Tag Archives: Tourism

Stepping off in Salem

I browsed through a few promotional publications issued by the Boston & Maine Railroad Company a century and more ago this past weekend and was reminded of just how integral the train was to Salem’s economic and cultural life at the time, and well after. In 1909 New England Magazine emphasized the former in an interesting article called “The New Salem” which charts Salem’s transition from seaport to manufacturing center: “its railroad facilities (it is on the main line, Eastern Division of the Boston & Maine railroad, and has direct lines to Lowell and to Lawrence, which are great coal-carrying roads), are unexcelled, for its manufactured products can be loaded into box cars and sent with expedition to any part of the United States, Canada, or Mexico, where standard gauge rails run, without transfer”.  Boston & Maine emphasized their economic role in slimmer, more ephemeral publications, but their illustrated guide books, highlighting the shore, the mountains, and “picturesque” New England, tended to focus on their ability to effect cultural connections. Down East Latch Strings; or Seashore, Lakes and Mountains by the Boston & Maine Railroad. Descriptive of the tourist region of New England (1887), Here and There in New England and Canada (1889), and All along Shore: a booklet descriptive of the New England coast (1907), all issued by the “General Passenger Department” of the Boston & Maine, were clearly oriented towards “the vacationist’s enjoyment”. These books have instructive descriptions of what the vacationist should look for in each town once he or she steps off the trains, wonderful illustrations, and great maps—I could look at these railroad maps forever. All trails seem to lead to Old Orchard Beach or North Conway, but there’s lots to see along the way—or on the way back.

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Train Touring DE LATCHSalem was one recommended stop along the eastern line up to Maine in the 1880s–but Old Orchard Beach was really the place to be in the summer. Bird’s Eye and route maps are always included and tipped in.

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Train Tour Map 1902

The chapter on Salem in Moses Foster Sweetser’s Here and There is a fascinating mix of past and (1887) present, with a slight reference to the witchcraft “delusion” and much more emphasis on the China Trade and Hawthorne: before the 1892 Bicentennial Salem hadn’t quite evolved into its Witch City identity. Sweetser refers to Salem as a “mother-city”, and notes its somewhat-faded grandeur as well as its current vitality: “Of late years there has sprung up a new Salem within the old, a metropolis for the adjacent populous towns of Essex South, with active manufactories, richly-endowed scientific institutions of continental fame, and a brilliant local society, made up in part of cultivated immigrés from Boston, who find here the choicest advantages of urban life in a venerable and classic city”.  I love this observation—it contradicts what I think is the mythology of a long decline for Salem and it also sounds like now (although the émigrés are coming more from Cambridge and Somerville than Boston).

Train Tour

Train Tour 4 The North and South Churches in Salem, and the “Old Witch House” in Here and There in New England and Canada (1889): I’m not sure the Witch House ever looked like this!

Sweetser departs Salem for points north “passing out from the castle-like stone station of Salem, the cars rumbling into the the long, dark Salem Tunnel, for half a century happily known as the “Kissing Bridge” of this route, and the locale of more than one bright osculatory poem”. Well there’s one avenue for further research—and once again I wonder, why did we tear our depot down?

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Harbor Views

Among my collection of Salem stereoviews I have very few of the coastline or harbor, preferring structures to nature, always. But Salem’s coastline–and especially its harbor–has been built almost from its founding as both a settlement and a working port, so I’ve started to look for some shoreline stereoviews. I haven’t had much luck in terms of items for purchase but the other day I dipped into the digital collections of the American Antiquarian Society and came up with several harbor views unknow to me–the only one I was aware of is the first one by Frank Cousins, the others are new (to me) perspectives. These are all undated but I think they are from the late 1880s and early 1890s: it is notable that I’m searching for “Salem Harbor” but finding very few images of the “working” harbor, which would have consisted of rotting wharves by this time. The images below portray a harbor of leisure: the Willows, beaches, docks for day trips. Salem was emerging as a tourist destination at this time because of its carefully-crafted history, but also because it could tap into the draw of the New England seashore. No one wants to see those old wharves at this time, but fortunately artists like Philip Little were capturing them for posterity.

Salem Harbor Stereoview Cousins “Pennsylvania Pier” by Frank Cousins, from his “Salem in 1876” series, which was published in the early 1890s.

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Salem Harbor Stereoview 7 Collins Cove “Collins Cove” is written on the back.

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Salem Harbor Stereoview Naugus Head “Salem Harbor from Naugus Head”.

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Salem Harbor Stereoview 3 This last view is the most rare and mysterious: no date, no photographer, no publisher. I think it is from the end of the Willows looking back towards Salem on the Beverly Harbor side but am not sure—any other ideas?

All Stereoviews courtesy the American Antiquarian Society.


Signs, Signs, everywhere a Sign

This summer I have given several thematic walking tours around Salem to various groups and have found myself looking at the city as a tourist might. One gets the impression of a very busy place, not just in terms of activities and traffic on the streets (which are nearly all torn up!) but also because of superfluous signage: I think Salem has a mild case of sign pollution. Recent efforts to streamline and standardize signs have resulted in some very nice “official” signs throughout the city, but many of the older signs from a more haphazard era still remain, and then we have the customary cases of Witch City exemptions. Here is a great illustration of what I mean: I took this photograph, but it was 100% inspired by a Salem Instagrammer who often captures interesting perspectives.

