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Local News

June 17, 2014

Events begin this weekend to remember Great Salem Fire

SALEM — What’s the most important day in the city’s history?

If you said June 25, 1914, you’re not alone. Local historian Jim McAllister, for one, thinks the day the Great Salem Fire struck was by far the most transformative the city would ever see.

“I don’t think there’s anything compared to it,” McAllister said. “The city was so changed by the end of the day.”

Donald Friary, president of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, would probably agree, too, and not just because the fire destroyed 1,376 homes, businesses and other buildings.

“The big figure is 18,000 people left homeless and 10,000 people left jobless,” Friary said. “It was a disaster, and at the same time, it was an opportunity, because a large part of Salem had been destroyed and had to be rebuilt.”

Beginning with a two-day symposium at Salem State University later this week and ending with a ceremony at Lafayette Park on June 25, the city is set to host a slew of events commemorating the centennial of the fire, which began with a series of explosions in a leather factory on Boston Street.

The symposium — “Conflagration!” — was the result of years of work on behalf of Salem State and numerous historical associations and history buffs throughout the area, said Donna Seger, chairwoman of the school’s history department.

“People started meeting, like, three years ago, knowing this would be an important event that needed commemoration,” Seger said. “All these different people have come together, and it really does emphasize the different aspects of the fire.”

The symposium begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday with a guided tour along the fire’s path and will end Sunday with another walking tour, this one of the Point neighborhood, which was all but razed by the fire. Bruce Hensler, a firefighter and fire historian, will deliver the symposium’s keynote presentation, “Crucible of Fire: 19th Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service,” on Friday evening.

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