On Thursday, June 24, 1914, a fire started at a the Korn patent leather factory in Salem, Massachusetts, and quickly spread across the city of about 45,000 people.

By the next day, 18,000 people were rendered homeless, jobless, or both, 47% of them French Canadian immigrants or their descendants. The National Guard (sometimes then called the Militia) turned Forest River Park into a relief camp for many of those French Canadian survivors.

“Photograph by M.E. Robb of Forest River Camp, summer 1914, negative #4606, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.”

Guided Primary Source Questions 

  • First, look at this primary source. Who made it? How do you think it came to be? What can you learn just by looking at its form
  • Second, what can you learn about the experience of being a Salem Fire survivor by looking at this picture? What do you think it was like to spend the summer at the relief camp at Forest River Park? How does it compare to your situation now?
  • Third, look at the woman in the center foreground of the photograph. What is she doing? Why do you think she’s doing it? What do you think it tells you about the history of public health that she is depicted that way?

Additional Primary Sources 

  • For more primary sources about the Salem Fire, see these digitized collections at Salem State University’s Archives and Special Collections.
Jacob Remes is a Clinical Associate Professor of History at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and associated faculty in the Department of History. He studies and teaches the working-class and labor history of North America, with a focus on urban disasters, working-class organizations, and migration. His book, Disaster Citizenship: Survivors, Solidarity, and Power in the Progressive Era (University of Illinois Press, 2016) examines the overlapping responses of individuals, families, civil society, and the state to the Salem, Mass., Fire of 1914, and the Halifax, N.S., Explosion of 1917.