Great Salem Fire Origin – Then & Now

In the early afternoon of June 25, 1914, the fire began when the Korn Leather Co. factory at 55 Boston St. blew up. Before the conflagration was brought under control almost a day later (what is now Pickering Wharf smoldered for weeks after) nearly a third of central Salem was gone: all of The Point neighborhood, nearly all of the Mill Hill neighborhood, much of the South Salem neighborhood along Lafayette St, a slice of the McIntire District (narrowly missing famously elegant Chestnut St), and portions of downtown Salem along the Derby St waterfront.

Gone were many institutions: half of the tanneries that provided a substantial chunk of jobs and tax revenue for Salem: the Pequot Mills cotton plant that employed the other half of the Salem labor force not laboring in the tanneries; Salem Hospital on Charter St downtown, young then and suddenly absent; and even two fire stations, one at the end of Essex St rebuilt soon after and still operating, and one that occupied what is now Lafayette Park in The Point.

Given this history it is entertaining to view this day-after photograph of the origin site, Salem Fire Origintaken from the crest of Proctor’s Ledge of Gallows Hill. What’s left of the Korn Leather factory fills the central portion of the photograph, spectators along Proctor St shaking their heads at the damage. An apartment building and a factory across Proctor St are destroyed, but most of the destruction was to the right of the frame of the photograph, spreading first along Boston St then Jackson St. into Mill Hill, crossing the railroad tracks (narrowly missing the train station where Riley Plaza now lies) and spreading through neighborhoods along Salem Harbor.

More entertaining is to see what became of the area in the photograph. In this annotated Gallows Hill Fire Annotatedimage can be seen what buildings stand there now. The Korn tannery was rebuilt in the same location, decades later going out of business, and the entire lot dispiritedly now occupied by a Walgreen’s. Dispiritedly, because perhaps the two most hallowed sites in Salem, the Great Fire Memorial and the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials Memorial, both sit in the parking lot of a chain pharmacy. Across Boston St was built the Hygrade Lamp factory, which stood almost 80 years before being torn down, the long-standing vacant lot soon to be filled by the Gateway Center of apartments and retail outlets.

Across Proctor St the apartment building at 65 Boston St was amazingly rebuilt and is now condos. Amazingly, because look at the damage, the building was gutted. Though the missing roof was replaced not by a gable roof to match its neighbor but was squared off adding a full fourth floor to half the building. The small tannery at 6 Proctor St was not rebuilt but was replaced by a two-family house still standing.

Diagonally across the intersection the site where horse carts are parked at the confluence of Boston and Goodhue Streets is now the parking lot for an outlet of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts. Across Goodhue St the tannery then there was replaced at the onset of the 21st century by a Public Storage building.

Examining the area now from the same crest of Proctor’s Ledge from where the photo was taken, what stands out is how concentrated was the area then, how dispersed now. It is a theme this blog has hit up before, and will hit again – Salem of a century ago was twice as dense as it is presently.

A single-story Walgreen’s occupies a full block where three multi-story factories once stood. The Gateway Center to be built in the coming year, while seemingly large (four-stories, 117-units), will be about half the size of the Hygrade plant that once filled the site. Three multi-story buildings once filled the triangle where a small single-story Dunkin Donuts now sits. Even the seemingly substantial Public Storage building is much smaller than the immense five-story building on the site in 1914.

As the Joni Mitchell song tells:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise Salem
And put up a parking lot.

 

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  1. Pingback: Gallows Hill Park – Then and Now | Streets of Gallows Hill

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