I’m on a road trip but still can’t shake historical anniversaries: they are following me! Traveling down to visit my husband’s family on the Jersey shore on Friday, I made several Connecticut stops (I was on my own, so I could stop), including one in the coastal town of Guilford, which was in the midst of celebrating its 375th anniversary: banners flew all around Guilford Green, and the stores were stocked with calendars and other commemorative wares. I arrived just in time to view the original Guilford Covenant and Land Agreement, on loan from the Massachusetts Historical Society and on its last day of display at the Town Hall. It was a perfectly beautiful day, and after lunch I strolled around taking pictures of Guilford’s historic houses, each and every one in seemingly perfect pristine condition. Sometimes certain Connecticut villages strike me as too pristine, but Guilford’s perfection seemed appropriate on this glorious day! Back in the car–stuck in traffic almost all the way to Jersey, I heard multiple retellings of another big historical anniversary story on the radio: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his Duchess by Bosnian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914, the event that triggered World War One. And when I woke up yesterday, the first local story I heard was about the anniversary of the Battle of Monmouth on June 28, 1778: not an American victory, but certainly a draw which demonstrated that the colonial forces could hold their own against the British. Of course I had to run over to the battlefield site in Freehold: it is beautifully preserved but was quite devoid of Colonials or Redcoats, as the battle re-enactment had been staged last weekend. There were, however, a few “Molly Pitchers” walking around.
Guilford, Connecticut, June 27, 2014: the Griswold and Hyland houses, Guilford Green, and private residences around town.
I promise: this is my last post on the Great Salem Fire! The big anniversary is now past, and the big event thoroughly commemorated. I thought I’d finish up with some before and after and now and then photographs, as contrasts often tell the story better than anything else. I was going to take you through the whole rebuilding process, but enough is enough: I can summarize the characteristics and goals of the rebuilding effort quite succinctly: it was relatively rapid, and emphasized structures built of fire-retardant materials in rather traditional styles. The post-fire Salem was made largely of brick, with slate roofs wherever possible, and lots of Colonial Revival details to tie the new in with the old. Here are two images that just SCREAM post-fire to me: a Federal house on High Street with a stucco side, and a “Forget 1914” advertising postcard: the Ropes Drug Company was already marketing the Great Fire even before its ashes cooled! But that was also the can-do attitude of 1914: let’s rebuild, and be quick about it.
Below are past and present contrasting views of the place where the fire began (Boston and Procter Streets–now a Walgreen’s parking lot just below a wooded, forlorn lot where it is believed that the victims of the Witch Trials of 1692 were buried in unmarked graves–this has been pointed out 64,000 times), where it ended (New Derby and Herbert Streets, where the notably-named Bunghole liquor store now stands), and a few other street scenes from 1914 and 2014. A few more contrasting shots, and some small but very specific physical legacies of the Fire, and then I’m done.
The 1914 picture is taken from a bit further back and to the right; one of the few buildings in the midst of the conflagration which still stands is in the middle of both pictures.
The end point of the fire–again, not a perfectly-matched perspective, but close.
Broad and Hathorne in 1914 & 2014.
39 Chestnut Street in 1914 and 2014: the fire did not touch the street, but blazed all around it.
An officer guarding a leveled Roslyn Street in 1914, and the rebuilt street in 2014.
So finally we arrive at this day, the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, one of the last of the great urban fires which devastated downtowns in the second half of the nineteenth century and first few decades of the twentieth: Portland, Maine (1866), Chicago (1871), Boston (1872), Baltimore (1904), San Francisco (1906), Chelsea, MA (1908), Atlanta (1917). I could go on. This was a fire that destroyed about a third of Salem, causing damages estimated at 15 million dollars, the equivalent of over 350 million today. I’ve been through quite a few commemorative events this year, read quite a bit about the fire and its impact, and perused hundred of photographs, and I think the best way to mark this anniversary is to simply showcase some of my “favorite” (seems like a strange word to use in this context) images, those which come closest to capturing the conflagration and its aftermath. Obviously I’m working in a very visual medium here, and I generally rely on images more than words to make my points (or at least drive them home), but still, I think there was something quite special, dare I say even unprecedented, about how the Great Salem Fire was photographed: it was one of the first disasters to be shot from airplanes, there are several amazing panoramic views, “hustlers” were employed by Boston publishers to hurry up to Salem, cameras in hand, and Salem residents whose homes were actually burning took to the streets armed with cameras in the midst of the fire. This fire was marked by a great deal of civic engagement: “civilians” fought the fire, witnessed the fire, and descended upon Salem in droves after the fire was over to view, and capture, the devastation.
