Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Great Salem Fire 25 June 1914

Salem, after the fire, Library of Congress photograph

There was a long drought in May and June of 1914 on the North Shore of Massachusetts.  Then a fire was reported on the afternoon of 25 June 1914 at the Korn leather factory at 57 Boston Street in Salem.  It quickly spread across the street and the police called 21 other communities for help, and over 90 men from other towns appeared.  Over a million spectators from all over the North Shore watched the fire from across Beverly and Marblehead harbors, and from the hills of nearby towns like Lynn.  It burned 253 acres (two square miles) and 1,376 buildings. 20,000 people lost their homes (out of a population of 48,000).  For a crowded city squeezed onto a peninsula by a harbor, this was a significant blow.  Unbelievably,  there were only three deaths and two missing people.

I checked the census records to see where my ancestors were living in Salem in 1914 at the time of the Great Salem Fire.  I remembered that my paternal grandfather, Donald Wilkinson, was born on Lafayette Avenue, where the fire swept through with a vengeance.  My maternal great grandfather, Arthur Hitchings, was born in Salem, and although in 1914 he was living next door in Beverly, his family was still in Salem.  His niece, Muriel Herrick, was born in 1913, but she told me that she had vivid memories of being carried over the Salem/Beverly bridge and seeing the city on fire behind her.  She was lucky to have relatives to stay with in Beverly, since most of the displaced citizens lived in a tent city erected on Salem Common and Forest River Park (near where Salem State College is on Lafayette Street.)

My grandfather, Donald Munroe Wilkinson (1895 – 1977) was 18 years old in 1914.  His father, Albert Munroe Wilkinson had died in 1908, and his widowed mother, Isabella (Bill) (1863 – 1935) was living at 4 Loring Avenue in the 1910 Federal Census and in the 1920 Federal Census with my grandfather and his sister.  This house is on the corner of Lafayette Street, not far from Salem State College. According to several maps of the Salem Fire I have seen online, this area is just south of where the fire swept through from the Korn factory to Salem harbor, crossing Lafayette Street.  This was a double house, and on the other side, a distant cousin, Franklin Daniel Wilkinson’s (1845 – 1911) widow, Catherine, was living at this time period, too.

I don’t remember my grandfather ever talking about the Great Fire. Since he was a teenager that year, he must have had some strong memories.  I wish I could go back in time to pick his brain about this piece of history. I'm sure he could remember something, just like cousin Muriel's memories.

Muriel Herrick, the small child who remembered being carried across the bridge, almost lived to see the centennial of the Great Fire. She passed away at age 100, on 24 January 2014.  Her parents, Moses Herrick (1880 – 1922) and Mabelle Hitchings (1881 – 1916), lived at Bentley Street in the 1910 Federal Census. Moses and the children were living at 4 Smith Street in the 1920 Federal Census. Bentley Street was near, but not consumed by the conflagration.  I suppose they fled out of fear of the unknown. Can you imagine the citizens of Salem fleeing this fire, not knowing if they would ever return to their homes?  The fire was only blocks away from Bentley Street.  Smith Street was further away, and nearer to the Beverly bridge.  I’m lucky that both the Herricks and the Wilkinsons did not lose their homes during the Great Fire.

There are many activities going on in Salem to remember the Great Fire, and to commemorate the heroes and victims.  Salem State University is holding a symposium from June 20 – 21st.   There will be a moment of silence and a ceremony on Wednesday, June 25th.   See below for a schedule.

For more information:

Salem Fire fact sheet

The Salem Fire, by Arthur B. Jones    online book

Creative Salem – A list of events commemorating the Great Salem Fire

A Sanborn Insurance Map showing the area of destruction after the Salem Fire

Digital Commons at Salem State University, Salem Fire Photos

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Copyright © 2014, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

1 comment:

  1. My French Canadian grandparents were on Cedar Street (destroyed according to newspaper reports) but they NEVER mentioned it and I was too young to know a thing about it and not doing genealogy so never asked all those questions I now have. They were married in 1907, lost their first baby due to a miscarriage, and had a 2 yr old and 8 month old at the time of the fire!!!!! Horrible to think of!!!! (Pat McGrath)