Salem on the Fourth: a While Ago

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 Holydays 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.

20 responses to “Salem on the Fourth: a While Ago

  • Steve@UrbanCottage

    Awesome photos! I would have loved to have seen that entire bonfire structure before it was lit. It looks like it was huge.

  • bradaustin

    Incredibly interesting, Donna. I’d love to see copies of your sources sometime without, you know, doing any research myself. 🙂

  • markd60

    Wow! The bottom pics look like volcanoes! Wonder what’s in the barrels…

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    The Life photos are amazing. The structure was so big that it had a doorway built into it. It must have been visible for many miles once it was alight.

  • Matt

    Yes, what is in those barrels? When Peter’s Laundry in Salem was still in business, they would have newspaper clippings every holiday from holidays gone by. The Independence Day clippings always included a few yellowed, decades-old pictures of Salem’s Bonfires from the local paper. When I asked about the barrels, Peter told me that they were the empties from the tanneries. He said, “we probably don’t want to know what coated the insides of those barrels, but whatever it was was certainly flammable and made for quite a show.” I assume the end of the bonfires coincided with the decline in the tanneries.

    • Jack Butler

      The Largest barrel bonfire in the 40s through the mid 50s was on the hill, site of the water tank behind Valley Street. The witchcraft as res was constructed right next to the bonfire and the “hanging tree” for witches, according to legend (I don’t believe any accused as a witch were ever hanged. Stoning was preferred).

  • John Gambino

    Fascinating! Are there any localities continuing the bonfire tradition near Salem?

  • Yoni

    I was really pleased to see someone else writing about this, and thought I might take the liberty of adding my own exploration of this fascinating chapter in Salem’s history.

  • Flashback Photo: The Gallows Hill Bonfire, World's Biggest | New England Historical Society

    […] In 1930, a news crew came to film Salem’s amazing bonfire. (To see newsreel footage of the Gallows Hill bonfire, click here.) Life Magazine ran a feature on it in 1949. (See pictures from the article here.) […]

  • Richard Bevins

    I grew up in north Salem in the Fifties and Sixties. There were bonfires in several parks, but the Gallows Hill fire was always the biggest. Neighborhood playground associations (e.g., Franklin Street) sponsored fires. Men collected barrels for weeks to feed them.

    Someone asked what was in the barrels. In those days, Salem and Peabody were tannery cities. The barrels contained pickled sheepskins from Australia and New Zealand. The Clean Water Act and changing global economics severely curtailed the American tanning industry and with it the supply of barrels for bonfires. I don’t remember fires after the mid-sixties.

    • daseger

      Thanks so much for giving us your recollections, Richard! I knew that the bonfires stopped at some point in the 60s, but I never connected the end to the Clean Water Act! Fascinating.

  • Mike H

    Gallows Hill was big, but we always went to the one at the Crow II club on the night of July 3rd.

  • Kim

    Do you have other images from earlier in the 20th century? My great-grandfather was involved in organizing the bonfires, and I’d love to see if I could find him in any images (this would be early 1900s through about 1918)

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