Just after the fire began (at about 1:30 pm on a hot breezy June 25) and the morning after: amazing photographs which focus on the people in relation to the fire, rather than just the fire (SSU Archives and Special Collections Digital Commons). The first photo shows men watching the fire taking the first of many tanneries in “Blubber Hollow”, Salem’s leather district, and the second shoes employees (? I’m assuming) at the burned-out P.A. Field Shoe Company across town on Canal Street.
Before and After on upper Broad Street: the Fire skirted Salem’s main historic district for the most part, but it did take out upper Broad Street–so all the buildings that you see in the first photograph below were gone in a matter of hours. Both photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.
The first photograph below is by the great photographer/entrepreneur/historic preservationist/author Frank Cousins, who estimated that about 10% of Salem’s historic structures were lost to the Fire (out of 1376 buildings). Cousins based his estimation partly on surviving chimneys, and this photograph below is labelled “Sentinel Chimneys”. The second photograph, also from the collection of the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum, is titled “Capricious Damage on Walnut Street”. This photograph is mysterious to me as there is I’m not sure of the location–there is no Walnut Street in Salem–I’ve been searching for that surviving Greek Revival for some time!
There were hundreds–maybe thousands–of photographs of the ruined yet still magisterial St. Joseph’s Church, which had been completed only three years before the Fire. Many note the survival of the statue of St. Joseph himself. The second photograph below was taken by Costas Roineus, who lost his residence to the fire: here are the “firebugs” arriving on the morning after, with St. Joseph’s in the background. Both photographs from the SSU Archives and Special Collections Digital Commons.
The National Guard occupied Salem immediately after the Fire was contained to maintain order and manage the onslaught of tourists, the relief effort, and the refugee camps that were established at the Willows, the High School, and Forest River Park. The first photograph (from SSU) shows their “cook house” before the Broad Street cemetery, which is just behind my house. The second (from the Phillips Library) show the largest “tent city” at Forest River Park, where residents were encouraged to resume their “daily lives” as soon as possible. Across town where the fire began, the first business to reopen after the fire was a tent barber shop erected by A. D. Fraser, Emile D. Fraser, or John Frazier (there are alternative spellings) a few yards from his ruined home on Boston Street. Malcolm E. Robb photograph, Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.
I do apologize, in advance, to all of my worldly readers and followers: I must focus on the Great Salem Fire of 1914 for much of this week: after that, I will be able to let it go. Despite the name of my blog, I strive to be both parochial and cosmopolitan, but the centennial anniversary of the fire that destroyed a third of our city a century ago has has held me in its grip for some time, and there is more that I want to explore and show: about three more posts, I think, and then I’m going to get out of town! Salem always has this effect on me—I feel the weight of the past here keenly all the time, but sometimes it is particularly pressing, and this is such a time. Here are the bare facts: the Salem Fire burned for 13 hours, commencing in the early afternoon of June 25, 1914 and ending in the early morning of June 26, 1914. It began in a district of tanneries in the northwestern part of the city and ended at Salem Harbor, destroying 1376 buildings in its path and leaving nearly 20,000 people homeless and half that number jobless. As I have considered the Fire over the past year or so, I’ve always focused on its aftermath–the architectural and infrastructural devastation, the relief and rebuilding efforts–rather than on the conflagration itself. I always thought this was because I was more interested in humanity rather than mere destruction, but I didn’t fully realize that firefighting is of course one of the most heroic displays of humanity. Several things have brought this rather obvious point home for me in the past week or so: a rereading of one of the primary sources of the Great Fire, Arthur Jones’ Salem Fire (1914) which really emphasizes the firefighting, the wonderful presentation by Margherita Desy, principal historian of the USS Constitution, at this past weekend’s Conflagration symposium, and some recently digitized photographs from the collection of the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum. It was also interesting to see some of the vintage fire engines on Derby Wharf this past weekend, including one which was used in the Great Salem Fire a century ago.
Salem Fire Department Engine One hooked up to a Lowry Flush Hydrant, 1914, Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum; Manchester-by-the-Sea Fire Department Seaside 2 Returns to Salem this weekend (Manchester was one of 22 towns and cities that responded rapidly to the Salem Fire in 1914, and the Manchester firefighters brought this very engine!)
Firefighting on Bridge, Margin and upper Broad Streets during the Great Salem Fire, June 25, 1914; news clipping from a scrapbook about the fire, labeled “Post, June 26.” with caption: “Firemen seeking relief in puddles of water. Many firemen were overcome by the intense heat. They laid down in puddles of water until revived, when they went back to work.” (it was 93 degrees that day) All images from the collection of the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum.
