Notes from the Wharf

Welcome to my blog! I named it “Notes from the Wharf” because I love walking out to the end of Central or Derby Wharf and getting some perspective (literally and figuratively) on Salem.

View of the shore from Central Wharf

From the perspective of the wharf, I can glimpse the interwoven nature of the city’s past, present, and future. The 1819 Custom House represents the last hurrah of the vast shipping industry that existed here, as well as the moody malaise that overtook Nathaniel Hawthorne around 1846-1849 when he worked there alongside aged, salty sea captains who’d lived through the Great Age of Sail.

1819 Custom House

Wonder boy “King” Derby’s 1768 first mansion sits close by on the right, while further toward the right sits St. Joseph Hall, one of the largest monuments to the vibrant Polish immigrant neighborhood that Derby Street once boasted in the early days of the 20th century. Still further down the street named for Salem’s maritime king stands The House of the Seven Gables, a solid first-period colonial reminder that the seventeenth century and its Puritan colonizers are yet part of the city’s identity. In fact (as part of a long and winding story) the Puritans remain the origin point of our “Witch City” reputation.

1668 House of the Seven Gables

Looking to the left of the Customs House now, my gaze lingers on the friendly-looking 1810 federal-style brick Brookhouse Home for Women, founded in 1861. The house itself originally belonged to Benjamin Crowninshield, whose name triggers all kinds of interesting stories of a truly interesting Salem merchant family. Like so many beautiful buildings in Salem, this one bears the visual evidence of famed architect Samuel McIntire.

When my eye really travels left, past the National Park Service store Waite and Pierce, things get even more interesting. Sea Level Oyster Bar comes into view, then shops and apartments lining Pickering Wharf, and then, turning my body left to follow my gaze, Shetland Park. It was here that the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company once stood, rebuilding Salem’s economy after its shipping days had ended, attracting the Polish immigrants who came to settle in the historic Derby Street neighborhood just down the street.

Keep in mind, I am biased, but where else can you gaze at a beautiful National Historic Site through the window of an Oyster Bar? It’s the juxtaposition of Salem’s hundreds of years of stories that fascinate me. It is that juxtaposition between past and present that drew me to become a resident here, and fuels my curiosity as a tour guide and researcher. Salem’s natural geography predicts its historical and social geography, with the edge between land and water, water and sky, past and present constantly moving and shifting.

Salem’s natural geography predicts its historical and social geography, with the edge between land and water, water and sky, past and present constantly moving and shifting.

As days pass and my own Salem story lengthens and deepens, I walk to the end of the wharf and the colors of the water and sky change, the wind direction (and force!) changes, the tide changes, the length of day changes. Sometimes my head is tucked down because it’s cold or really bright; sometimes my head is lifted up toward the sky and I’m breathing the beautiful East wind coming off the harbor. The very next day the experience will change, and that too, is why I love Salem.

The tours I like to give in Salem are conversational, a chance to gather with others and learn about the landscape we’re walking through and the people who have walked here before. Like many others, I experience history as a series of stories that we tell ourselves individually and as a community over time. We’re constantly in conversation with those stories consciously and unconsciously, and they shape what we do in the present. Likewise the way that we tell those stories and internalize them now shapes our perception of the past and the way we continue to tell and relate to those stories.

Boundary between shore and sea, Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The boundary between past and present is thin, is what I’m saying… and it moves. And our own relationship to that boundary likewise moves it. Hence, my fondness for the perspective from the wharf. And, not surprisingly, for the word “dynamic.” 🙂

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