I stumbled across the “first annual” Report of the Salem Plans Commission the other day, and read it with rapt attention. This was issued at the end of 1912, a time when the city’s population had experienced rapid growth and housing was in short supply, the waterfront was “decayed”, and downtown (trolley) traffic was at a standstill. There were startling parallels to Salem 2016 in the Report, starting with its opening assertion that Salem is known quite literally with a single tolerable entrance or exit and (possibly excepting Loring Avenue) we must admit that this is quite literally true, whether we travel by foot, carriage, automobile, trolley, train or boat. While the Commission asserts that Salem’s entrance corridors, called “gateways” in the report (a timely term now) all needed work, they are clearly advocating for more immediate attention to the city’s key transportation network: the combination of trains and trolleys that drove external and internal traffic. Salem’s main gateway was identified as the Boston & Maine Depot, and the arteries that commenced from there were apparently in dire need of widening and expansion in the forms of a”ring road”, a “shore drive”, and a street system. The entire report calls for a more systematic Salem in every conceivable way: roads, parks, housing, zoning.
Salem’s Gateway, 1912
The commissioners write with a very strong voice, one voice, and express stark opinions throughout their report: the congested wooden housing in The Point is a “fire menace” (a prescient observation, given it would be leveled by the Great Salem Fire in two years) which evolved through “selfish gain driven by public indifference”, the waterfront must be “redeemed”, the North River is a “stinking open sewer”. They are so assertive that what one would think would be a rather dry text makes for riveting reading!
The “Stinking” North River and “Billboard Adornment” on Bridge Street.
In order to achieve their vision for Salem, the Commissioners include lots of detailed recommendations which are both utilitarian and aesthetic. They are aware of the significance of Salem’s material heritage but I would not call them preservationists: if an old building is interfering with trolley traffic on a narrow street it’s got to go! They seem particularly focused on Central and Lynde streets as problematic for traffic flow, and their recommendations seem to be the inspiration for the consolidation of the former Elm and Walnut Streets into a widened Hawthorne Boulevard.
From above: Central Street looking towards Essex; the intersection of Washington and Lynde Streets; two views of the intersection of North and Lynde Streets; a trolley turning onto Federal Street; Elm and Walnut Streets.
I think Commissioner Harlan P. Kelsey was the author of the report, but I can’t confirm this as it was simply published by the “Plans Commission”. Kelsey was a really prolific landscape architect who lived in Salem (at One Pickering Street–this was the house that distracted me from Kelsey’s story to that of its architect, Ernest Machado) and, in addition to his landscape and planning practices, also maintained two profitable nurseries in his native North Carolina and adopted city. I’ve read his writing on plans and parks elsewhere, and it sounds familiar, and the last part of the Report is devoted to the shoddy condition of Salem’s shade trees—another timely topic!
Two Salem streets which the Commissioners actually LIKED for both their width and their trees: Broad and Lafayette. Both would be half-leveled by the Great Salem Fire in 1914.
All photographs from: City Plans Commission, First Annual Report to the Mayor and City Council, December 26, 1912. Salem: Newcomb & Gauss, 1913.
April 20th, 2016 at 9:36 am
Thank you for this wonderful research, Donna! The 1912 City Plans Commission Report is an impassioned argument for comprehensive transportation planning, more open space and improvements to Salem’s shoreline. Modern concerns.
In 1912 street trees were already stressed by elec. lines and poor maintenance. It’s miraculous that we still have a few large street trees and a nice inventory in Greenlawn Cemetery.
FYI Salem Sound Coastwatch has proposed re-establishing wetlands at Collins Cove and Furlong Park to prevent erosion and stabilize the shoreline (wetland plantings sink roots into salty soils). I’m hoping Barbara Warren’s proposal gets support and approvals it needs before the waters rise.
April 20th, 2016 at 10:34 am
It really was wonderful reading, I must say! Impassioned is the right word. Thanks for mentioning the Salem Sound proposal.
April 20th, 2016 at 1:59 pm
The commission members sound like good Progressives of their era. And no doubt many of their recommendations were ignored.
My own original home town (Groton) had a major planning commission with outside experts examine it in the 1960s. (It’s a small town; they couldn’t have used one back when Salem was doing theirs.) With an eye to the future, they recognized that commuter traffic flow was going to strangle the town. They did propose a solution, in line with contemporary thinking: build a major highway bypass north and east of the town center. It wasn’t built, primarily because the town was being “thrifty.” In retrospect, it would have probably killed off many downtown businesses and destroyed a lot of wetlands, not concerns that would have been apparent in the 1960s. But the town IS strangled by commuter traffic, morning and evening. So what to do? The answer, so far, has been nothing.
April 20th, 2016 at 5:57 pm
Groton is strangled by commuter traffic? On 119? This is how parochial I am! I guess all the suburbs–inner AND outer–are dealing with this problem now. I’m not sure there is a solution until we evolve into another type of transportation altogether.
April 20th, 2016 at 9:15 pm
Well, “strangled” can be a vague term, I admit, but I had trouble getting onto rt. 119 from Champney Street, at the north end of downtown Groton, for my morning commute as early as 1986. Since it’s the major road toward Boston between rts. 2 and 3, it’s not surprising. I’ve had to be up that way a lot this last year (parental care issues), and it seems not so much that the congestion has gotten worse as that it lasts longer; the afternoon rush hour seems to begin around 4 and not end until well after 6. By Cambridge or even possibly Salem standards it may not be so bad, but then 119 is built more like a country highway than a city one.
April 24th, 2016 at 3:05 pm
At least some of this report can be seen at the Walker Transportation Collection, located at the Beverly Historical Society. The archive has a massive collection of New England
rail, trolley , vehicle & aviation photos. I now that they have photos from the report that covered the railroad grade crossing eliminations in Salem’s downtown..
In my collection at the SSU Archive is a large amount of railroad clippings, photos, maps, etc. about the various problems Salem had due to the main rail line cutting the city in two every time a rain came
through.. It will make a great book, & it’s already in the early stages.!
June 14th, 2021 at 8:43 am
[…] engaged agricultural entrepreneur, Harlan P. Kelsey, a strong advocate for more energetic urban planning in Salem, undertook the landscape design. There was a grand historical pageant performed at the […]