SALEM — An argument could be made that this city is defined by a fire. There is the Salem that existed before 1914 and the Salem that came afterward.
But there is no argument that on one day — June 25, 1914 — the city changed forever.
A fire that started in a leather factory on Boston Street swept across the city and down to the water, leveling hundreds of buildings and leaving thousands homeless.
"The devastation is mind-boggling," historian Margherita Desy said. After the blaze, Salem looked "the way some cities did in Europe after World War II. The only things that were upright were charred trees and chimney stacks."
In one of its most ambitious programs, Historic Salem Inc., a local preservation organization, is offering a walking tour this month that will trace the path of the 1914 Salem fire. On three successive Sundays, historians Donald Friary and Desy will lead walks following the fire route and will examine how the conflagration altered the city's architecture, economy and everyday life.
The first walk on Sept. 14 will start in the Walgreens parking lot on the corner of Boston and Proctor streets, which is where the fire began. The 90-minute tour will visit the first streets engulfed by the flames.
On the next two Sundays, walkers will go through the downtown and up Lafayette Street and end at Salem Common, which was turned into a tent city.
Organizers hope the event will draw walkers with stories to share.
"Maybe their parents lived through the fire or their grandparents," said Desy, a Salem resident and historian for the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston, which works with the USS Constitution.
The fire is important, the historians say, for what was destroyed, what was saved and what was rebuilt.
One of the worst losses was St. Joseph Church, a twin-towered structure on Lafayette Street erected only a few years before the fire.
There are many impressive homes that went up after the fire, including Colonial Revival houses on Cedar, Fairview and other roadways off Lafayette Street.
"The fire came at a time when the Colonial Revival style ... was at its peak," said Friary, the president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and a Salem resident.
One of the great "saves" was the McIntire Historic District, a neighborhood of magnificent Federal Period homes on the edge of the downtown. The fire also stopped right at the edge of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
"Just think about it," Desy said. "The Custom House would have been destroyed, the Derby House. ... The fire could have gone all the way to The (House of the Seven) Gables."
The fire finally flickered out on the wharves along the waterfront.
1914 Fire Walking Tour
Sunday, Sept. 14* — The general alarm: The first streets to go up in flames. Meet at Walgreens parking lot, Boston and Proctor streets.
Sunday, Sept. 21 — The conflagration strikes South Salem. Meet at Council on Aging parking lot on Broad Street.
Sunday, Sept. 28 — The fire swallows Salem's jobs: The Point, the mills and the waterfront. Meet at Fire Department headquarters, corner of New Derby and Lafayette streets.
* All of the 90-minute walks, which are sponsored by Historic Salem Inc., begin at 1 p.m. A donation of $5 per tour is suggested for HSI members and $10 for nonmembers. There is no charge for the Sept. 28 walk, which is offered in conjunction with Essex National Heritage Area's Trails and Sails weekend.
Date: June 25, 1914
Buildings destroyed: 1,376
Left homeless: 18,000
Acres burned: 253
Source: Historic Salem Inc.