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Salem Centennial

by Jen Ratliff on 2024-02-20T08:28:00-05:00 | 0 Comments

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“The 100th anniversary of American independence will be observed with much more than common ceremony throughout New England today. While Philadelphia is the focus of interest and the grandest celebration of the age will be held within her borders, every town and village will keep a home jubilee. Only one place is known where the day will not be publicly observed - Lynn, where a wrangle between the branches of municipal government has suppressed any official recognition of this Centennial time. Boston will have a varied and complete celebration, which promises to be worthy of the metropolis of New England. Worcester, Lowell, Salem, Lawrence, Taunton, and other large cities offer an interesting programme of exercises, and the new century of the Republic will be ushered in with a grand demonstration of popular and patriotic feeling.” – The Boston Globe (July 4, 1876)

The Centennial International Exhibition was held in Philadelphia from May to November 1876. The idea for the exhibition was presented in December 1866 by John L. Campbell to Philadelphia’s mayor, Morton McMichel. The initial plan was met with concerns about funding and how the event would compare to similar exhibits held in Europe. The city’s Franklin Institute signed on as an early supporter and Philadelphia’s City Council resolved in January 1870 to create a committee to hold a Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park in 1876. Although advertised as the nation’s key centennial celebration, municipalities throughout the country began planning their own festivities.

Centennial celebrations in Salem began in 1875 with the 100th anniversary of Leslie’s Retreat, the first armed resistance to British control which took place along Salem’s North River. The event was acknowledged that February with the ringing of church bells, cannon fire, and a 100-gun salute. The city’s public buildings were highly decorated in patriotic displays of flags and bunting. A gathering was held at the North Unitarian Church on Essex Street, where Mayor Henry L. Williams spoke of the many historic occasions witnessed in that very spot and Salem’s previous celebrations of independence. The state’s Centennial Commissioner, Dr. George B. Loring then gave a scholarly overview of Leslie’s Retreat and eulogized Timothy Pickering, for his involvement in the conflict at the North Bridge. The Boston Globe compared the event of Leslie’s Retreat to the lingering tension between North and South following the Civil War. A reporter wrote: “Is there not a lesson for us, today, in this evenly balanced judgment which held the scales so well?”

That July, the Essex Institute arranged a trip to Concord for Salemites to view historic sites and artifacts related to the Revolutionary War. The following June, they arranged a trip to Pennsylvania to view the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

In April 1876, a Centennial Ball was held at Salem’s Mechanic Hall on Essex Street. The event was organized by the Salem Ladies Centennial Committee. The evening’s guest of honor was Massachusetts Governor, Alexander Hamilton Rice. Crowds gathered outside that evening to catch a glimpse of the attendees as their carriages arrived. By 10 pm, more than 125 couples had flocked to the dance floor. Many of the guests wore family heirlooms or dressed in costumes and had powdered hair.

In May, a tree was planted in Salem's Harmony Grove Cemetery called the Cabot Centennial Tree. This may have been a reference to the “Liberty Tree” which stood in Boston and bore witness to gatherings of the Sons of Liberty. The Liberty Tree was cut down by loyalists and British troops in August 1775. A soldier was killed while attempting to remove a tree limb. The Essex Gazette wrote about the incident, saying: “Armed with axes, they made a furious attack upon it. After a long spell of laughing and grinning, sweating, swearing, and foaming, with malice diabolical, they cut down a tree because it bore the name of liberty.” A stone bas-relief was later placed in Boston at the corner of Essex and Washington streets, to mark the spot where the tree once stood. That corner is now known as Liberty Tree Plaza.

In July 1876, Salemites adorned their homes and businesses with flags and festive buntings in red, white, and blue. Triumphal arches were placed around the city to commemorate events such as Leslie’s Retreat and on streets named for local heroes of the Revolution. Signs were added to the city’s oldest homes to display the year in which they were built. Celebrations began on the 4th of July just after midnight with cannon fire, oil barrel bonfires, and parties which lasted until daybreak when the Antique and Horribles parade began promptly at 4:45 AM in Town House Square. The two-hour-long parade promised to pass through as many prominent streets as possible before the chief processional march led by General William Cogswell began on Salem Common. More parades followed, which included military, civic, floral, and trade organizations. The march spanned three miles and ended at 12:30 PM, in time for a cricket match held on the Common between the Alphas of Salem and the Albions of Boston. Approximately 10,000 people traveled to Salem for the day. The Eastern Railroad added additional trains to transport them within a 25-mile radius.

Many of the attendees were from Lynn, which canceled its official celebration due to disagreements within the city government. Residents held unofficial events that lampooned Lynn’s mayor and alderman as “unpatriotic city fathers.” The Boston Globe wrote, “All the hits were local, and some very excellent.” One event was a mock funeral in which a hearse and pallbearers carried a large coffin inscribed “City of Lynn, we mourn our loss and bury the appropriation.”

Back in Salem, musical performances and socializing downtown continued until the evening’s highly anticipated fireworks display, which was abundant and featured elaborate designs. The fireworks budget was exhausted at $4,000. (more than $115,000 in 2024) The Boston Globe lauded Salem’s centennial celebration as “the most extensive in this vicinity.”

Digitized Archives
Salem Centennial Photographs and Ephemera

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