My title is not a reference to the early modern witch trials, but quite literally to some of the larger urban fires in history: London, Boston, Chicago, Portland, Maine. I am trying to put the Salem Fire of 1914 in a larger context, and I also wanted a place/post to showcase a painting I found recently while auction archive-stalking (a major pastime of mine, along with realestalking). By an anonymous artist of the “American School”, The Burning of Treadwell’s Mill, Salem, Massachusetts shows what must have been the constant threat of fire in the densely-settled urban environment of a nineteenth-century Salem. I’m not sure exactly where Treadwell’s Mill was or what it produced (shoes? cotton? jute?) but the artist (C.C.R.?) certainly captures a striking scene.
I’m also unsure as to when this fire occurred, but it appears contemporaneous with the Great urban fires in Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872). I imagine that these two huge conflagrations, happening in such quick succession and causing acres and acres of devastation, much have really raised the specter of fire in the public consciousness in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and incited intensive discussions about fire prevention, water systems, insurance, and city planning. Much of the historical analysis of these fires and their impact focuses on the modern cities that emerged after the flames died down, almost as if fire was a (re-)generative force rather than a destructive one. These dramatic fires clearly inspired contemporary artists as well, who seem to focus on either the unbridled force of nature or more human perspectives. Painted several decades after the fire, Julia Lemos’s Memories of the Chicago Fire (1912) is all about the fire’s refugees, while the popular Currier & Ives lithograph of the Boston Fire shows the totality of destruction.
Portland has always been one of my favorite little cities, but every time I go there I think something’s missing. Compared to other old New England ports like Providence, Boston, Salem, Newburyport, and Portsmouth, it seems relatively new and very Victorian. Its urban landscape was shaped dramatically by the large fire of July 4, 1866, in which the joyous fireworks celebrating the first post-Civil War Independence Day triggered an inflammation that consumed much of downtown and presumably many colonial and Federal-era structures. Yet a new city emerged that took advantage of the considerable charms of its geographic location. I like the transformation charted by the digital exhibition of the University of Southern Maine’s Osher Map Library: from a “Blackened City, Laid in Ruins” to a “Green City, Reborn in Parks”. The environmental impact of the fire is emphasized by two contemporary images by Portland artist J.B. Hudson of Elms, Locust Street before and after the Fire of July 4, 1866. No mention of the charred remains of the built structures in the titles of these lithographs, just the trees!
It’s a big jump, back almost exactly two centuries, to the Great London Fire of 1666, but I’m going there. This was a fire that was truly “great”, both in terms of its devastation (some 13,000 buildings) and its impact, which included a rapid rebuilding response through what was one of the first examples of centralized urban planning–a model for disaster-devastated cities in the future. Very shortly after the Fire, King Charles II established a Commission for rebuilding the city, which proceeded with plans for wider streets, squares, and larger brick buildings. Not everything worked out as planned, but a new London emerged from the ashes fairly quickly, with 6000 structures built by 1670. Five years later, Commissioner Christopher Wren (ably assisted in the rebuilding process by the more-than-able Robert Hooke, the “English Leonardo” and the “man who measured London”) began work on his St. Paul’s Cathedral, which more than any other structure emerged at the triumphant symbol of the new and eternal London.
Old St. Paul’s and “New” St. Paul’s, in the midst of fire: unknown artist of the “British School”, The Great Fire of London, with Ludgate and Old St. Paul’s, 17th Century, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection; Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph of Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s during the Blitz, 1940.
June 27th, 2013 at 7:43 am
One bright spot to the Great Fire of London was that it ended bubonic plague. It followed the last major outbreak (Daniel Defoe’s novel, _A Journal of the Plague Year_ discusses it). In terms of architecture– The city pre-fire was largely contructed of wood, and there were overhangs across the street, so you might not actually see much of the sky if you were walking down the street, at least in some places. Because of earlier fires, this was all illegal but still commonly practiced. After almost alll of it burned down (because of the wood and the overhangs, which helped it to spread), that resulted in different building practices. Charles II, who had spent his youth in Europe during exile, wanted to recreate the capitals and layout of a Rome or Paris, but anti-Catholic sentiment prevented that. You can still “feel” the idea at the rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral. Incidentally, the only part of the church that survived the fire was the statue of John Donne, which is still there.