The keynote presentation at last night’s Conflagration symposium, commemorating the centennial anniversary of the Great Salem Fire of 1914, was focused on modern urban fires and their impact on firefighting, but I must admit that my mind drifted almost as soon as the speaker introduced one of the earliest fire engineers, the Dutch artist, draughtsman, and all-around urban innovator Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712). Very rarely do my scholarly and local historical worlds intersect, but this was just such a moment, and I also love it when art and science come together–as they do in the work of this Dutch Golden Age Renaissance Man (mixing epochs and metaphors). Apparently Van der Heyden witnessed the burning of Amsterdam’s Old Town Hall when he was a teenager, and this conspicuous conflagration inspired him not only to depict fires and fire-fighting (along with more placid streetscapes) but also to invent the first manual fire engine and (with his brother) an effective leather hose. He professionalized Amsterdam’s volunteer fire companies and wrote and illustrated the first modern fire-fighting manual, Brandspuiten–boek (TheFireEngineBook, 1690). This publication, with its very detailed yet still artistic prints (see below–how great is the dissection image of a house fire!) ensured his influence beyond the Netherlands–along with his fire engine and his street lighting scheme, which served as the western European model until the mid-19th century.
Jan van der Heyden, Dam Square, Amsterdam (with rebuilt town hall on left), c. 1669-70, Kunstmuseum, Basel; Two Wooden Houses in the Goudsbloemstraat Burned 25 November 1682, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University; The title page of Van der Heyden’s Book (with his title of “Generaale Brandmeesters”, or Fire Warden, of Amsterdam, and two illustrations: Sectional View of an Amsterdam House on Fire, and Rope and Tar Fire, 1690, Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are lots to choose from–and I will be showing more over the next week or so–but one of my favorite photographs of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 and its aftermath is a rare happy one, showing a smiling little girl and her rescued cat. The centennial anniversary of this major event, which burned down a third of our city, falls next week, and this weekend there will be a symposium at Salem State University with walks, speakers and an exhibit of the multitude of fire-related materials (many digitized) that have been deposited in our University Archives. It’s not particularly poignant, but I like this photograph because it just encapsulates the last century for me, a century when a saved cat could represent a little triumph over a great disaster. You don’t see cats emerging from the ashes of the Chicago, Boston, or San Francisco fires! But from 1914 on, the saving the cat story/picture seems pretty standard, yet another indication that that was a big year, in ways great and small.
Cats rescued from the Great Salem Fire of 1914, the New York World’s Fair in 1939 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery), and a North Andover, Massachusetts fire in 2013 ( Mary Schwalm/The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune).
A shout out today for a very common, definitely invasive, and relatively ugly plant: Tussilagofarfara, better known as Coltsfoot. The Coltsfoot in my garden is a holdover from the days when I would only have ancient medicinal herbs rather than pretty herbaceous hybrids: they were all rather unattractive so they didn’t last long, though I have incorporated some of the more manageable ones into my perennial beds. I have been unsuccessful at ridding the garden of Coltsfoot so I learned to live with it–and now I rather like it! (A good life lesson). It’s a ancient shade herb that flourishes in any setting–as you can see from the pictures below, it’s growing out of the bricks. It flowers very early in the spring–even in late winter in Britain I think–with a yellow dandelion-type flower, and after that it’s just low-lying leaves that will spread everywhere. I rip most of it out every two weeks or so and then it comes back. I will say that it is a very neat plant despite its tendency to spread. It’s a nice shade groundcover, if you watch it carefully. It never turns brown or wilts; it just wants to take over the garden (world). Coltsfoot is included in all of the classical, medieval, and early modern herbals as a “cough dispeller” (it is often referred to as “coughwort”) and a cure for any and all ailments of the lung, which are improved by smoking its leaves. I wonder if it could serve as a tobacco alternative? Many of the artistic depictions of Coltsfoot—medieval and modern–get it wrong, as the straggly flowers and rather more attractive (hoof-shaped?) leaves never appear at the same time: this was very confusing to the ancients, who portrayed it as two different plants.
Coltsfoot and Marshmallow in British Library MS Egerton 747 (Tractatus de herbis; De Simplici Medicina; Circa instans; Antidotarium Nicolai), c. 1280-1310; Coltsfoot in the Botanica Pharmaceutica, 1788, Walter Crane’s Floral Fantasy in an English Garden, 1899, on a 1930s London Transport poster (Victoria & Albert Museum) and a vintage Swedish tablecloth (from Etsy seller annchristinljungberg), and in my garden.
We had some very English weather for most of last week and rain at its end, so now everything is very, very green. And of course it is mid-June, not mid-July or -August, so that’s just the way it should be: lush. My garden is just about to move into its overgrown phase, so I’m going to spend the day trying to tame it, but first a few pictures. There is nothing I like better than an ivy-covered “feral house”: here is my favorite and on my way to the Post Office yesterday I discovered another one. This little brick building has been vacant (at least on its first floor) for quite a few years, and now its entire back–and chimney–are wearing green. It was a funny day–one minute it rained, and then the sun popped out for twenty minutes or so; it was humid and then almost chilly. I was running around town taking “now” pictures for several upcoming posts and an exhibit on the Great Salem Fire (fast approaching its centennial anniversary), but I stopped along the way to take some pictures of green wherever I found it: on this little building, in Forest River Park, just walking along the sidewalk, in a beautiful Federal Street garden, and in my own backyard.
Over the past few days I was exposed, for the first time, to the wild photographs of Charles Fréger’s Wilder Mann series, featuring participants in neo-neo-neo-(many neos-) pagan rituals, as well as the classic 1973 horror film The Wicker Man (I’m not sure horror is the right word, it’s actually quite funny), so now I am thinking about Wicker men, in all their various incarnations. The Wicker Man is a pre-Christian, “barbarian” entity and practice, referred to in Greek and Roman sources ( Julius Caesar, Strabo), and then, like everything classical, rediscovered in the Renaissance. According to the legend, the Celtic practice of human sacrifice involved effigies of great size interwoven with twigs, the limbs of which are filled up with living people which are set on fire from below, and the people are deprived of life surrounded by flames. It is judged that the punishment of those who participated in theft or brigandage or other crimes are more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supplies of this kind fail, they even go so low as to inflict punishment on the innocent. (Caesar, DeBelloGallico, 6.16). A century later, Strabo writes that having devised a colossus of straw and wood [the Celts] throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing(Strabo,Geographia,4:5). Of course neither “observer” actually saw these great burning behemoths, but that doesn’t matter: their names were influential enough to establish the Wicker Man as fact even before their texts made it into print (for good discussions of some material evidence, go here and here), and after that, it was all over.
The literary descriptions of the Wicker Man are so graphic that they inspired some great artistic depictions in the early modern era, particularly in the later seventeenth century. Once the religious dissension of the Reformation had cooled, authors (and their illustrators) were once again free to explore the pre-Christian past. A particularly influential image of Julius Caesar’s Wicker Man comes from Aylett Sammes’ Britannia antiqua illustrata (London, 1676): only the hairstyle changes in the succeeding centuries–and the sacrificial lambs get a bit more numerous and detailed.
I don’t want to be restrained to this particular conception of the Wicker Man; after all it is (nearly) summer, the season of wicker! Certainly the real wicker men (and women) of the past would have been the itinerant street hawkers, carrying their wares in wicker baskets. The ultimate wicker man of this type is certainly the street basket-seller for Carle Vernet’s Cries of Paris series (c. 1820): he is a basket man. A more modern, and much more comfortable, “wicker man” is Robert Louis Stevenson, as depicted by John Singer Sargent in 1887. Commerce and comfort: wicker has been tamed.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887, The Taft Museum, Cincinnati
I strive to feature primarily pretty pictures of Salem (except, perhaps, for Halloween season), so there have been no images of one of Salem’s most prominent landmarks: the Salem Harbor Power Station, a coal-fired electric power plant which has been looming over the city since 1951. But not for much longer: in 2012 the plant’s owner, Dominion, announced plans to shut it down due to growing public and legal pressures that included a citizens’ suit against the plant’s violations of the Clean Air Act. Last year Dominion sold the plant to the New Jersey–based Footprint Power, which announced its intentions to convert part of it into a natural gas facility set to go online in 2016. The plant went off-line at the end of last month, and now its gray towers–sadly my marker for home when I’m out on Route 128, will soon be taken down. Of course a natural gas-powered plant takes up a lot less space than a coal-powered one (the old plant is located on 65 waterfront acres, but apparently the new plant only needs 25) , so there will be a lot of redevelopment on its prominent site–redevelopment that will no doubt take advantage of the harbor views, rather than obliterate them. We already have our ferry to Boston, water taxis are commencing this summer, and apparently cruise ships are coming: after a half-century of neglecting the Harbor that made Salem, we appear to be rediscovering it.
Artistic depictions of Salem Harbor parallel, or reflect, its commercial history: up to about 1920 or so, there are first realistic and then more romanticized images of its wharves and ships–after that, the artists seem to withdraw, or go completely sentimental–but I’m sure that we’ll see some interesting views going forward.
Engraving of a busy Salem Harbor, 1796, for the Salem Marine Society membership certificate; Wedgwood Creamware Plate, c. 1803, Northeast Auctions; Fitz Hugh Lane, Salem Harbor, 1853, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Head of Salem Harbor, from Julian Hawthorne’s article, “Hawthorne and Salem”, The Century 28 (May 1884); Maurice Prendergast, Salem Harbor no.1, c. 1920-23, Colby College Museum of Art; Daniel Low mail-order catalog for 1946-47; a harbor-side installation appears poised to take down the towers, this past weekend.