Going Ashore

Economic necessity has forced Salem, like all of coastal Massachusetts, to innovate continuously. And the city has responded with an impressive string of achievements, including a talent for interpreting itself to visitors. Maybe the city is so good at incorporating its past into its present because it's been at it so long.

As early as 1799, shipmasters engaged in trade with the Pacific formed the East India Marine Society; among the Society's projects was to collect and display artifacts from the lands they visited. The Society has evolved (splendidly) into the Peabody Essex Museum. Nathaniel Bowditch, the founding father of American navigation, was an early president of the Society, and is himself now the subject of a PEM exhibit.

Throughout the 19th century, Salem residents created a number of milestones that go largely uncommemorated in town. Naumkeag Cotton Mill (established 1848, across from Pickering Wharf) invested maritime wealth into one of the country's earliest (first?) steam-powered textile mills. The writings of Hawthorne are well known, but his footprint in town is small.

Alexander Graham Bell was a Salem resident, when in 1876 he received US Patent #174465 for the invention of the telephone. A plaque outside the Lyceum describes "the first long distance call" from Salem to Boston made later that year. Parker Brothers got its start here in 1883, and introduced its blockbuster Monopoly, manufactured in Salem, during the Great Depression. Their plants were bulldozed in the 1990s.

I'm guessing that Salem took a decisive step towards its modern configuration in 1938, when the National Park Service came to town. That year, key pieces of the waterfront became the nation's first National Historic Site, and Salem was officially in the business of tourism.

Ten years later, the 17th century home of a witch-trial judged opened as a city-owned museum, and Salem added witches to its business plan. Nowadays, witch-themed attractions run from the quirky paraphernalia shops, to the kitschy dungeons and waxworks, to the inexcusable Elizabeth Montgomery "Bewitched" statue.

What does this all mean for the visiting sailor? Salem has managed pretty effectively to blend an economy that leans on tourism with the day-to-day workings of a real town. There's a healthy smorgasbord of attractions, dozens of basic coffee shops, sandwich or pizza spots, plus more top-rated restaurants than any town on the north shore, alongside all the practicalities. And since much of the modern downtown has grown within the perimeter of the old seaport, it's an easy walk from the harbor.

house of seven gables roofline
Geoff Rand
The House of Seven Gables.

One Hour Ashore

A walk from the harbor up through the historic district, including Essex, Federal and Chestnut streets, passes simple wood-framed houses and shops, larger residences of shipmasters and merchants, and some truly impressive brick mansions, spanning nearly 200 years of prosperity in Salem.

For a more focused time close to the harbor, you can tour the "House of Seven Gables" or the Custom-House by Derby Wharf.

Off the Beaten Path

Winter Island is a city park at the mouth of the harbor. In the early years of settlement it was used for drying fish and in 1799 the frigate Essex was launched from its shores. Today there are picnic areas, remnants of old forts and a disused Coast Guard Air Station.

Maritime History

The Peaboby Essex Museum states flatly that it's collection of maritime art and history "is the finest in America." However fruitless it may be to adjudicate among the nation's elite collections, you won't find one that's clearly better. Like the hajj, a visit here is something to which every devout sailor aspires.

For an online taste, their Roux Sketchbooks offer a glimpse of the collection's richness, along with a really nice piece of web design, circa 2005.

Rainy Day

With art, architecture, history, movies, pubs, shops and restaurants, Salem has a weeks worth of unique attractions. It's an ideal place to wait out bad weather.

hip roofed house
Geoff Rand
Salem abounds with exemplary houses in the Adam ("Federal") style that was fashionable in the years of her great prosperity.

Facilities

  • Launch
  • Dinghy
  • Showers
  • Restrooms
  • Trash
  • Info

The Water Taxi and Hawthorne Cove provide launch service for their mooring customers.

Both marinas have showers, restrooms and trash facilities.

The National Park Service has an orientation building at the head of Derby Wharf.