Tag Archives: Great Salem Fire of 1914

Spotlight on South Salem

This weekend’s (35th) annual Christmas in Salem house tour is centered on South Salem and the neighborhoods along Lafayette Street which were rebuilt after the catastrophic Great Salem Fire of 1914. This seems like a very appropriate architectural focus for this commemorative year, and the tour poster really conjures up the era as well. All the tour information can be found here; it’s too late to buy advance tickets but they will be available on Saturday and Sunday at the tour headquarters, the Saltonstall School on Lafayette Street. Christmas in Salem is the most important annual fundraising event for Historic Salem, Inc., Salem’s venerable preservation organization which was formed in the 1940s to save the 17th century Corwin House (now unfortunately called the “Witch House”) from destruction. Generally the tour focuses on the downtown neighborhoods and Salem’s colonial and federal architecture, but occasionally it ventures out to the more outlying sections of town, including North Salem, the Willows, and now South Salem.

South Salem Tour

I’m looking forward to the tour because it will feature several (predominately Colonial Revival) homes on Fairfield Street, which I’ve featured on this blog several times. Now we get to go inside! Just after the fire, the property owners of this street commissioned the most renown Boston-area architects to rebuild their homes, with pretty impressive results. I have served as a tour guide for Christmas in Salem for many years, and I’m still not sure whether the majority of tour (ists? -goers?) are enchanted more by the architecture or the decorations, but for me it’s definitely the former. I walk to work along Lafayette Street two or three times a week, and there are several houses along my route that I examine in detail as I walk by–one of which is also on the tour. This is the William H. Gove house, an imposing Queen Anne mansion that survived the 1914 conflagration. Built by Salem attorney William H. Gove (who entered his profession through an apprenticeship, then went to Harvard College and Harvard Law School) in 1888, this mansion really dominates the streetscape and has a myriad of details that capture my attention every time I walk by. It was transformed into condominiums several years ago, and a ground-floor unit is on the tour. I know that Gove was a successful and wealthy man, but I can’t help wondering if some of his wife’s family fortune went into the construction of this house, as his mother-in-law was the one and only Lydia Pinkham, whose famous over-the-counter herbal remedy, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, made her the most successful female entrepreneur of the nineteenth century. Perhaps Mr. Gove would not be pleased with this suggestion.

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South Salem Gove House 1984

South Salem Gove Mansion

South Salem Pinkham Card Harvard

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The William H. Gove House (1888) today, in 1984 & 1918; Trade Card for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, 1880s, Baker Library, Harvard University; Lafayette Street facades.


A Lost Lafayette Mansion

A few years ago I published the first of what could be many posts on the prolific Salem publisher Samuel E. Cassino, whose diverse publications encompassed several popular periodicals and more technical reference works (including 30 editions of the Naturalists’ Directory published between 1877 and 1936). In that post I included a cropped postcard of what I thought was his grand residence on lower Lafayette Street, but it turns out I was incorrect, as his great-grandaughter has sent along a family picture of this very impressive house, which was completely destroyed in the Great Salem Fire of 1914. I think the real Cassino house is the house next door to the Greek Revival structure I featured in my earlier post: both were located in the vicinity of 190-194 Lafayette Street and both were completely destroyed by the Fire. I am so grateful to have received this photograph as we don’t have many of the pre-Fire streetscape of Lafayette, which was turned into a pile of ash (and a “forest” of chimneys) on June 25, 1914. Literary references to the Cassino house always use the words “stately” and/or elegant, and as you can see, these were understatements!

Cassino house burned 1914 Salem Fire

Cassino Home in Salem-before and after

Cassino Estimate

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Photographs of 194 Lafayette Street before and after the Great Salem Fire of June 25, 1914, Blackburn Archive; Valuations of loss from the F.W. Dodge Company’s Report “Data on Burned District at Salem, Mass.”, Digital Commons, Salem State University; 194 (blue house) and 192 (white house) Lafayette Street today.

It was a beautiful house to be sure, but let’s not dwell too much on material loss. Mr. Cassino was a survivor: he was born in 1861 and was still living in Salem (on Savoy Road–much further down Lafayette Street) according to the 1940 Federal Census. His great-grandaughter recalls that he was greatly loved, especially by his grandchildren with whom he spent much time.

 


The Great Salem Fire: 1914 & 2014

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.

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Past and Present Postcard-001

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.

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Past and Present Began 2014

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.

Past and Present Herbert 2

Past and Present Herbert

The end point of the fire–again, not a perfectly-matched perspective, but close.

