The Great Salem Fire of 1914 Centennial Symposium

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Centennial Symposium Planned to mark Salem Fire of 1914

The symposium will feature nationally known keynote speaker, Bruce Hensley, author of Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service, and five scholars in the community who have pursued extensive research and devoted considerable thought to the fire and its aftermath. The event promises to be a very stimulating and informative conference that will tell the dramatic story of the conflagration that raged for 15 hours and destroyed 1,376 buildings on 253 acres across a swath of the city from the leather district in Blubber Hollow to Salem Harbor and ignited other blazes in North Salem and Marblehead. 

The symposium will recount the relief effort that provided shelter, food and clothing to 18,000 who were left homeless and 10,000 jobless and recall the massive reconstruction process that actually improved the city and was much admired throughout New England and the nation. The day will salute the heroic firefighters from Salem and 22 other municipalities as near as Peabody and as far away as Lawrence, Newburyport and Hingham and the Fore River Shipbuilding Works in Quincy, as well as the National Guardsmen who maintained order and hastily built tent cities to house those burnt out through the summer and fall, the telephone operators who remained at their switchboards to facilitate the emergency response, the clergy who persuaded non-English speakers to leave their homes and possessions that were in the fire’s path, those who aided their families and neighbors in this time of crisis, the insurance companies that met their obligations and made rapid reconstruction possible, and Salem citizens who willingly took leadership roles in the recovery. 

Conflagration! The Great Salem Fire of 1914 symposium will foster an awareness among those attending—Salem residents from within and outside the fire zone, firefighters from many communities, scholars in American social, cultural, and architectural history, and the general public—of Salem’s history and built environment. It will encourage pride in Salem’s citizenry, especially those who reside in or whose families lived in the burned district—Blubber Hollow, Warren, Broad, and Summer Streets, The Point, Lafayette Street, the waterfront; French-Canadian and Italian enclaves—in the resiliency of the city and its inhabitants, the distinctiveness of the buildings in the rebuilt zone and buildings elsewhere in Salem erected soon after the fire. It will commemorate an event that, while tragic, revealed the courage of Salem's citizenry and greatly influenced the 20th-century development of our historic community.


Friday, June 20, 2014
  • 4:30 pm - Walking tour of the Great Salem Fire of 1914 with Margherita Desy and Donald Friary 

  • 6:30 pm -/ Preview: “Images of the Great Salem Fire from the Nelson Dionne Collection,” Salem State University Archives
  • 7 pm - Keynote Presentation: Bruce Hensler, firefighter and fire historian, “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-century
 Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service” 

  • 8 pm - Wine and cheese reception and viewing of “Images of the Great Salem Fire from the Nelson Dionne Collection,” Salem State University Archives
Saturday, June 21, 2014
  • 8:30 am - Registration and coffee
  • 9 am - Welcome and opening remarks: Beth Anne Bower, chief of staff to the president, Salem State University
  • 9 am - Introduction: Bethany Jay, assistant professor of history, Salem State University, and symposium moderator
  • 9:10 am - Margherita M. Desy, historian, Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, United States
 Navy, “Fire will Destroy Property Despite all the Ingenuity of Man: Fighting the 1914 Salem Conflagration”
  • 10 am - Emily A. Murphy, park historian and acting chief of resource stewardship at Salem Maritime and Saugus Iron Works
 National Historic sites, “‘The Military Call’: The National Guard Response to the Great Salem Fire of 1914”
  • 10:50 am - Donald R. Friary, president, Colonial Society of Massachusetts, “Rebuilding Salem: Slate Roofs, Brick Three
 Deckers, and the Quaint Colonial Type”
  • 11:40 am - Comments and questions
  • 12 pm - Lunch
  • 12:15 pm - Open forum to share family memories of the Great Salem Fire (limit three minutes per person, please prepare ahead)
  • 1:30 pm - Elizabeth Blood, professor of French and chair of the world languages and cultures department at Salem State
 University, and Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies and coordinator of
 American studies at Salem State University, “Le Grand Feu: Franco-American Memories of the Great Fire”
  • 3 pm - Soft drinks and comments and questions
  • 3:30 pm - Closing remarks
  • 4 pm - Walking tour of The Point with Elizabeth Blood and Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello