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Historians' Corner - A firestorm where the Guard began: Great Salem fire of 1914

By Bill Boehm | National Guard Bureau | June 25, 2014

ARLINGTON, Va. - Salem, Massachusetts, possesses some of the richest history in the United States, owing to its early status as an international trading port on the Atlantic Ocean in the early days of the republic. Here, merchants exchanged goods with China and India as far back as the 18th century. This far-flung trade afforded Salem a lofty status and worldly presence throughout the 19th century within a medium-sized community.

Salem is also recognized as the birthplace of the National Guard, America's oldest military organization. On December 13, 1636, as proscribed by order of the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court, all able-bodied males from age 16 to 60 were required to assemble and train on a given date in the implementation of military tactics for the common defense of the community and the colony. "The First Muster" took place the following spring. When called upon, these militiamen would defend the lives and property in that community against domestic and foreign incursions. President Barack Obama recognized the establishment of the nation's first militia through executive order in January 2013.

Another more recent event of the early 20th century shaped Salem's existence. The Great Salem Fire, which started on June 25, 1914, endures as one of the most damaging urban blazes of the 20th century. Nearly 1,400 buildings burned over two days in this city of about 48,000. The event helped shape the evolution of modern fire prevention techniques and institute widespread safeguards to minimize the multiple risks of fires.

The Massachusetts National Guard, the product of the act that formed America's oldest military organization, played a key role during this milestone inferno. It performed its appointed tasks as a domestic response unit ready to respond in the face of disaster that struck the city of its origin.

The Korn Leather Factory at 57 Boston Street experienced a fierce explosion at 1:37 p.m. on a hot Thursday afternoon. This facility did not have any sprinkler system. Strong winds and dry atmospheric conditions served to have the Korn Factory flames leap to adjacent buildings, as the fire spread quickly throughout the afternoon. The flames moved southward toward other industrial buildings in the section of the city known as "Blubber Hollow" from early whaling days. Alarm bells rang shortly thereafter to summon the volunteer firefighting corps.

After the initial alarm was sounded, officers of Company "H" of the 8th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the Second Corps of Cadets based in Salem (now known as the 1st Battalion, 102nd Field Artillery, Massachusetts National Guard) happened to be drilling at the nearby community of Newbury that afternoon. The officers responded to the call relayed to them by telephone, traveling south by car from the drill site to lend their services. While those officers were in transit, privates and non-commissioned officers assembled at the Salem armory to prepare and assist in the relief efforts.

Sergeant C. D. Brown of the Hospital Corps Detachment of the Second Corps of Cadets and his squad of five men arrived at the fire before any other National Guard personnel. Some Soldiers established aid stations after their arrival at the scene. Among the officers, Lt. E.A. Rushford, surgeon of the Second Corps of Cadets, arrived at 5 P.M. from Newbury. Rushford started then to administer first aid stations. He established four dressing stations which shifted as needed, following the course of the fickle firestorm.

By 7 p.m., mutual aid came from fire departments located in 22 cities and towns in northeastern Massachusetts, including Boston, Beverly, Everett, Gloucester, Lawrence, Lynn, Marblehead, Peabody and Somerville. As was the case with the National Guard contingent from adjacent communities coming together when the alarms sounded, regional fire companies rallied to the aid of their neighboring city.

By the morning of Friday, June 26, 1,700 Massachusetts National Guard Soldiers were in Salem to lend assistance. This included 12 companies from the Eighth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment; four companies of the Second Corps of Cadets from Salem, as well as seven companies of the Ninth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. To compliment the larger units, the Commonwealth's adjutant general assigned a company of Coast Artillery Corps based in Chelsea and another company of the Naval Brigade from Lynn. This group was rounded out with one company of the Second Regiment, a detail from the First Corps of Cadets, a detail from the Hospital Corps and a detail from the Signal Corps.

The Salem Armory also became the relief headquarters and clearinghouse for the many fire victims, similar to the role that other armories would serve in other large-scale disasters. This served as a "command and control" center for the Guard units in coordinating the multiple assignments necessary to safely and effectively aid the other civilian relief agencies, as well as the fire and police employees.

