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More than the Witch City; Touring my favorite Maritime Age sites in Salem Massachusetts

Updated: May 15, 2023

Rekindled History's Picks

Captain Simon Forrester House on Derby Street next to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site

c1790 Captain Simon Forrester House. Salem's Maritime Age wealth left behind grand mansions of early America's wealthiest families.

Salem's original claim to fame, before nearly 1,000,000 people crammed the streets in 2022 for the month of October for all things Witches, was its Maritime Age. By around 1800 Salem peaked as the wealthiest city per capita after the founding of the United States from a period of profitable international trade. The effects of this wealth are to be seen all around the city; as the landscape and architecture of Salem (what you see when you visit) was forever shaped by this era of sail and trade. This is a small list, and by no means a comprehensive one, of my favorite Maritime Age sites in Salem.

Once the Revolutionary War was won, the United States was barred from returning to its original trade with the British West Indies (various islands in the Caribbean Sea including the Bahamas and Jamaica). Salem merchants set their sights much farther; to the Far East. The Derby family sent out an exploratory mission with the ship Grand Turk which would eventually reach China in 1785 and return with Chinese porcelain, teas and silks. This voyage would mark the start of the grandest era for Salem.

Old Spice and Salem Grand Turk origins

In addition to the trading of Chinese goods was the trade with India and Sumatra (now known as Indonesia). Textiles and spices were the major exports. In 1797 a ship containing nearly 150,000 pounds of black pepper arrived in Salem from Sumatra. Once word got out, so many merchants descended upon the country that a tale from the time goes; that a Sumatran merchant, seeing so many Salem ships before him remarked 'Salem must be such a great country to have so many ships'.

So much trade commenced with the East Indies that the City of Salem seal (shown below), adopted in 1839 and still used today, depicts a Sumatran man with the tall ship Friendship (known as an East Indiaman) in the background.

City of Salem Massachusetts Official Seal

The scroll beneath the image reads "Divitis Indiae usque sinum" in Latin. Translated, it means "To the Farthest Port of the Rich East".

a variety of pepper types imported to Salem during the Maritime Age

A variety of peppers. In the bottom right are the common dried black peppercorn berries (they're a berry) that is the original form of pepper that is dried, but is shown before it's ground into the pepper that commonly sits on our table next to the salt shaker.

All this wealth into Salem led much of the city to be overturned; updated to the current style of the day. Many of the old 17th and 18th century homes; remnant of the Witch Trials or British rule, were demolished and replaced or renovated thoroughly to the new Federal Style. Whole swaths of the city were turned over to usher in an era of prosperity the city has never seen since.


The Maritime Age in Salem

What sites and ideas best represent the influence of this era?

Salem Maritime National Historic Site

National Park Service Salem Maritime National Historic Site shows Derby Wharf sail loft and tall ship friendship
Derby Wharf at NPS Salem Maritime Historic Site

This is where it all happened. Wooden platforms built into Salem harbor were the docks of the trading vessels that unloaded the worldly goods attained on the multi-year voyages. The site today is a small slice of the original harborfront that has preserved four wharves; Central, Hatch's, Derby, and Tucker's wharf. Derby Wharf is the largest of the four as it extends a quarter-mile into Salem harbor. The Friendship, a 1993 replica of a 1797 East Indiaman is docked at Derby Wharf next to a relocated Sail Loft building. This building and ship are the replicated remnants of many more than used to line either side of the whole length of the wharf originally.

Federal Style 1819 Custom House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site

Custom House c1819

Opposite Derby Wharf, across Derby Street, is the United States Custom House built in 1819. It's a prime example of the Federal Style in architecture. Here, the import taxes were collected on the unloaded goods by the Collector of the Port. Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as Surveyor of the Port here in 1846-48. His office was up the steps, behind the two windows to the left of the front door.

The brick and wood houses on either side of the Custom House are also prime examples of the Federal style (3-story square houses) or the Georgian style as seen through the Derby House. Brick was a very expensive building material, and the prevalence of brick buildings in Salem is proof of its wealth.

Historic brick Georgian style Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site

Derby House. Photo by NPS

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, designated in 1938, was the first Historic Site under the National Park Service. The 9-acre site preserves 7 buildings along with the wharves and the Friendship.

Protip: As your exploring, take the little footpath that runs between the Derby House and the yellow Hawkes House; it will lead you to a remarkably well-preserved c1675 Narbonne House. This home started off as two rooms; a common house form for the 17th century. Even after 350 years, you can still see the original house rising above the smaller later additions.


The Salem Common aka Washington Square

There's no better example of Maritime Age wealth 'improving' the land to suit the city's new look than the transformation of the Common to Washington Square. Today the nine-acre plot of land is the green heart of Salem. Public events going back to the founding of the city took place here. Today you can lay out on the grass or under the shade of an elm tree and marvel at the grand Federal mansions of long-gone ship captains and merchants. That's today. Originally? It used to be a marsh. When the city was first established and house lots carved out, this land was set aside as Common ground for use by everyone; located on land not suitable to build upon. Grazing animals, public humiliation (being put in the stocks and pillory), and militia trainings would all take place on this wet land dotted with five ponds and low scrub. In the southwestern corner was the start of a creek that fed the tidal ponds from the ocean at Collins Cove. Today, Forrester Street takes the place of the creek.

