On June 25, 1914, a fire alarm sounded at 1:37 p.m. An explosion had occurred at the Korn Leather Factory on Boston Street in Blubber Hollow, the leather district in Salem, Massachusetts. Chemicals used to create the tip finish, a varnish used to shine patent leather, exploded causing a catastrophic fire to spread through the city. Although some of the tanneries were sprinklered, the wooden structures could not withstand the heat created by the fire and much of the leather district was destroyed. When the alarm sounded, only nine firemen were on duty; they responded as quickly as they could with a variety of firefighting equipment –- steamer engines, hose wagons and a ladder truck. A series of additional alarms sounded, bringing the entire department of Salem firefighters to the site of the blaze along with all the remaining firefighting equipment, leaving the rest of the city unprotected.
The lack of rain, the wind that blew that day and the closeness of the wooden structures set off a conflagration, eventually destroying more than 250 acres of the city, which included more than 1,300 buildings, rendering 20,000 people homeless and more than 10,000 out of work.
This year marks the centennial of the great fire. The city has planned two days of events to mark the occasion, replete with lectures, displays of fire equipment and a walk through the burned area left by the spread of the fire. The Phillips Library is participating in the celebration by opening a digital collection of 150 images that display the impact of the conflagration on the city and its residents.
Images depict the burned district before the fire; fire-fighting efforts, including images of fire equipment; members of the Salem Fire Department, along with images of neighboring fire departments that came to assist; the ruins and destruction caused by the fire; the plight of the homeless and relief efforts to assist them and the reconstruction and redevelopment of the city.
Martial law was declared at 2:31 p.m. on June 25. Militia helped families prepare to evacuate their homes, moving possessions out of the homes as quickly as they could. The French district, also known as The Point or Stage Point, was hit the hardest. This section of town created a peninsula bordered by the South River on the north, Palmer’s Cove on the south and the Salem Harbor on the east.
Tenements made of wood and built close together facilitated the blowing of hot sparks from one building to another, making it difficult for the firemen to contain the fire. At one point, the city put out calls to 21 surrounding towns to fight the fire.
When the fire originally started, winds were blowing west to northwest. As the fire spread south and southeast through the city, the residents of Chestnut Street, in the historic district of Salem, prepared to evacuate as well. The change in wind direction and the heroic efforts of the firemen protected the historic district and the business district along Federal Street from the ravages of the fire.
The intensity of the fire was such that cars parked on the streets melted.
St. Joseph’s Church, newly built because of damage from a previous fire, was destroyed by the blaze; while the statue survived the fire, the heat of the fire melted and bent the crosses on the top of each of the church’s towers.
Firemen struggled from the intensity of the heat and took refuge in the puddles along the street to revitalize and cool off before continuing to fight the blaze.
The fire was also capricious in its path. This image taken on Walnut Street shows how some buildings were destroyed while a residential home was not.
Many residents sought space in town cemeteries and on the Salem Common as they were driven from their homes with what few possessions they could carry with them.
The Salem Fire burned for over thirteen hours. Despite its power, only six people lost their lives in the fire. The flowers that grew in these ruins on Lafayette Street were a sign of hope for future reconstruction.
All the images from this collection may be downloaded for your personal use. They may also be printed. Requests for permission to publish material from this collection must be submitted in writing to the Reference Librarian in the Phillips Library, who can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. To access this collection, select the link, Images of Great Salem Fire, 1914, from the library’s web site. Visit PHILCAT for more information about the fire and its aftermath.