I first visited Salem, Massachusetts several years ago. All of the guidebooks warned that it was a commercial mess, focused on the witches in American history, specifically the Salem witch trials of 1692. Admittedly, I had absolutely no interest in witches but decided that Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the nation’s first National Historic Site, might be worth seeing. I was captivated by this historic city full of restored homes from various centuries, where the waterfront recalls a rich maritime heritage of a port that once ruled the Far East trade.
The 1819 imposing brick Custom House dominates the scene with its striking white cupola and carved golden eagle, signifying the presence of the U.S. government. Up to twenty-four employees worked there, collecting duties, inspecting incoming shipments, and managing the commerce. Salem native, author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was son of a sea captain and worked in the Custom House for three years as Customs Surveyor. He wrote one of most famous works The Scarlet Letter directly after his time there and even wrote an introductory essay about the building in the book.
The historic waterfront on Derby Street today looks much like it did 150 or so years ago, thanks to the National Park Service, only lacking the bustle of a seaport. With some imagination a visitor can picture Salem’s more than thirty wharves. Derby wharf, the longest in town, remains. A maritime museum should not be without a ship. Anchored at Derby wharf is a full-size replica of a three-masted, square-rigged ship Friendship, built in Salem in 1796-97 to travel to the East Indies.
The Derby House, oldest brick home in Salem, sits one building away from the Custom House and is part of the Park. Merchant Richard Derby built the house in 1762 for his son, within sight of his wharf and warehouses. Another house interpreted by the Park Service is the Narbonne House, one of the oldest houses in Massachusetts, dating to around 1670. It provides a glimpse into a tradesman’s life.
Salem’s golden age was between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, but the port remained busy until declining at the end of the nineteenth century. Salem was the only large New England port to escape capture by the British during the Revolution. This is surprising given its role as a privateering center. Its grand total of 158 privateering vessels captured 445 British ships, more prizes than any other American seaport.
The city has pulled me back several times and there are still places to see. I still haven’t visited the largest museum in town, the Peabody Essex Museum, an institution whose roots go back to 1799 and whose first collections were the exotic treasures brought back by Salem’s sea captains.
I’ll catch that on my next visit. Oh, and then there’s the House of the Seven Gables. And I’m sure the historic cemetery is worth a visit, too.
[Did you notice that my blog masthead photo is a detail of the Custom House?]