A map of Salem and the Common in 1700

Above: A map of Salem in 1700 created in 1933 based off deed research and reconstruction. Colored overlay by me.

Below: Aerial view of Washington Square today. Colored overlay by me. Satellite image by Google.

google earth image of the Salem Common, Washington Square

The painting below shows the Common in 1637, you can see the wet marshy ground at the militia's feet.

Painting of the First Muster of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's East Regiment

This 20th century painting depicts The First Muster, the 1637 call to arms by the East Regiment militia for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This event has been recognized as the foundation of the United States National Guard and is recreated every year in late April.

In 1788, in response to the increasing wealth of the city and area, the prominent families of Salem raise money to 'improve' the Common. The small hills were cut down, ponds filled, and walkways created bordered by poplar trees. A wood fence with grand wood entrance gates carved by Samuel McIntire, the famed woodworker of Salem, greeted residents and visitors alike. The new grand park, renamed Washington Square in honor of George Washington, was forever debuted when artist George Ropes Jr captured it as it looked in 1808 on training day:

Salem Common on Training Day George Ropes Jr 1808

Salem Common on Training Day, 1808, George Ropes Jr. Peabody Essex Museum

Washington Square has changed a bit. The poplar trees were quickly replaced as their shallow root-system was no match for New England storms and they all toppled. The wooden fence and McIntire gates were taken down and replaced by the Victorian iron fence in 1850, which still stands today (but it's no match for modern cars and unfortunately frequently gets damaged).

A scaled version of the McIntire Arch was replicated in 1976 and recently restored to incredible glory.

Protip: Walk down Forrester street and trace the old Creek. The oldest house on the Common is the black house on the corner; the Ives House built in 1760. The rest of the homes were built after the improvement of the Common into Washington Square, mainly in the Victorian era. Their varied design and close-construction make for an visually-stimulating stroll.


Chestnut Street

Chestnut Street in Salem showing the Pickering Dodge House

Pre-Revolutionary War, the merchants and ship captains of Salem were living along Derby Street across from their wharves. Once the War was won and business picked up at their waterfront the wealthy families wished to move to a more peaceful environment. New options were weighed; along the route to the new Beverly Bridge on present-day Bridge Street in the northeastern corner of Salem or a patch of farmland in the West of Salem. Western Salem won out and the new road, Chestnut Street was laid out in 1796. The first houses were built in 1800 and quickly popped up along the street as Salem's high-society built their fashionable new mansions on a newly-developed part of town (the Salem Common was getting refashioned from swamp to grand park around this time as well).

Diagram showing when the houses of Chestnut Street in Salem were built

Some of the finest forms of Federal-style architecture in America are still preserved in nearly-original form on this street.

Protip: Take Botts Court that connects Chestnut to Essex Street. This tiny lane is a rare survivor of cart and footpaths that originally made up Salem's streets before wide streets were the fashion or required to meet auto traffic.


Federal Style Architecture

This is a category of architectural style that you'll experience all over town.

During the Colonial era before the Revolutionary War, the Georgian Style of architecture was all the rage. Developed out of the Baroque Style in England which took its cues from Classical Roman Architecture. Symmetry was key, generally of two stories with a 3/4 third story hidden behind a Gambrel-style roof. Heavy applied moldings were layered upon the facade creating a very busy show of wealth to anyone walking by.

The Federal Style, while the first style employed by the early-United States, was not of American origin. It's actually British (Scottish, really when you dig into it). Directly studying the Classical-era ruins of Greece and Rome, the Scottish Adams' brothers reigned in the ornamentation of the Georgian style by emphasising mass and symmetry with only select areas of the facade given to restrained molding use; main entry, roofline and around windows and doors were the few areas of importance. Proportion and scale was exhibited above all making imperfections harder to hide; requiring a special hand and eye to execute properly.

Pages of Asher Benjamin's pattern book showing the Federal Style

From the pattern book: The American builder's companion; or, A system of architecture, particularly adapted to the present style of building by Asher Benjamin, 1816

The Adams brother's designs were spread through pattern books, like Asher Benjamin's The American Builder's Companion that gave instructions for New England carpenters to correctly replicate the style. The availability of these books gave access to this new style to any eager carpenter without the requirement of them having to travel to Europe and study for years.

27 Chestnut Street Federal Style home in Salem

"27 Chestnut Street is one of the finest and most richly-detailed brick Federal style houses in Salem." MACRIS Listing.

The Federal Style's heavy three-story, 5-bay wide design (at least in the burgeoning Maritime city-centers like Salem) was a perfect representation of the early United States feeling of strength and empowerment. Material use played a large role in expressing this message; expensive brick was used for the entirety of many stately Federal homes on Chestnut Street and around Washington Square.

Salem has some of the best and grandest examples of Federal Style architecture anywhere in the world.

Protip: Take Botts Court that connects Chestnut to Essex Street. This tiny lane is a rare survivor of cart and footpaths that originally made up Salem's streets before wide streets were the fashion or required to meet auto traffic.


I hope you enjoyed the read! These sites just scratch the surface of what Salem has to offer with its nearly 400 years of history (it turns 400 in 2026). If you want to discover more of my favorite sites in town, check out the self-guided tour of Salem I put together. Thanks for dropping by,



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