June 27th, 2013 at 7:56 am
Thanks Laura–I did not know about the Donne statue.
June 27th, 2013 at 7:44 am
Reblogged this on lauraleighlinker and commented:
One bright spot to the Great Fire of London was that it ended bubonic plague. It followed the last major outbreak (Daniel Defoe’s novel, _A Journal of the Plague Year_ discusses both). In terms of architecture– The city pre-fire was largely contructed of wood, and there were overhangs across the street, so you might not actually see much of the sky if you were walking down the street, at least in some places. Because of earlier fires, this was all illegal but still commonly practiced. After almost alll of it burned down (because of the wood and the overhangs, which helped it to spread), that resulted in different building practices. Charles II, who had spent his youth in Europe during exile, wanted to recreate the capitals and layout of a Rome or Paris, but anti-Catholic sentiment prevented that. You can still “feel” the idea at the rebuilt St. Paul’s Cathedral. Incidentally, the only part of the church that survived the fire was the statue of John Donne, which is still there.
June 27th, 2013 at 7:46 am
Just heard a talk by Hugh French of the Tides Institute at Eastport about the Boston architect Henry Black, who made his living setting up his practice in one fire-devastated city after another, including Eastport in 1886. Two postcards of the 1914 Salem fire: http://heirloomsreunited.blogspot.com/2010/07/2-real-photo-postcards-of-great-salem.html
June 27th, 2013 at 7:51 am
Good to know, Pam, thanks! I’m going to check Mr. Black out.
June 27th, 2013 at 8:01 am
The Chicago fire was a wake-up call for all of our largest cities. As I recall reading, the city of Boston sent its fire chief to Chicago after the fire to study what happened and how it could be prevented in Boston. When he returned, he recommended the city install hydrants. How much, they asked. $1 million. No way, they responded, too much.
Not sure they could have installed anything quick enough to prevent what happened and $1 million seems extravagent for the time (would be the economic equivalent, I think, of about $7 billion today), but I am sure they would have spent it if they understood what was to come.
June 27th, 2013 at 7:29 pm
Hello Matt! Love this detailed Fire Department stuff, thanks–I spent this very morning in the basement of a retired Salem firefighter looking at his collection–saw some really great things.
June 27th, 2013 at 8:32 am
Given your love of pictures, I had to mention this link, an illustration out of Harper’s Weekly of the Peshtigo Fire, which happened at the same time as the Great Chicago Fire and actually killed more people: http://www.peshtigofire.info/gallery/harpers.htm
June 27th, 2013 at 8:38 am
Interesting post and, as always, terrific images: there is something primal. mythical, and rather disturbing about them (we tend not to think of cities as things that burn, yet they always have).
For several years I’ve been teaching a course on “catastrophe and memory” but (aside from fires that followed from other disasters — i.e., Lisbon in 1755 and Hiroshima in 1945) I have never gotten around to dealing with urban conflagrations per se. I should think about remedying this.
Your post also got me wondering about whether anyone has done work on the factors that account for the clustering of fires at certain periods, shifts in their causes (e.g., the 19th century fires you are discussing here vs the cluster of inner city conflagrations during the 1960s).
June 27th, 2013 at 7:41 pm
That sounds like a great course, James. One of my favorite tactics to get my undergraduates to think historically is to plunge them into a crisis myself: this always works well in my own catastrophe course, “The Black Death and Late Medieval Europe”. I am not a modern historian, so my observation was a casual/curious one, but I am struck by the timing of these big American fires, and of course I could have discussed lots more.