On June 25, 1914 an industrial fire broke out in the northwest corner of Salem, in a neighborhood of tanneries called “Blubber Hollow”, and marched aggressively and incessantly towards the Harbor, consuming more than 1300 buildings along the way. This was the great Salem Fire of 1914, which turned 253 acres of the city into an apocalyptic wasteland.
The fire received national attention, obviously, and there is a very good visual and documentary record of it, to which I can’t add too much of value. I am struck, however, by how many postcards of the fire and its aftermath I come across. So many survive, there must have been hundred of thousands produced. At first I thought this was oddly sensationalistic: can you image buying a postcard of the recent devastation from tornadoes in the Midwest and western Massachusetts? Or of people standing knee-deep in water in a post-Katrina New Orleans? Then I realized that in this pre-TV news era postcards must have functioned as much as news as greetings.
Particularly poignant, I think, are the before and after images of the St. Joseph’s complex, the recently-completed church that was at the heart of the French Canadian neighborhood (now The Point) which was so devastated by the Fire. Images of an unrecognizable Derby Street are also pretty powerful, especially the one below, with the eighteenth-century Miles Ward house standing alone.
Lots of the extant postcards feature the aftermath of the fire with somewhat dazed Salem residents and various military officials standing guard over the ruins.
I wish I had a better image of Lafayette Street, Salem’s grand nineteenth-century boulevard, half of which was destroyed by the fire. Here’s a few “before” images, but I only have one “after”.
If you walk down Lafayette Street today, you can see what was taken and what survived. A century ago, people wanted to rebuild very quickly after a disaster, and they managed to do so, largely with private financing and insurance payments rather than government programs. Given the timing of the disaster, 1914, a Colonial Revival Salem emerged in the wake of the fire, complementing the colonial and federal buildings in the parts of the city that were somehow (miraculously) spared.