John Frazier (there are alternative spellings) a few yards from his ruined home on Boston Street. Malcolm E. Robb photograph, Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Anniversary Guard

Anniversary camp

Anniversary Barber

 

 

 


Fighting the Great Salem Fire

I do apologize, in advance, to all of my worldly readers and followers: I must focus on the Great Salem Fire of 1914 for much of this week: after that, I will be able to let it go. Despite the name of my blog, I strive to be both parochial and cosmopolitan, but the centennial anniversary of the fire that destroyed a third of our city a century ago has has held me in its grip for some time, and there is more that I want to explore and show: about three more posts, I think, and then I’m going to get out of town! Salem always has this effect on me—I feel the weight of the past here keenly all the time, but sometimes it is particularly pressing, and this is such a time. Here are the bare facts: the Salem Fire burned for 13 hours, commencing in the early afternoon of June 25, 1914 and ending in the early morning of June 26, 1914. It began in a district of tanneries in the northwestern part of the city and ended at Salem Harbor, destroying 1376 buildings in its path and leaving nearly 20,000 people homeless and half that number jobless. As I have considered the Fire over the past year or so, I’ve always focused on its aftermath–the architectural and infrastructural devastation, the relief and rebuilding efforts–rather than on the conflagration itself. I always thought this was because I was more interested in humanity rather than mere destruction, but I didn’t fully realize that firefighting is of course one of the most heroic displays of humanity. Several things have brought this rather obvious point home for me in the past week or so: a rereading of one of the primary sources of the Great Fire, Arthur Jones’ Salem Fire (1914) which really emphasizes the firefighting, the wonderful presentation by Margherita Desy, principal historian of the USS Constitution, at this past weekend’s Conflagration symposium, and some recently digitized photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. It was also interesting to see some of the vintage fire engines on Derby Wharf this past weekend, including one which was used in the Great Salem Fire a century ago.

Firefighting PEM-001

Firefighting Derby

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 Salem Fire Department Engine One hooked up to a Lowry Flush Hydrant, 1914, Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum; Manchester-by-the-Sea Fire Department Seaside 2 Returns to Salem this weekend (Manchester was one of 22 towns and cities that responded rapidly to the Salem Fire in 1914, and the Manchester firefighters brought this very engine!)

Firefighting Bridge Street

Firefighting Margin Street

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Firefighting 4

Firefighting on Bridge, Margin and upper Broad Streets during the Great Salem Fire, June 25, 1914; news clipping from a scrapbook about the fire, labeled “Post, June 26.”  with caption: “Firemen seeking relief in puddles of water. Many firemen were overcome by the intense heat. They laid down in puddles of water until revived, when they went back to work.” (it was 93 degrees that day)  All images from the collection of the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.

 


Save the Cat!

There are lots to choose from–and I will be showing more over the next week or so–but one of my favorite photographs of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and its aftermath is a rare happy one, showing a smiling little girl and her rescued cat. The centennial anniversary of this major event, which burned down a third of our city, falls next week, and this weekend there will be a symposium at Salem State University with walks, speakers and an exhibit of the multitude of fire-related materials (many digitized) that have been deposited in our University Archives. It’s not particularly poignant, but I like this photograph because it just encapsulates the last century for me, a century when a saved cat could represent a little triumph over a great disaster. You don’t see cats emerging from the ashes of the Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco fires! But from 1914 on, the saving the cat story/picture seems pretty standard, yet another indication that that was a big year, in ways great and small.

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Life saver

Cats rescued from the Great Salem Fire of 1914, the New York World’s Fair in 1939 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery), and a North Andover, Massachusetts fire in 2013 ( Mary Schwalm/The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune).

 


All is Green

We had some very English weather for most of last week and rain at its end, so now everything is very, very green. And of course it is mid-June, not mid-July or -August, so that’s just the way it should be: lush. My garden is just about to move into its overgrown phase, so I’m going to spend the day trying to tame it, but first a few pictures. There is nothing I like better than an ivy-covered “feral house”: here is my favorite and on my way to the Post Office yesterday I discovered another one. This little brick building has been vacant (at least on its first floor) for quite a few years, and now its entire back–and chimney–are wearing green. It was a funny day–one minute it rained, and then the sun popped out for twenty minutes or so; it was humid and then almost chilly. I was running around town taking “now” pictures for several upcoming posts and an exhibit on the Great Salem Fire (fast approaching its centennial anniversary), but I stopped along the way to take some pictures of green wherever I found it: on this little building, in Forest River Park, just walking along the sidewalk, in a beautiful Federal Street garden, and in my own backyard.

