The Regional Review

Volume I - No. 1

July, 1938


By Edwin W. Small,
Acting Superintendent,
Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, situated in the old seaport town of Salem, Massachusetts, appropriately consists of wharves and buildings which were intimately associated with the era of Salem's most brilliant achievements on the sea. Among those achievements are to be found examples of all that is most typical of the American maritime story from the period preceding the Revolution to the years following the War of 1812. During the wars with the mother country Salem privateers roamed the high seas harrying British merchantmen and bringing into port those commodities that were needed to keep up the morale of the army and people, and, in peace, while the nation was yet struggling for very existence, the daring and resourcefulness of Salem merchants and shipmasters won for their country a commanding share of the world's trade and made Salem the most famous port of the New World.

The Site, including boundaries of wharves and docks, covers more than one mile of waterfront on Salem Harbor. Derby Wharf, a long finger which extends 2,000 feet into Salem Harbor, is the most important survival associated with the foundations of American foreign trade. It was the dock from which the swift and heavily manned privateers of the Derbys sailed in the last years of the Revolution and after the war was the starting and ending point of pioneering voyages for trade into the Baltic, Orient, and India. Central Wharf, which runs parallel to Derby Wharf but is only one-third as long, was built originally in 1791 as Forrester's Wharf by Simon Forrester, a Revolutionary privateering captain who became the foremost Salem merchant after the decline of the Derbys.

In recent years both Derby Wharf and Central Wharf have been severely damaged by tidal action. The former requires extensive rebuilding and the latter will have to be completely reconstructed. Since the decline of shipping nearly a century ago, when the clipper ship appeared and the foreign trade of every Massachusetts port was absorbed by Boston, any real incentive for maintenance and substantial repairs has been lacking. Entire sections of the stonewalls in Derby Wharf have collapsed, permitting the earth fill to be washed away, and the timber cribbing which rested on part of the walls has disappeared through process of natural decay and infection by marine borers. Central Wharf, constructed on both sides of wooden timbers supported by fender piles and filled in the center with earth, barely survives as evidence of its neglect.

Work now in progress under a grant of $110,000 from PWA is largely concentrated on the reconstruction of Derby Wharf. Since active operations were started in March the first unit of the Wharf reaching out over 600 feet from the shoreline to a jog has been very nearly completed. On the west wall 822 feet have been repaired in stone to an elevation of nine feet and capped with two feet of timber cribbing. On the east side more than 350 feet of thin wall built of small stones has been uncovered, braced by concrete backing and raised to an elevation of twelve feet. The thin wall, found by excavation, probably dates from 1784 when it is known that 667 feet of the east wall was finished at bottom in stone.

Of especial interest in connection with the work. on this wall was the finding on April 14 of an English gold coin, a guinea bearing the head of George III and the date 1776. Spanish silver dollars, a common monetary medium of exchange used in conducting the foreign trade of Salem before the advent of national coinage, have been found on Derby Wharf in the past, but not since the inception of the project.

The work at present being carried on at Derby Wharf and, it is hoped soon to be extended, Central Wharf is essential to the preservation of the wharves themselves and prerequisite to the revival, if desirable, of some of the buildings and ships which were part of the original setting. Five identical wooden warehouses, large barn-like structures arranged in a row and equal distances apart, were important details of Derby Wharf at the heyday of shipping. They were built by Elias Hasket Derby, his sons and sons-in-law and in addition to their use for storing tar, hemp, fish and the valuable exotic cargoes from the Indies were the locations of the counting-rooms where all business was transacted. At the head of Central Wharf, a brick storehouse remains, though somewhat altered, where John Bertram, the last great merchant and shipowner of Salem, conducted his business until 1859.

Restoration of these buildings is not so important to the development of the Salem Maritime Site as it might be elsewhere, for along Derby Street and across from Derby Wharf are several original structures which possess greater architectural merit and historical value than would the Derby warehouses. The most imposing of these is the Custom House, erected in 1819. Until Salem declined as a seaport in the 1840s, it was the scene of great activity and from the commerce of the busy port collected large revenues for the Government. Nathaniel Hawthorne served here as Surveyor of the Port from 1846 to 1849 and has left an inimitable description of the place and its surroundings in the introduction to the Scarlet Letter. Objects associated with his career as a customs officer are still retained in the Custom House and comprise material for a story around which museum exhibits are being planned.

No less significant than the Custom House is the Derby House, a superb brick dwelling where Elias Hasket Derby lived from 1762 until about the beginning of the Revolution. Completely furnished and restored, the House has possibilities of being one of the finest historic house museums in the country.

In the same group as the Custom House and Derby House are the Hawkes House, a three-story structure of the Federal period, and an early framed store building, typical of the Salem waterfront in the days of greatest marine activity. A small part of the PWA grant will be used for necessary repairs to the Derby House and Hawkes House and the erection of suitable protective and ornamental fences in front of them. As seen from the end of Derby Wharf these buildings will comprise a background as much in character with the past as the decks which line the foreground.

For more information about this subject, please refer to the NPS Popular Study Series #9.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002