Mass. Community Remembers Tragic 1914 Blaze

June 26--SALEM -- It was 1:30 p.m. on June 25, 1914, and nobody at the Korn Leather Company on Boston Street had any idea what was about to happen in a storage shed on that property, much less the transformational effect the resulting disaster would have on this city.

Wednesday, 100 years after the Great Salem Fire was sparked by explosions in that shed, a crowd of firefighters, officials and members of the public gathered close to where it once stood for a moment of silence at the time the blaze was first reported -- 1:37 p.m.

The ceremony, the first of two held to mark the fire's centennial, was actually held in the Walgreens parking lot at Boston and Bridge streets. Mayor Kim Driscoll delivered opening remarks, during which she painted a portrait of the surrounding area at the time of the fire -- thousands of people working in factories and immigrants striving for a better life.

"At this time, 100 years ago, thousands of workers toiled away in this neighborhood," she said. "Families were enjoying a warm and sunny Thursday. The circus had just visited Salem, and school was out for the summer."

The fire "forever changed the face of our city," she said.

Local historian Jim McAllister also gave a short speech, explaining how the fire began and the resulting effort to extinguish it. The alarm on Box 48 was first pulled after a neighbor saw flames shooting from one of the Korn factory's buildings, he said. The first attempt to use a fire hydrant failed because the area was too hot; the second didn't work right.

When it was all done, the city was devastated, he said.

"In reality, about 35 percent of the people were homeless, out of work, or both," he said.

When it came for the moment of silence, the crowd grew quiet. Fire Chief David Cody, standing with a line of local firefighters, rang a bell 23 times -- once for each 1,000 people left homeless in the blaze, and once each for the three that died.

Also during the ceremony, Denise Saffer Webster, sister to Salem firefighter Dan Saffer, donated a quilt she made from photographs of all of the fire department's stations, saying that she was doing so "in memory of everything they do."

Driscoll praised her and how far Salem has come in the last century.

"It may have destroyed our city's buildings, but it did not destroy our spirit," she said.

The second ceremony of the day was held at Lafayette Park, where the blaze destroyed the fire department's Engine House 1. Norman LaPointe, Salem fire's chaplain, opened the ceremony with a benediction. Afterward, Driscoll unveiled the park's refurbished memorial plaque, gifted to the city in 1915 by philanthropist J. Ackerman Coles.

"This afternoon's event is not one for mourning," Driscoll said. "We are here to celebrate the service of our first responders -- both from a century ago and today -- and to express our gratitude to those who put others before themselves."

People in attendance at both events spoke about their personal links to the fire and said the occasion allowed them a chance to commune with ancestors.

"My grandfather fought the Salem fire; I have his badge on today," said Tom Kehoe, a call firefighter with the Manchester-by-the-Sea department for 40 years. Kehoe said that his grandfather, James Kehoe, rarely spoke about the fire, but coming from the same small community he does, he was probably shocked by the scale of it.

"I just get the idea these guys were terrified," Kehoe said.

Also on hand during the day's events were Jim and Matthew O'Keefe, grandson and great-grandson to Mathias O'Keefe, Salem's 39th mayor. O'Keefe said his grandfather had been at his tannery near Boston Street when the fire broke out, and he rushed to put out sparks that had made it up onto its roof. He succeeded in saving the building.

"I'm here to look up at my grandfather, 100 years ago," O'Keefe said.

Also during the second ceremony, Driscoll and Cody presented a plaque to Michael Jewell, president of the Yankee Clipper Council of the Boy Scouts of America, in recognition of the Scouts' relief efforts following the blaze. Numerous Scouts watched from the audience.

"They distributed food to the refugees, serving over 5,300 meals in the first four days alone," Driscoll said. "Using bicycles, the Scouts ran errands and made deliveries, reconnected lost family members and provided critical aid."

Additionally, plaques were awarded to Boston Fire Commissioner John Hasson, as well as representatives of a host of fire departments that helped extinguish the blaze, including Beverly, Everett, Gloucester, Lawrence, Marblehead, Medford, Manchester, Newburyport, Peabody, Reading, Somerville, Revere, Stoneham, Swampscott, Winchester and Wakefield.

Other speakers at the event included Sara Peller, CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, and Lt. Col. Tom Stewart of the Massachusetts National Guard; both their groups aided in the relief efforts. Stephen Coan, state fire marshal, also spoke, at one point thanking City Councilor Joe O'Keefe for his previous service in the same position.

Earlier, when asked if the day was more about celebrating or mourning, local Deputy fire Chief Gerry Giunta paused on the lawn of Lafayette Park.

"It's a day of reflecting, that's for sure," Giunta said. "Hopefully, if you study history, it won't happen again.

"We definitely don't want it to happen again."

Neil H. Dempsey can be reached at or via Twitter at @NeilDempseySN.

Copyright 2014 - The Salem News, Beverly, Mass.