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Salem Harbor, Rediscovered

I strive to feature primarily pretty pictures of Salem (except, perhaps, for Halloween season), so there have been no images of one of Salem’s most prominent landmarks: the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal-fired electric power plant which has been looming over the city since 1951. But not for much longer: in 2012 the plant’s owner, Dominion, announced plans to shut it down due to growing public and legal pressures that included a citizens’ suit against the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Last year Dominion sold the plant to the New Jersey–based Footprint Power, which announced its intentions to convert part of it into a natural gas facility set to go online in 2016. The plant went off-line at the end of last month, and now its gray towers–sadly my marker for home when I’m out on Route 128, will soon be taken down. Of course a natural gas-powered plant takes up a lot less space than a coal-powered one (the old plant is located on 65 waterfront acres, but apparently the new plant only needs 25) , so there will be a lot of redevelopment on its prominent site–redevelopment that will no doubt take advantage of the harbor views, rather than obliterate them. We already have our ferry to Boston, water taxis are commencing this summer, and apparently cruise ships are coming: after a half-century of neglecting the Harbor that made Salem, we appear to be rediscovering it.

Artistic depictions of Salem Harbor parallel, or reflect, its commercial history: up to about 1920 or so, there are first realistic and then more romanticized images of its wharves and ships–after that, the artists seem to withdraw, or go completely sentimental–but I’m sure that we’ll see some interesting views going forward.

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Salem Harbor Plate

Salem Harbor Fitz Hugh Lane

Salem Harbor Head

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Salem Harbor DL

Salem Harbor Scene

Engraving of a busy Salem Harbor, 1796, for the Salem Marine Society membership certificate; Wedgwood Creamware Plate, c. 1803, Northeast Auctions; Fitz Hugh Lane, Salem Harbor, 1853, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Head of Salem Harbor, from Julian Hawthorne’s article, “Hawthorne and Salem”, The Century 28 (May 1884); Maurice Prendergast, Salem Harbor no.1, c. 1920-23, Colby College Museum of Art; Daniel Low mail-order catalog for 1946-47; a harbor-side installation appears poised to take down the towers, this past weekend.


The First Weekend in June

It was a very busy weekend in Salem and Essex Country, encompassing the first seventeenth-century Saturday of the season, the Salem Arts Festival, Shakespeare on the common, open houses and garden tours, an ice cream social and a cider launch party, among other happenings. The weather was absolutely spectacular, sunny, dry, and in the low 80s, enticing “this is why we live in New England” comments everywhere I went. Salem was packed with tourists: I also heard many languages. I was outside all weekend and am paying for it this morning, with sunburn, itchy bug bites, and lots and lots of work to do–but I don’t care. After I plant the beautiful herbs that I purchased up in Salisbury in my garden, I’ll lock myself in my office!

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Scenes from my first June weekend: hula hoop canopy and fish at the Salem Arts Festival, Derby House herb garden, something’s finally happening at the “Crotchet House”, launch party for Salem-made cider (really good–much dryer than other varieties of hard cider that I have had here in the U.S.), the Herb FARMacy in Salisbury, Massachusetts, and the Dole-Little House in nearby Newbury.


Say’s Anatomy

Of insects, or rather, American Entomology: or Descriptions of the Insects of North America by Thomas Say, published in 3 volumes in Philadelphia, 1824-28. That’s my pick of the books up for “adoption” at the Salem Athenaeum’s 3rd annual Conservation Night tonight, when antique books in need of serious restoration are funded by generous benefactor bibliophiles. I’ve been working on this committee for several years now, and the depth and breadth of the Athenaeum’s collection never fails to amaze: it’s tough to narrow down the list of needy books each year but the institution is committed to a long-term campaign. This year’s candidates, which you can see here, include: the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787–with an amazing pull-out map), 1714 and 1739 editions of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, a first (1884) edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Hawthorne’s Marble Faun (1860), and (of course) Caroline Upham’s Salem Witchcraft in Outline (1891—with a really cool cover), among other worthy volumes. I really don’t care much for bugs, but bug books are another thing altogether, so the Say volumes appeal to me if only for their beautiful plates, produced by Say himself and his fellow artists/naturalists Charles Alexander Lesueur, and Titian Ramsay Peale, the youngest son of the esteemed artist Charles Willson Peale.

PicMonkey Collage

Say

Say Insects 2

Say Insects

Say 3 Peale

Thomas Say (1787-1834) accomplished a lot in his relatively short life: he was a self-taught naturalist, entomologist, and conchologist ( word I had never heard before now–one who studies shells, mollusc shells in particular) and great explorer–of nature and territory. He was a co-founder of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812, Professor of Natural History at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of two pioneering works, American Entomology and American Conchology (1830-36). He was also a Utopian scientist (not incompatible at that time), settling in the Owenite community at New Harmony, Indiana in 1826, where he died eight years later.


Anniversary History 1914

I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.

From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history:  this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global  “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.

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World War One Soldiers

Faces of the Great Fire and the Great War:  In Salem, after the Fire, unidentified men and Mrs. Henry Reed and her daughter Helen, from the Dionne Collection at the Salem State University Archives and Special Collections; Soldiers of the West Yorkshire Regiment sitting in a captured German pillbox awaiting their orders at the Battle of Polygon Wood, 1917, Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection, Imperial War Museums:  ©IWM (Q2903).

 


Salem Film Fest 2014

Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!

Salem Film Fest Maidentrip

Galapagos Affair

Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.

Salem Film Fest Here was Cuba

Human Scale


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