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Drawing on its near 400-year history, Salem rallies to fight pandemic

Refugees at the Milk Line after the 1914 Fire in Salem.
Refugees at the Milk Line after the 1914 Fire in Salem.Salem State University Archives and Special Collections, Nelson Dionne Collection

On June 25, 1914, an explosion in a leather factory caused a fire that went on to ravage a large section of Salem, destroying more than 1,600 buildings, and leaving a third of the city’s population homeless, jobless, or both.

The Great Salem Fire of 1914 is just one of many crises the city has weathered in a nearly four-century history that also has seen it tested by wars, epidemics, natural disasters, and economic crashes.

How Salem reacted to some of those episodes is the subject of a web initiative launched by the city April 13 in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

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Through stories and historic photos posted on a city webpage — preservingsalem.com/salemtogether — and on those of partner organizations, the project seeks to educate today’s residents about how the community rallied during other dark times, and give them hope it can happen again.

“The city is 400 years old [in 2026] and has certainly experienced some really horrible episodes in the past,” said Patricia Kelleher, Salem’s preservation planner. “The 1914 fire decimated a huge swath of the city and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic came just four years later.

“Trying to tell these stories of when the city came together to provide help to its citizens — whether food, shelter, clothing, or funding — there are some really inspirational stories of the past that can provide help now,” she added.

The online project, part of the #Salem Together online initiative to inform residents about COVID-19 resources, is a joint venture among Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem State University, the Salem News, the city’s public library, and local historians.

Each Monday through Memorial Day, a different historical event — or a series of similar episodes — is being explored on the site, with links to blogs and stories by other participants on the same theme.

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Driscoll conceived of the series, which to date has covered the 1914 fire, the Spanish Flu, and World War I.

Kelleher said Salem’s most famous crisis ― the Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and 1693 — is not included because “that story has been told very well and exhaustively in the past,” but the story of a smallpox epidemic preceding that period may be added later.

Brian Kennedy, director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum, said that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Driscoll asked him “to give thought to how we might help provide the community with a spiritual uplift during the crisis.” He said the museum’s participation in the project was part of that effort.

“The idea of taking a message of hope from the past and sending it into the present, that’s great,” Kennedy said, noting that the museum has also posted a giant banner on its historic East India Marine Hall, reading, “Hope Anchors the Soul.”

The history web page recalls that within days of the 1914 fire, a local committee was established to coordinate relief, with churches, the Boy Scouts, and local lodges and societies all participating. Tent camps were set up for the homeless, and volunteers served food and distributed clothing.

Similarly, during the 1918 flu epidemic, the Sisters of St. Chretienne offered their building for use as an emergency hospital.

“It’s inspiring what people have done for each other,” said Susan Edwards, Salem State University’s archivist and a project participant. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a major disaster so residents today don’t realize that people were doing this in the past. We rallied around each other then, and we can do that now.”

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John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.