By Neil H. Dempsey
---- — SALEM — It began a hundred years ago this June, when a series of explosions in a leather factory on Boston Street sparked a blaze that would eventually consume 1,376 buildings and permanently change the character of a developing city.
“Principal Industries Reduced to Ashes; Thousands Homeless Spend Night in Parkways and Fields,” read the extended headline in this newspaper the next day. “Burned Area 11/2 Miles Long by Half-Mile Wide ... Flames Finally Stayed at Derby Wharf.”
The Great Salem Fire of 1914 will come roaring back to life this year as city officials and local historians kick off a series of events commemorating its centennial.
“There are a lot of people who are very interested in the legacy of the Salem Fire and sharing that with the public,” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s marketing arm. “I think it’s a labor of love for those involved.”
The events begin tomorrow evening with “Life and Labor in the Aftermath of the Great Salem Fire,” a lecture by Jacob Remes, an assistant professor at SUNY Empire State College and a Harvard University fellow. Working from his dissertation, Remes will examine the fire and contrast its aftermath to that of the 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that killed 2,000 people.
“Rather than focusing on the industrial causes or physical destruction of the Great Salem Fire, Dr. Remes’ presentation will examine the human toll, with a particular emphasis on the dislocation of Salem’s immigrants communities,” said Donna Seger, chairwoman of the history department at Salem State University.
The next event will be “The Great Salem Fire: Stories Within the Story,” a one-hour lecture on April 30 by local historian Jim McAllister, who will draw from letters, newspapers and diaries to explore people’s personal experiences during the fire.
Next, Salem State is planning to host a two-day symposium on the fire from June 20 to 21, and the college is also looking to put together a photo exhibit. Details for both are still being worked out.
The city is planning to host a display of antique firefighting apparatus on June 22. Pieces on display are scheduled to include the Seaside 2, a steam-driven engine actually used by Manchester-by-the-Sea firefighters during the blaze.
On June 25, city officials will commemorate the fire’s 100th anniversary with a public ceremony at the corner of Boston and Bridge streets at 1 p.m. Later that day, they’ll host a second ceremony at Lafayette Park in recognition of firefighters who battled the blaze and rededicate the 1915 plaque memorializing it. Chiefs from all of the departments that sent firefighters will be invited to attend.
Other possible events are in the works, including walking tours of areas where the fire struck. Several organizations have expressed interest in conducting them, including the North Shore Community Development Coalition, Fox said.
Also, author Nelson Dionne is planning to host a signing for his new book about the fire, and he could deliver a presentation on the fire and how fire laws have changed in the past century.
“It’s such a significant event, and it really changed the way people respond to disasters,” Fox said. “There’s a lot of ... things to learn from what happened 100 years ago in Salem.”
Tomorrow’s lecture will take place downtown at the Salem Visitor Center at 2 New Liberty St. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the presentation will begin a half-hour later. The event is free, but people are encouraged to register ahead of time by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further information on events commemorating the fire can be found at salem.org/salemfire. The website will soon host a map showing modern Salem overlaid with the fire zones.
Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at email@example.com.