The Salem “Heritage” Trail needs more…..Heritage

It is pretty well-known here in Salem that the Red Line that runs though downtown, the official “Heritage Trail”, is more representative of commerce than history. It encompasses heritage sites like the House of the Seven Gables, the Corwin (“Witch”) House and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, but also more dubious enterprises like the Salem Witch Museum, the Salem Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, with no discernment. There are no standards along the Heritage Trail: the Peabody Essex Museum with its vast collections, blockbuster exhibitions, and professional staff and the Witch History Museum, a storefront shop which lacks collections, curators, and content, have equal status in terms of their roles as provisioners of “heritage”.  According to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), a museum is a nonprofit institution, which maintains, interprets, and exhibits its collections for the public good. As Salem’s witch museums are for-profit enterprises, which maintain no collections and offer their performances and “exhibits’ exclusively for their private gain, I don’t think they qualify as museums under the professional definition: I prefer to refer to them as “experiences”.

Museum Collage A Tale of Two Museums; Alvin Fisher’s View of Salem from Gallows Hill, 1818, Peabody Essex Museum, and the Gallows Hill exhibit at the Witch History Museum (Of course now we know that the victims of 1692 were hanged at Procter’s Ledge rather than Gallows Hill).

Of course, people are free to choose whatever experiences they would like, but if tourists stick to the Red Line they are going to be missing out on much of Salem’s heritage. And they do stick to the Red Line, believe me: I followed several groups of tourists the other day (on the hottest day of the year) as they walked along it with great dedication, all the way from the Salem Witch Museum to the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, bypassing several sites which are related to the real history of the Witch Trials: St. Peter’s Church, under which the body of Philip English lays, the Howard Street Cemetery, adjacent to where Giles Corey was pressed to death, the former sites of Bridget Bishop’s house and orchard, the Salem Jail and Court House where the accused witches were held and tried. The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum removed the plaque which marked the spot of the original jail and affixed it to their building, so now they “own” that history. The imprimatur of the Red Line makes it official.


Plaque on the Witch Dungeon Museum along the Red Line; the second, smaller plaque was added a decade later than the first.

The problem with the existing Red Line/Heritage Trail is not just its presentation of an incomplete and often-shoddy history of Salem. Because it is so obviously inadequate, it has led to a form of cultural “segregation”: other organizations, chiefly the National Park Service in collaboration with local groups, developed alternative walking trails to fill the gaps: architecture tours, a maritime tour, a tour featuring sites related to Salem’s African-American history, and a Hawthorne tour (you can download all the brochures here). There are also a wide range of commercial tours, which seem to have multiplied dramatically over the past few years. Visitors to Salem can have quite a different experiences depending on their degrees of preparation, resourcefulness, and curiosity. I also think that Salem’s reputation has suffered by comparison with the other Red Line (what I have often heard called the real Red Line), Boston’s Freedom Trail, which does not include commercial sites.

Salem has been a tourist destination for a long time, over a century, and we could learn from our past projections. The map included in my favorite old guidebook, What to see in Salem (1915) projects a route that is not dissimilar from today’s Heritage Trail in terms of geography, but exhibiting very different priorities: public places rather than private enterprises, an integrated city of real museums, sites associated with Hawthorne and the Revolutionary War as well as the Witch Trials, colonial and Federal houses and gardens. The problem with the 1915 route is immediately apparent, however, especially if you compare it with the current Heritage Trail map: no one stood to make any money.

What to see in Salem map 1915

What to see in Salem text 1915

Red Line Map 2016

Map and Key from What to see in Salem (1915) and current Heritage Trail Map, available here–all the numbers refer to local businesses and the museums, real and faux, are in text. Judging by font size, the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre looks like the place to go! (But it’s never open, except in October).

18 responses to “The Salem “Heritage” Trail needs more…..Heritage

  • derrickjknight

    Fascinating. There is a village called Burley near us in UK’s village which is famous for its witches. The whole tourist economy is based on it. It comes from the story of one woman who was thought to be a white witch and emigrated to America anyway.

