High Street

Generally the “High Street” of a city or town is a main street but this is not the case with Salem’s High Street which was named, I think, because it was literally a relatively high street which looked down towards Salem Harbor. It’s a short cut-through street today, and offers an instructive perspective on Salem’s architectural developments as seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth-century structures line its sidewalks. There are several really nice Georgian houses, a few Federal houses, and the first-period Gedney House, which is maintained by Historic New England as a study house. High Street was spared the obliteration by development of its neighboring street to the north, Gedney, and the obliteration by fire of its parallel street to the south, Endicott, though you can definitely see that the Great Salem Fire of 1914 cut a swath through its eastern end. Most of the street is remarkably preserved, even though in some cases it is through the fortification of asbestos siding. Unfortunately I only have a shallow understanding of the social history of High Street, but enough to know that it was the center of Salem’s African-American community in the earlier part of the nineteenth century and part of its Italian-American neighborhood a century later. That chatty diarist of the earlier era, the Reverend William Bentley, recalled an 1816 visit to “the square laying between Mill Street, High St., the Pickering Hill burying ground & the Mill Pond vulg[arly] called Roast Meat Hill. It was a mere pasture when I came to Salem. There is now a Twine factory & about 100 huts and houses for Blacks from the most decent to the most humble appearance.” (Bentley, vol 4, pp. 382-383). Less than a century later Salem’s Italian-American community built their own Catholic Church at the foot of High Street, St. Mary’s, which was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003 (you can see some of its beautiful interior here).

High Street looking up

High Street 1874 Atlas

High Street 10

Looking “up” High Street, the neighborhood in the 1874 Salem Atlas, #10, one of three Georgian Colonial houses on the street.

There are several interesting houses on High Street but I suppose the most “notable” are the aforementioned Gedney House (1665), the neighboring Benjamin Cox House (1775), and the William Fabens House (1804). If you check out the Gedney materials at the Historic New England website (which includes the 1912 photograph of the house below) you can see a gallery of wallpaper samples taken from the house, including a fragment of my favorite “tumbling blocks”. The Cox House was acquired at the same time (1967) as the Gedney by Historic New England (then SPNEA) for use as an overseer’s house and extended to the rear for that purpose. The Fabens house is one of the most unusual in Salem: it has brick sides, each with its own entrance, and a stuccoed front facade—I’m assuming the latter is a legacy of the Great Salem Fire, which passed so close to the street.Not so renown, but impressive nonetheless, is the circa 1820 house at #16, which has been stripped of its Victorian embellishments to reveal a more streamlined Federal facade.

High Street Gedney Facade

High Street Pan

Gedney House 1912 Historic New England

High Street Cox House

High Street Cox House Side View

High Street Fabens

High Street plaque

High Street no 16 collage

Historic New England’s Gedney and Cox Houses; one of the side entrances of the William Fabens House; No. 16 High Street in the 1970s and today.

11 responses to “High Street

  • bonniehurdsmith

    Mrs. Clarissa C. Lawrence lived at #8 High Street with her husband, Schuyler, a chimney sweep, and their son, David, a mariner, until 1855. Clarissa was one of the founders of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (1832), the first such organization in this country founded by African American women.

    In 1834, the Society became bi-racial. Lawrence served as vice-president; Mrs. Cyrus P. Grosvenor, wife of the Baptist minister, was president. They met in members’ homes. Imagine the contrast between meeting in the Lawrence home on High Street vs. houses in the McIntire District. But that’s what they did!


  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    Two comments come to mind with your interesting post: One, I love that older towns used to employ utilitarian names for their streets, such as High, Main, Water, etc., rather than the fancy but hollow names often given to new roads today.

    Two: I know next to nothing about colonial city planning, but I have a reproduction of an early downtown map of Portsmouth, N.H., that looks much like the diagram of Salem in your second image, and I’ve always been fascinated by the pell-mell manner in which streets were laid out. I don’t understand the reasoning, but the layout is interesting to ponder.

    • daseger

      You’re so right about street names….I particularly dislike those you see in housing developments. So fake and place-less. This area of Salem was laid out with respect to the water, and once the water was filled in, the layout didn’t make as much sense!

  • Maryann

    This is so timely! I walked around this street just a week or two ago because Bethany and I found a record from 1800 when Sabe Derby purchased property on High Street as a shopkeeper in partnership with a John Simmons.

    “…that I Judith Stickney of Salem in the County of Essex and Commonwealth of Massachusetts widow, in consideration of two hundred and fifty five dollars paid me by John Simmons and Sabe Derby both of Salem aforesaid shop-keepers (the receipt whereof I do hereby acknowledge) do hereby give, grant, sell and convey unto the said John Simmons and Sabe Derby equally, A certain piece of land in said Salem, bounded southwardly on high street thirty six feet, westwardly on land of Isaac Needham sixty three feet four inches, northwardly on other land belonging to me forty one feet four inches, eastwardly on a way leading from Gedney Court fifty two feet six inches to the bounds first, mentioned with the appurtenances.”

    • daseger

      Wonderful, Maryann–I’m so glad you commented–sound like it is one of the even-numbered houses as it borders Gedney Court. We’ll have to figure out which one it is.

  • Tom Miller

    I don’t have specific references for this but I do know that Eleazor Gedney purchased his lot from his cousin John Ruck in 1664. John Ruck had been granted this portion of land upon the proviso that he develop it. One of the conditions of development as I understand it was that he build a highway from Marblehead to the north bridge. High street was the part of the highway that extended from the water at its foot to the top of the hill and then turned right and led to the bridge over the North River.

  • Len Lantych

    Lived on Gedney CT. 1945-1949. Mother was raised in the Gedney house 1925-1942. Great grand parents owned the house on the coner of Pratt and High st. Rizzotti.

    • daseger

      Hi Len, Thanks for chiming in. How cool that your mother was raised in the Gedney House, and I imagine that this was a very close-knit neighborhood.

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    […] (from the shipbuilding sheds along Mill Pond who “knocked” wooden planks together) or Roast Meat Hill (origin unknown) and was the center of a small mid-19th century African-American community. Today […]

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