Historic Fires: 1914 Salem fire and the Rebuilding Commission

Blog Post created by maryelizabethwoodruff Employee on Jul 22, 2015


While the exact cause of the fire is not known, we do know the 1914 Salem Fire started in an unsprinklered factory in an area known as "Blubber Hollow", near Gallows Hill shortly after 1:30 p.m. on June 25, 1914.  At that time, one half of available firemen in Salem were at dinner, leaving just 9 men to respond to the scene.  Engine 4 was the first to arrive and connected to a hydrant close to the point of origin of the fire, but heat from the fire quickly caused the responders to retreat.  Engine 3 arrived shortly after and connected to a different hydrant, only to learn it was defective, and they too, were forced to retreat from extinguishing efforts.  The fire began to gain headway and continued to spread.  By 1:55 p.m. calls for out of town help were sounded and the fire quickly reached conflagration proportions.  Over the next 13 hours, the fire "swept across the city, widening as it progressed and extending to include the factories in the opposite side of the city on the harbor front, stopping in its course not because of any human exertion, though the fire department fought most heroically against impossible odds, but simply when there was nothing more to burn in that direction.  The burnt district was approximately half a mile at the widest part and a little over a mile long.   The business portions of the city were untouched and none of the historic mansions so typical of Salem were even threated, the fire destroying, however, a number of very delightful houses, wiping out a densely built up district of tenements and low cost houses, and leaving nothing of the vast Naumkeag cotton mills.  Most of the structures were of wood, and after the fire practically nothing was left in the path of the conflagration except a multitude of precarious chimneys, the blackened towers of one church, the tottering walls of the Naumkeag mills and two buildings which only withstood successfully the conflagration, the Salem Electric Light building and a one-story mill store house."  (Report of the Advisory Architect to the Salem Rebuilding Commission, July 1 1917)   The fire was under control by 3:00 a.m. on the morning of June 26th, leaving more than  1792 buildings burned and more than 250 acres in ruin - approximately 1/3 of the city.  


The Salem Rebuilding Commission was created on July 8, 1914 and two days later had already hired Mr. C.H Blackall as Advisory Architect.  At the time of the fire, Salem had adopted only a fragmentary building code, but a draft of a new code was nearly complete.  On July 16th, a preliminary code was adopted.  Over the next weeks, revisions were adopted and on August, 20, 1914 a full building code for the burnt area was in place. 

One year after the fire - one hundred years ago this month - permits for 556 structures had been granted, including buildings to provide housing for more than 1200 families.   The Report of the Salem Rebuilding Commission later noted "[n]ot only is the new construction reasonably safe, but the fire department has been enlarged and improved, a new source of water supply has been provided, new engines have been placed at the pumping station, new equipment added to the fire department, a high pressure reservoir built and eighteen miles of iron water-pipe substituted for cement-lined ". 

The July 1915 issue of NFPA Quarterly included an update on Salem and provided an image of the 2-family brick cottages, illustrating one example of the modern structures being built in Salem.  Floor plans show the building provided 5 rooms and a bath for each family.    That same year the Fire Prevention Committee in Salem worked to raise awareness of fire dangers.  The "Member Activities" section of the October 1915 issue of the NFPA Quarterly includes a photograph of the Salem Fire Prevention Float  which depicts shingle roofs,  sloppy trash removal and careless discard of smoking materials as fire hazards.   "The man sitting on the stairs is smoking a cigarette.  By his foot is a wooden keg. There was an arrangement in this with a spark plug operated by a push button on the steps.  From time to time the smoker would apparently throw his cigarette into the tub, but really a little black powder, (pressing the button at the same time) so that it sent up a flare, to his apparent astonishment." 


By July 1917,  828 buildings, about 65% of the burnt area, had been rebuilt, providing housing for more than 1800 families.  The Advisory Architect noted in his report "There is a noticeable absence of overcrowding, or of jerry building, and there is practically none of the kind of work which before the fire was almost the rule beyond Lafayette Street, and while exact comparative statistics have not been obtained, there is hardly a doubt that the 828 buildings are collectively worth more than the 1972 which were destroyed".

The Charles S. Morgan Library supports the research activities and maintains the archive of NFPA.   We have several pamphlets relating to the 1914 Salem Fire including The Salem Conflagration by Franklin H. Wentworth and The Report of the Salem Rebuilding Commission.  Learn more about the Library and Archives, our resources, and services.