Past and Present Broad and Hathorne

Past and Present Hathorne

Broad and Hathorne in 1914 & 2014.

Past and Present Chestnut

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39 Chestnut Street in 1914 and 2014: the fire did not touch the street, but blazed all around it.

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An officer guarding a leveled Roslyn Street in 1914, and the rebuilt street in 2014.

Past and Present Box

Past and Present datestone

Two very physical remnants of 1914 in 2014.

 

 

 

 


Capturing the Great Salem Fire: June 25, 1914

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.

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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.

Anniversary Broad Street before

Anniversary Broad Street after

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!

Anniversary 4 Sentinel Chimneys

Anniversary Capricious Damage Walnut Street

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.

Anniversary 6a St. Joseph's

Anniversary 6 Costas

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.

Anniversary Guard

Anniversary camp

Anniversary Barber

 

 

 


Fighting the Great Salem Fire

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.

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Firefighting Derby

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 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 Bridge Street

Firefighting Margin Street

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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 Fire Framer

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, Brandspuitenboek (The Fire Engine Book, 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.

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Van der Heyden 2 houses

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Van der Heyden 3 1690 Sectional View Met

Van der Heyden Rope and Tar Fire 1690

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

 

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) was 15 years old when he witnessed the Town Hall blaze, and like other artists he also depicted the scene in sketches and paintings. But the event also inspired him to invent an engine that revolutionised fire-fighting. – See more at: http://www.dutchnews.nl/features/2014/02/master_dutch_painter_revolutio.php#sthash.SkcuYdys.dpuf

 


Save the Cat!

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.

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Life saver

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).

 


Brick Revival

A beautiful brick Colonial Revival house in Salem came on the market last week, so I stopped by to check it out on my way to school. Fairfield Street, its location, is just off Lafayette in the midst of the area that was completely devastated by the Salem Fire of 1914. Almost immediately after the Fire, its property owners committed to a plan of relatively rapid rebuilding and this strident street emerged as prime evidence of Salem’s renewal. This is certainly the theme of Salem author/photographer Mary Harrod Northend’s article in the Fall 1920 edition of The House Beautiful: “Worthwhile Houses Built in Salem since the Great Conflagration of 1914”, which features 11 Fairfield Street along with its neighboring structures–many built of solid, more flame-retardant materials like brick and stucco–built to last, with myriad details representative of their owners’ and architects’ appreciation of the “old-time architecture” of Salem. In the particular case of 11 Fairfield, the owner was George W. Hooper, owner of the Salem Laundry, and the architect was Robert. C. Boit of Boston: the house is dated 1914, so they must have made their contract while the embers of that June were still smoldering!

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Fairfield Street Interior

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The George W. Hooper House, designed by Robert C. Boit, 1914, as featured in its present-day listing and in The House Beautiful, no. 49 (1920)–on the right.

 


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).


Little Folks and Black Cats

A little window into the publishing world of turn-of-the-century Salem and Boston today.  I found it difficult to reconcile the very divergent titles of the prolific Salem publisher Samuel Edson Cassino until I uncovered the family history behind the family business.  The S.E. Cassino Company is best known for producing children’s literature, both periodicals like the long-running Little Folks.  The Children’s Magazine (1897-1923) and charmingly-illustrated texts like Edith Francis Foster’s Mary’s Little Lamb:  a Picture Guessing Story for Little Children (1903).

These publications contrast sharply with the other Cassino titles, issued in Boston rather than Salem, primarily scientific compendiums like the annual Naturalists’ Universal Directory.  It turns out that Samuel Edson Cassino, a trained naturalist who married into a prominent North Shore family and turned to publishing, focused on his own interests down in Boston and left the newer (and I suspect more profitable) branch of his business to his daughter Margherita Cassino Osborne, an 1899 graduate of Radcliffe College.  Margherita not only edited Little Folks and several other serial publications (and later put out her own children’s books) but seems to have managed all of the Salem publishing operations, along with her second husband Frank Wellman Osborne.  The Cassino catalogue acquired another–even more diverse–serial title in 1912:  the very interesting early science fiction Black Cat magazine, founded by Herman D. Umbstaetter in Boston in 1895.  The operation of Black Cat were moved from Boston to Salem (which must have seemed appropriate to everyone, as this was just when Salem was beginning to transform itself into “Witch City”), and was managed by Mr. Osborne until its demise in 1920.

The family business was certainly profitable but there’s a (relatively, materially) tragic chapter in the Cassino story as well:  their stately mansion on Lafayette Street, pictured below in 1910, was completely destroyed by the Great Salem Fire of 1914.


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