Remembering the Fire

Another anniversary today, though one not nearly as festive as that of the nativity of St. John. On June 25, 1914, 99 years ago today, the Great Salem Fire devastated large sections of our city, engulfing over 1300 buildings and 250 acres. The French neighborhood of Salem, including its centerpiece, the newly-built St. Joseph’s Church, was consumed (and that church’s eventual replacement was dismantled by human hands earlier this year). A lot has been written about the Fire, and I expect that many more words and images will be presented over this next Centennial year. I have just begun working with our university archivist on a digital exhibition on the Fire and its aftermath, and we hope to have it completed by the beginning of 2014.

Fire Panorama LC

Panoramic photograph of the Fire by C.H. Phinney, 1914, Library of Congress.

There are many contemporary images to choose from, including the hundred of postcards of the Fire aftermath which I wrote about in an earlier post. I don’t really understand the compulsion to make/send postcards from the scene of a human disaster but it was certainly done in this case! We are looking for more unusual and less commercial images of both the fire and its aftermath, so if you know of any private collections please let me know. We also want to focus on the greater impact: on both the neighborhoods directly affected and the city at large. The photographs below, all from the Boston Public Library, capture both the moment and the morning after in particularly compelling ways.

Salem Fire at its Height, BPL

Salem Fire Old Steamer

The Salem Fire at its height, from the Railroad Crossing” and “the Famous Old Steamer on its Way to the Salem Fire”. Note the man in the first picture, more captivated by the photographer than the fire behind him. His view is blocked by the railroad car, but still!

Salem Fire Ruins 1 BPL

Salem Fire Ruins 2 BPL

Salem Fire Ruins 3 BPL

Ruins on the morning after. There are many similar images; we’re going to have to be much more resourceful and creative in our efforts to source images of the Fire’s long-term aftermath.

Salem Fire Feed Tent

Feed Tent, Forest River Park. Photograph by M.E. Robb from Arthur B. Jones’ The Salem Fire (1914).

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