The Willows in the Aughts

Inspired by my student’s paper and Maurice Prendergast’s painting below, and hoping for a bit warmer weather, here are some views of Salem’s seaside amusement park, the Willows, during its golden heyday at the turn of the last century. Formerly Salem Neck, the site of a smallpox hospital (for which its namesake white willow trees were planted around 1801, with hopes of creating a tranquil convalescent setting) and adjacent farmland, the Willows became a municipal park in 1858 and was further developed and expanded with arcades, “Restaurant Row”, and adjacent vacation cottages from the 1870s.  Two maps below, from the early and late nineteenth century, show its early development and connection to the main part of Salem.  The first map, from the Norman B. Levanthal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, shows an almost completely rural Salem Neck in the upper right hand corner while the second, from the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum via Salem State’s grant website Salem in History, illustrates a much more connected Willows.

The Salem Willows Amusement Park never rivalled the larger Coney Island-esque parks like Revere Beach to the south and Old Orchard Beach to the north, but it was an extremely popular local recreation destination for factory workers from nearby Lynn and the Merrimack Valley, who would take the train to Salem Station and then hop on one of the horse-drawn trolleys which travelled to the Willows every 15 minutes or so in the summer.  Once there, they found restaurants and picnic grounds, beaches for sunbathing, arcades, a casino, and the Pavilion, “flying horses” (a carousel) and an open-air theater, outgoing steamships, and lots and lots of people:  by several estimates as many as 10,000 a day on a summer weekend.  Much of the recreation that occurred at the Willows seems to have taken the form of promenading, a nice old-fashioned word (and activity) that is very well captured by Maurice Prendergast’s 1904 painting Salem Willows, the alternative title of which is Promenade, Salem Harbor.
Like Prendergast’s painting, postcards from the era (which must have been issued in the thousands, so many survive) convey the spirit of lazy, breezy promenading (by well-dressed people!) under the Willows.  Here is a sampling, all from just the 1906-1910 period. 
This last picture, from 1910, is prescient of things to come:  the automobile will certainly change the Willows in a myriad of ways over the coming century: bringing about the end of its strictly summer identity and the creation of year-round neighborhood of Salem.  While few of its turn-of-the-century structures still stand today, the Willows Park maintains a seasonal and somewhat timeless air about it, but adjacent Juniper Point has changed quite a bit, evolving from “tent city” to cottage colony to year-round residential community.

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