It was among the last of the great industrial fires that plagued North American cities in the 19th century. Of the families it affected – burning homes or the breadwinner's workplace – 43% were Franco-American. Because so many people were left jobless after the city's largest employer burned down, the fire encouraged the creation of the United States Employment Service.
Before the fire
Franklin H. Wentworth agitated for more fire protection. In an article in the Salem Evening News (March 29, 1910, page 7), he called Salem, "in Danger of Destruction by Fire". He felt that the main fire danger was to the downtown business district. The article included a map of all downtown buildings and their type of materials.
Mr. Wentworth, a Salem Councilman, introduced an order that would have required all new or replacement roof coverings to be non-combustible. He argued that this was as important as buying new engines or hiring new firemen. After a big fire, many of the working class would have to live in tents, he warned.
Wentworth was accused of serving only the interest of the insurance industry, and the amendment did not pass. Wentworth later became secretary of the National Board of Fire Underwriters.
Another failed attempt to increase safety in Salem was undertaken by Charles J. Collins. He had visited Philadelphia where high-pressure wagons pumped water through 3.25 inches (8.3 cm) pipes for a range of 360 feet (110 m). The argument went that high-pressure pumps would pay for themselves with the reduction of insurance fees. Protecting the entire business and mercantile district would have cost US$150,000.
In 1914, Salem was a city of 48,000 people (12,000 more than ten years earlier), and consisted of 5,826 buildings on 5,100 acres (21 km2; 8.0 sq mi) at an assessed valuation of US$37.25 million. The streets were 20 to 140 feet (6.1 to 42.7 m) wide. Building codes were dated, not mentioning standpipes, fire escapes, or sprinklers.
Salem had 180 fire alarm stations or boxes that could be used to contact telephone operators. A long drought preceded the events of June 25, 1914.
The Great Salem Fire started with a series of explosions, caused by a mixture of acetone, amalacitate, alcohol, and celluloid. At 1:37 p.m. (EDT) on June 25, 1914, a fire alarm box was used to report a fire in the Korn Leather Factory at 57 Boston Street. A memorial plaque is on the site, now occupied by a Walgreens store.
The fire spread quickly down and across Boston Street, due to a drought. The police department sent out calls to 21 cities for assistance. One industrial department, the Fore River Shipyard, also assisted. Over 90 out of town policemen came to help. The Salem Evening News, (Friday, July 24, 1914, page 11), had a complete list of all responding departments and where and how they worked to fight the fire.
The Salem Evening News covered the events in a series of articles, which were later reprinted as a book by Montanye Perry.
The fire burned 253 acres (1.02 km2; 0.395 sq mi) of land with 1,376 buildings. The entire loss was estimated at US$15 million; insurance policies paid US$11.744 million. Some 20,000 people lost their homes, 10,000 their jobs, and a few their lives.
Chestnut Street, designed by architect Samuel McIntire, survived the fire, as well as what is now City Hall, the oldest continually run city hall in America, open since 1837. The McIntire Historic District is the largest area of homes in America, dating from 1642 to 1865.
|Historical value||Adjusted for inflation|
|Assessed valuation of Salem prior to fire||$37.25 million||$1.09 billion|
|Damage||$15 million||$438 million|
|Covered by insurance||$11.744 million||$343 million|
|Equipping the entire business and mercantile
district with high pressure pumps
- Remes, Jacob A.C. (2016). Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-08137-8.
- Perry, Montanye (1915). The Salem Fire Relief. Reprint of a Serial published in the Salem Evening News, Salem, MA, Milo A. Newhall, Printers.
- 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved May 28, 2023.
- . Arthur B. Jones, The Salem Fire (1914).
- Sanborn Map Co. Map of Salem Showing Area Destroyed by Fire June 25, 1914.