    • daseger

      Thanks Derrick–I have heard of Burley but never been there. I’ve visited several towns and cities in Europe where there were witch trials, and none have turned themselves into ‘Witch Cities” to the extent that Salem has.

  • derrickjknight

    Sorry – should have read ‘UK’s New Forest’

  • Cotton Boll Conspiracy

    “The Salem Witch Dungeon Museum removed the plaque which marked the spot of the original jail and affixed it to their building, so now they “own” that history.” WTF?!? (Excuse my acronym.) How is this allowed?

    It’s not only misleading but would seem utterly deceitful. Of course, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by something calling itself a “witch dungeon museum.” Did Salem even have dungeons at any point?

    I’m all for free enterprise, but affixing plaques to add unwarranted credibility smacks of fraud.

    • daseger

      No worries–that was my reaction too! The old gaol had a dungeon, so that’s the basis of the museum in a completely different location–but that’s about it.

  • upatthevilla

    Nice job, Donna. I was gratified to see that the 1915 tourist map at least included the Pickering House and parts down at this end of town — you’d never know the Phillips House or Pickering House, or in some cases, even Hamilton Hall existed. Let’s go buy a t-shirt!

    • daseger

      I know—all the various histories of Salem–architectural, colonial, maritime AND witchcraft-related were much more integrated then–Love that 1915 tour.

  • Brian Bixby

    As an amusing aside, I used the 1930s WPA guide to New York City to try to tour the historical sites of Staten Island. It’s a very good guide, as many of those WPA guides were. But in the intervening decades, various groups had gathered about half the historic buildings from all over the island into one location! So our initial hunt was fruitless . . . until we stumbled across a reference to the historic district!

  • Liv

    Yes, it’d be great if there was a more integrative route – I still bristle every time I walk by the Dungeon Museum and families are encouraging their kids to take pictures in the stocks, smiles from ear to ear, laughing, and saying “that’s where they put the witches!” or some ridiculous statement like that. *sigh*

  • az1407t

    Interesting that the 1915 tourist map was put together a year after the Salem Fire, when whole areas of Salem were in ruins and large building projects were getting underway.

    • daseger

      It is, and there’s a little paragraph near the end to that effect. I think they wanted to emphasize that the “historic” part of Salem was still standing!

  • Nelson Dionne

    My wife, Bonnie Hurd Smith & I have been working steadily on finishing up our latest book.
    ” Salem Serves: Sites and Stories from the Military and Patriotic History of Salem, Massachusetts
    Included in the book is a newly assembled “Salem Military History Trail .
    It takes the book’s reader to all of the sites in the book. Use the link to learn about our planned series of a dozen or more books about little known ,, or long forgotten eras or story’s of local history.


    Thousands of Boy Scouts have ! It was thought out by Joe Neville,
    a Winthrop Scout Master in 1972. The trail began in Danvers, and ended in Salem. There was a patch, and a medal available to the
    Scouts who walked the trail. It was such a success, ( as well as a fund raiser for the troop that several other trails were developed. One was
    “The Leslie’s Retreat Trail” that ran from Marblehead to Salem.

    More publicity & learning may have resulted from this idea than any other.

    Another little known story, from Salem.

  • CC

    I’m glad I found this post – I have never visited Salem before and wanted to make sure I experienced some authentic history. The NPS website link is currently down, but I managed to scour the internet archives for the brochures you mentioned.

    • daseger

      Good! The NPS Visitor Center–and those brochures–are definitely the place to start but we really need a stronger presentation of all of Salem’s heritage to counter all the for-profit sites in this city. I’m going to put some walking tours up on the blog this summer, but in the meantime, there are digital sites (like Clio) that can give you a good overview.

  • John M. Switlik

    Great post. Gave me some research impetus with regard to an old question.

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