For me, the most haunted place in Salem is not a cemetery or anything to do with the Witch Trials (though it is quite near Harmony Grove Cemetery and Gallows Hill): it is Blubber Hollow, a site of intensive manufacturing and industrial activities from the seventeenth century until the later twentieth. The center of Salem’s bustling leather industry in the later nineteenth century, this was where the Great Salem Fire started in June of 1914, in a factory producing patent leather shows on the site of the present-day Walgreens on Boston Street (behind which is is Proctor’s Ledge, now confirmed as the execution site of the victims of 1692). Its name indicates that it was also associated with the production of whale oil, but for me it always conjures up an image of frenzied commercial activity, candles burning at both ends or oil lamps burning all night. No longer: those factories that survived the 1914 fire, or were built after, are empty for the most part, and coming down soon, as Blubber Hollow transitions from ghost town into residential neighborhood: one large apartment building has already been built and there are more to come. As you walk down Grove Street towards Goodhue, past the still-busy Moose Lodge and marijuana dispensary, the sense of imminent transformation is palpable but ghosts are still present.
Texture at one of the former Salem Oil and Grease buildings, and the North River Canal.
No one will be sorry to see Flynntan go.
Past and Future: Blubber Hollow in its heyday and “Hose House” No. 4 in its midst, from Fred A. Gannon’s Old Salem Scrapbook, #6 (1900); North River Luxury Apartmentst @ 28 Goodhue Street.
The tensions between public and private interests, commercial and residential concerns, and historic preservation and economic growth are nothing new to Salem, which has always been a dynamic city proud of its past and poised for the future. Some eras are more dynamic than others, however, and I think we’re in a particularly dynamic period now, but any city or town or settlement is always in transition, of course. When I hunt for historic photographs I’m always on the lookout for the mix of “ancient” and “modern”, residential and industrial, small-scale and larger, dirt roads and railroad tracks. My very favorite visual chronicler of Salem, Frank Cousins, who was himself living through a very dynamic age, was clearly attracted to that mix as well, as one of the photographs that he submitted as part of Salem’s exhibition at the 1893 Columbian Exposition was that of a divided Derby Street doorway labelled “modern” and “colonial” (A subtle distinction for our modern eyes).
Frank Cousins photograph of a Derby Street doorway, c. 1892, courtesy of Duke University’s digital Urban Landscape collection.
More illustrative of the city in transition, as opposed to a co-joined household, are the many pictures of Town House Square that date from the 1880s to about 1910. There you see predominantly brick multi-story commercial buildings, but if you look closer, there are still some surviving wooden residential structures (although they are probably serving a multitude of uses). For several years, I have had in my possession a stereoview of a building labeled “Ward-Goldthwaite & Co. Salem” which I thought might be one of these structures, only to realize that I had made a rookie historian’s mistake (not questioning a label): the Ward-Goldthwaite Company was located in Chicago, not Salem (even though it was published by the Moulton firm of Salem). Nevertheless, it’s a great image of a city in transition: you know that house isn’t going to last long.
Town House Square at the intersection of Essex and Washington Streets, Salem, (Library of Congress) and a stereoview of the Ward Goldthwaite & Company in Chicago published by J.W. and J.S. Moulton of Salem as part of their “American Views” series.
The idea of zoning starts to catch on in Salem after 1900, and it was definitely accelerated by the Great Salem Fire of 1914. But before this momentous event, factories and residences co-existed in close proximity in the Point, Blubber Hollow and even the more residential North Salem, where the large Locke Regulator Company bordered the North River and a line of colonial houses on North Street. Some of the houses are still there, serving mixed uses as they did a century ago, while the Locke factory has been replaced by a junkyard and a car wash. The streets along Salem Harbor have always been among the most densely settled in Salem, but the 1903 photograph seems to show structures which are primarily residential–I’m not sure of the precise vantage point, but I’m assuming these buildings were all swept away by the Fire. The last photograph, from the PEM’s Phillips Library, shows fire bystanders watching the conflagration on Lafayette Street from the roof of a building on Highland Avenue: a view of mixed-used zoning with the new High School, the factory, and residences all in close proximity to one another. Highland Avenue became a preferred location for commercial development over the twentieth century, but as this photograph indicates, residences were built along it as well–and a few older structures, drastically transformed–still stand among the big box stores.
Looking north along North Street from the old bridge, 1890s, Boston Public Library; A Perspective on Salem Harbor, 1903, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Monthly Journal, September 1903; Watching the Great Salem Fire from Highland Avenue, 1914, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum
I used to disdain what I call “anniversary history”–the commemoration of historical events only on their centenaries, a temporary historical consciousness–as not serious and media-driven: a History Channel approach to history. I tried to engage in a bit of anniversary myself back in 2012, and the results were indeed a bit superficial! I still believe that “history” happens every day and everything is “historical” but I also realize that it’s impossible for the average person to go about their day (or their life) in a historical fog so the marking of anniversaries of events large and small, public and private, and global and local is important, and even necessary. They make people stop and think about the past–and its relation to the present–at least for a little while.
From my perspective(s), 1914 promises to be a big year for anniversary history: this summer marks the centenary of both the Great Salem Fire and the beginning of World War I in Europe. Over there, commemoration of the latter has already begun in earnest and will intensify over this year; I expect American engagement will really commence in 2017, the centenary of our entry into the Great War (although President Obama visited Flanders Fields a few days ago). This coincidence of local and global “Great” events is interesting to me because it mirrors historiographical and cultural trends, and because both events were so very disastrous, testing the mettle of men and women in myriad ways. Here in Salem, we began our commemoration of the 1914 fire last night with a presentation by the scholar Jacob Remes, author of the forthcoming Disaster Citizenship: Urban Disasters and the Formation of the North American Progressive State, to a standing-room-only crowd at the National Park Service Visitor Center (the former drill shed, or what remains of the Salem Armory, where the Fire relief efforts were based). Remes’ focus, on the aftermath of the fire both in the camps (where fire refugees were called “inmates”!) and the rebuilt factories a bit later, bridged the local and the global with its emphasis on labor, and started us off on a thoughtful and reverent note. There will be a centenary symposium in June, on the weekend before the date of the Fire (June 25) and just before the commemoration of the Great War really kicks off across the Atlantic.