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.