The Massachusetts Guard published General Order No. 1 on the evening of June 25. This guided the flow of activity for the entire time of duty. It restricted access to the area that sustained the worst fire damage and placed Salem into four separate districts guarded by multiple companies. This ensured the area would be placed under a secure curfew, described as "semi-martial law." The restrictions allowed firefighters to fight intense fires still burning and ensured the prevention of unnecessary injury or criminal mischief.

A second general order dealt with logistical and criminal procedures. It designated one-way streets and, in the early age of automobiles in the United States, ensured that military and emergency vehicles had proper right-of-way to the affected city blocks. Looters would be shot on sight. Aside from one incident of a resident reentering the guarded area during the height of the operation, no other confrontations marred recovery efforts.

Refugee camps, food distribution, recovery

The First and Second Corps of Cadets commissary department oversaw the distribution of food at the Second Corps armory, with an estimated 2,500 people given food and coffee on the evening of June 26. For each of the following four days of June, Guardsmen issued about 6,000 rations. Into July, the food supply was turned over to the city's general committee in charge. In all, the cost of feeding the refugees amounted to $2,200 per day.

With hundreds rendered homeless, the Soldiers also managed the distribution of food and beverages at "breadlines" open in camp and park locations outside the fire perimeter. The Guard served in a prominent role supporting civil authorities and worked in unison with other relief organizations such as the American Red Cross, which tended medical stations in some of the four distinct tent cities located around the city of Salem.

Salem's celebrated historic district of Federal-era homes was spared from damage due to a change in the direction of the winds, yet the quantity of damage covered a section of asymmetrical city blocks that measured 1 ½ miles long by ½ mile wide. The south end of the fire zone reached the Palmer's Cove region that housed the Salem wharves.

After the fire had subsided on June 26, crowd control became an issue. Curiosity seekers from North Shore area communities traveled to Salem to view the damages for themselves. Photographs from June 29 published in the Boston Globe show what turned out to be thousands of people walking along city streets and viewing the damage. Although the fire was largely extinguished by this date, the companies from the Massachusetts Guard had another detail present to contain among the refugees and damaged property. Fortunately, no record of any disturbances involved the mass of people who wanted to view the damage.

Finally, after 12 days of duty to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the National Guard Soldiers received word that they were to be relieved at 8 p.m. July 7, 1914. The entire operation for the 1,700-man contingent cost the state $50,000.00 at that time ($1.1 million in 2014 dollars).

Given the magnitude of the fire, the casualty information reveals surprising data. Although 1,376 buildings burned in the blaze out of over 5,000 structures in the city limits, only three people died from the fire, although more than 60 people were injured. The stress in the resultant time after the event took place in the days following also attributed to other deaths in the city at the time. However, the effect was almost instantaneously devastating to the Salem economy: 18,000 residents lost their homes, 10,000 lost their jobs because of the ruined businesses.

Lessons learned; the city today

Given the physical demands of fighting a large fire and lack of mechanized equipment, the process of transitioning from this traumatic event is quite remarkable. The recovery effort lasted 12 days while the Massachusetts National Guard stood watch and administered aid to Salem.

The rebuilding process went forth after the community assessed the devastation. By February 1915, the city filed 353 building permits in the burned district appraised at $2.5 million. This helped the community regain its composure in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Also, improved vigilance regarding building codes, building construction, fire prevention systems, and other factors allowed the city to retain its unique character and many of its historic features. Today, the event's physical presence is seen chiefly via historic markers and among the events that commemorate the Great Salem Conflagration.

The Great Fire also marked the early stages of what would be larger demographic changes in Salem. Through the 20th century, Salem's industrial economic base evolved into one that saw the region become a tourist center and service-based economy for the burgeoning residential areas in Essex County. The large number of apparel and manufacturing plants, which typified so many New England communities of the Industrial Revolution years, largely disappeared from the area over successive decades. Salem's identity with the 17th century witch trials and its cultural heritage, displayed prominently at the Peabody Essex Museum and other sites, reflect the modern face of Salem in 2014.

The 1914 fire changed Salem greatly in 100 years since it occurred, but one of its earliest institutions, the National Guard, continues as a central part of the community at large and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, functioning through war, internal strife, natural and manmade disasters.