Three wharves, the Custom House, and several historic residences and stores are the only remnants of Salem's glory days as a prosperous eighteenth-century maritime center on Massachusetts Bay. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, designated in 1938 to recognize Salem's contribution to the fledgling U.S. economy, recalls the time when Salem was a lively port with 50 wharves. When a ship returned from a trip to the Far East, Salem's streets filled with sailors, businessmen, tradesmen, and fancy women, breathing in the heady smells of cinnamon, pepper, cloves, coffee, and tea.
©National Park Service
The Salem Maritime National Historic Site recalls the time when Salem was
a bustling center of trade and commerce.
The nation's third-oldest settlement, Salem began as a fishing village in the 1630s. Shipowners soon realized that shipping goods was much more profitable than catching fish, and by 1643, Salem ships were carrying English cod and lumber to the West Indies and returning with molasses, rum, and exotic goods. Among the most profitable goods unloaded at Salem's wharves were spices, tea, sugar, ivory, and coffee. Luxuries such as fans, ivory carvings, cotton fabrics from India, and Chinese silks were found in many Salem homes.
Salem's shipping industry was so successful that it was known as the "Venice of the New World," and some foreign traders thought the city was a sovereign nation. During the Revolutionary War, Salem privateers harassed British ports and pirated weapons and supplies for the Continental Army. Salem was one of the few important ports never to fall into British hands.
Salem's boom years ended when Jefferson imposed an embargo on shipping to and from England and France in 1807. Salem never recovered from the loss of business and was unable to compete as many new ports entered the market. The last square-rigger left Derby Wharf in the early 1890s.
That historic wharf still extends into Salem Harbor, with an 1871 lighthouse at its tip. At one time, 14 warehouses lined the wharf. Several Salem warehouses survive, including the Bonded Warehouse, where visitors can see original barrels of rum and chests of tea, and the Central Wharf Warehouse, which is now the visitor center.
Government workers, including American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, collected taxes and issued permits at the two-story brick Custom House, built in 1819. The 1829 Scale House contains antique devices used for weighing and measuring goods from ships.
Three historic houses are open for tours, including Hawkes House, used as a warehouse for goods captured by privateers during the Revolutionary War; Narbonne-Hale House, built in the seventeenth century as a home and shop for craftsmen and tradesmen; and Derby House, built for wealthy merchant Elias Hasket Derby in 1762. Visitors can shop for teas, spices, Chinese porcelain, Indian fabrics, and other goods representative of 1830s trade at the restored West India Goods Store.
His ship, Grand Turk, was the first Salem ship to sail beyond the Cape of Good Hope, opening up the East to China. As new trade markets were opened, American farmers, fishermen, and tradesmen produced more goods to keep up with world demand, and former luxuries such as tea, coffee, and pepper became common American household goods.
Merchants like Derby touched the lives of all Americans by bringing the goods of the world back home.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site Information
Address: 160, 174, and 193 Derby St., Salem, MA
Hours of Operation: Daily, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., except January 1, Thanksgiving, and December 25.
Admission: To enter historic buildings or go onboard the tall ship Friendship:
- $5 for adults
- $3 for children ages 6 - 16 and for seniors 62+
- Free for children under 6
Learn more about these other national historic sites:
To learn more about national national monuments, memorials, and historic sites, and other travel destinations in North America, visit:
- National Monuments: Learn more about America's national monuments.
- National Memorials: Discover national memorials in the U.S.
- National Historic Sites: Read about American national historic sites.
- Boston City Guide: Find out where to stay, what to do, and where to eat when you visit Boston.
- Massachusetts State Guide: Learn about Mobil Travel Guide-rated hotels and restaurants in Massachusetts as well as other recreational activities.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.