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Yes, this is the "witch" Salem--even though everything but the trials happend in Danvers.


Calendar tells story of 1914 Salem Fire

By Alan Burke

Staff writer


SALEM -- On a hot June 25 nearly 100 years ago, fire ripped through this city. Residents and firefighters battled back with hoses and axes, but they were outmatched by the heat and the wind and by builders who had crammed factories and homes mere feet apart.

Firemen from nearly two dozen towns helped, but some found that their equipment could not be connected to Salem hydrants. In horror, they watched block after block burn furiously. Desperate Salem officials began dynamiting homes.

Eventually the fire drove 10,000 people from their houses. It devastated 60 percent of the central city and caused an estimated $15 million in damages (in 1914 dollars).

Now, the whole story has been told in pictures as part of the Salem Rotary's 2004 calendar. It might not seem an appropriate topic for a calendar, but as Rotary President Chris Zorzy points out, the great Salem Fire affected many residents living in the city today. "And a lot of people are fascinated by the history of Salem."

In a cover photo, the camera looks toward a ruined St. Joseph's Church, across a scene of devastation. Virtually every structure, as far as the eye can see, is burnt to the ground. It is an image that recalls the San Francisco earthquake or post-World War II Europe. In the foreground, teams of men in horse-drawn wagons sort through rubble, taking the first steps toward reconstruction.

Moments in history have been chosen for Rotary calendars over the past three years. The 2004 offering is special because it includes seldom-seen photos taken from the vaults of the Peabody Essex Museum. "The whole story is told through pictures," says Zorzy. Historian Jim McAllister offers commentary on Salem before, during and after the disaster.

Ultimately, says Zorzy, it's an uplifting story. He points to a photo of burnt-out barber Emile Frazier planting his striped pole beside his new shop -- a tent. "It's inspiring, really. People persevered and kept moving."

Each calendar sells for $20, and those who purchase them are eligible for weekly drawings for $100 prizes. An additional drawing in November will give two $250 payoffs.

"You get something for your $20, a calendar," Zorzy says. "And you also get the chance to win some money."

All this is designed to raise money for Rotary charities, including food drives, scholarships, the Council on Aging and the Little League. The sepia-toned photos likewise recall a Salem where people in need reached out to help one another. They also remind us how much worse it might have been.

Fanned by the wind

On the day of the fire, The Salem Evening News reported, in an early edition, that 20 women were killed in an explosion at Korn Leather on Boston Street, an area known as Blubber Hollow. This was the origin of the fire, and one classic photo in the calendar shows firefighters using hoses on the building in a fruitless effort to contain the blaze.

With the hot weather, oil-soaked buildings and 15 mile-per-hour winds, the flames were all but unstoppable. Fire jumped from factory to factory, from one yardless four-decker to another. In the calendar's text, McAllister notes that the city's master plan in 1912 had warned that such buildings were "fire traps. ... The fire menace from this cause is already criminal and fast increasing."

Fire companies from as far away as Hingham rushed to help. In at least one case, McAllister notes, their equipment was rendered useless because it could not be coupled to Salem fire hydrants. A photo shows the Boston pumpers still on the flatcars that brought them.

With the city defenseless before the fire, the wind that fed it suddenly showed mercy. It pushed the fire around and away from downtown, toward Jefferson Avenue. The blaze then leapt the Boston & Maine tracks, and by late afternoon had devoured the magnificent and newly opened French-Canadian St. Joseph's Church. Its poignant ruin is one of the calendar's most striking images.

Sweeping The Point, fire burned through massive brick buildings, like the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Co., where as many as 15,000 people worked. A photo shows the structure's remains at the edge of the harbor, where the fire ran out of fuel 13 hours after it started.

Cause for thanks

In the aftermath, as survivors took stock, they realized that despite the pain inflicted by the fire, they had reasons to be grateful. The reports of deaths at Korn Leather proved untrue. Only one fatality was directly linked to the fire, according to a 1980 study by Framingham State College professor Robert Donnell.

Moreover, the owners of Naumkeag voted to rebuild.

Makeshift housing and kitchens fed the homeless. Almost at once, new homes began to rise -- this time with a new building code to make them safer. Reconstructed factories added sprinkler systems. Outmoded Salem Hospital was moved away from downtown and rebuilt as a modern facility.

More importantly for Salem today, virtually all of the city's historic treasures, from elegant Chestnut Street to the Salem Common, had been spared by the shift in the wind. The fire stopped mere feet from the Custom House and two blocks from The House of the Seven Gables, although coal piles on nearby wharfs would smolder for three days.

In the end, Salem was left with a solid foundation for the trade that now dominates the city -- tourism.

The calendar can be purchased at local shops, such as Taste of Thyme on Washington Street, or by calling Zorzy at (978) 741-0424.