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A mixture of private and public signs on one Salem corner, and on one Salem street sign!

Attempts at sign conformity, emphasizing both information and aesthetics,are represented by the “Great Stories Begin Here” banner signs scattered throughout the city–which enable advertising through sponsorship–and the official signs which direct visitors to established heritage locations and neighborhoods.I think these stand out for the most part, except at certain locations where there are simply too many signs in close proximity.

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The worst cases of sign pollution by far are when public street signs have signs for private institutions affixed to them, as in the first photograph above. What are the signs for the Salem Witch Dungeon (which again, for the 99th time, I feel compelled to point out is not situated on the actual location of the former Witch “Dungeon” or jail) and the Gallows Hill Museum/Theatre (which is neither located on Gallows Hill or a “museum” or fully-functioning theatre) doing on public street sign? This is the Witch City exemption of which I spoke above: apparently witch “attractions” are allowed to affix their signs anywhere.

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A lot of information here, but we always know that all of the streets of Salem lead to the Salem Witch Museum!

Apart from these unfortunate mishmashes, there are quite a few notable business signs in Salem, which is perhaps a topic for another post. But I’ll leave you with my favorite old and (relatively) new signs, for Bunghole Liquors on Derby Street and Turner’s Seafood on Church Street. The Bunghole sign reminds me of days gone by, when a sign was the only way for businesses to draw businesses in, and subtlety was not an option.

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Witch City Vulcanizing Company 1917 SSU

Bunghole and Turner’s Seafood signs in Salem today, and the Witch City Vulcanizing Company on lower Lafayette in 1917, Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.


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.

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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).


Color Full Days

A very full weekend in more ways than one: eating, drinking, shopping, gardening, sailing, events all around me. The weather has been nothing short of perfect: sunny in the low to mid-80s without a trace of humidity. We will pay later if we don’t get some rain, but at this point green still reigns, with lots of other colors competing–a veritable rainbow for Pride parade weekend, which was also Cancer Walk weekend and the occasion of countless outdoor activities. I spent much of Saturday at a large outdoor market up in Salisbury and Sunday afternoon sailing with friends, and in between I managed to do tons of yard and deck work (still cleaning up after chimney, roof, and carpentry projects–I think I’ll be picking up shavings of shingles all summer long, maybe for years) effortlessly just because it was so beautiful outside. This Monday morning, I’m sunburned and sore, which are always signs of a good Summer weekend.

The Last Weekend in June, 2016: at the Vintage Bazaar at Pettengill Farm, Salisbury, Massachusetts:

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Pettengill Door

Back in Salem, more colorful than usual:

Salem Door Essex Street

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One color to avoid while in Salem is RED: the newly-painted red line does NOT take you to historical sites but rather to sites like the Witch Dungeon Museum on Lynde Street, which occupies neither the structure or the location of the original Salem Gaol. Do you think the Red Line is there for the (also newly-painted and looking great) Rufus Choate and Mary Harrod Northend Houses next door? It is not.

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Back to more pleasant sites and colors: a beautiful Sunday afternoon sail (with another sailboat passing by VERY closely!), and sunset at the Willows.

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Color 25 Cocktail Cove

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Ice Sculptures 2016

This weekend is the annual Salem’s So Sweet Chocolate and Ice Sculpture Festival, sponsored by Salem Main Streets, The Salem Chamber of Commerce, and Destination Salem, as well as all of the downtown businesses which underwrote the installation of ice sculptures on the sidewalks of Salem. It’s such a lovely idea, especially for a city that (in my opinion) has put too many eggs in the one basket of witchcraft tourism. As I walked by kitschy witchy businesses displaying signs on their front doors indicating that they were “closed for the season” (of course they meant the off-season, which is most of the year), it was a pleasure to see enthusiastic picture-takers clustered around ice sculptures of Gustave Klimt’s The Kiss, various sea creatures, and the Mad Hatter, and even imbibing in Rockefella’s amazing ice bar, which must take the prize this year. It was a beautiful day–not too cold–and sunny, so lots of people were out and about and the restaurants looked busy. Last year’s snowmaggedon must have chilled this event a bit (though it was still definitely on) but this year’s weather was perfect–and several of the statues were illuminated at night for the first time.

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Just a few of the ice sculptures downtown this weekend: you can download the map of the rest here.


The Wayfaring Chapel

To stick with cinema for just a bit, I’ve always believed that those in Salem who favor the maritime over the witchcraft in terms of tourism focus are handicapped a bit because Salem was not a whaling port like New Bedford. Merchants are simply not as dashing and courageous as whalers; there is no Hawthornian equivalent of Moby Dick. When I think of the latter, I must admit that images from the 1956 film come to mind much more quickly and vividly than detailed passages from the 1851 book, and the very first image that comes to mind is the passionate preaching of Father Mapple (Orson Welles) from that amazing pulpit shaped like the bow of a ship in a seamen’s chapel, or Bethel, packed with mariners. Both the preacher and the place were based on reality; in the case of the former, the “Mariner’s Preacher” of the Boston Bethel, Edward Thompson Taylor, and the Bethel was based on that of New Bedford, which is still standing (its original pulpit was not the elaborate one depicted in the film, but a similar one constructed to satisfy the tourists who made their way to New Bedford in increasing numbers due to the popularity of the film–a version of Salem’s Samantha statue).

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Bethel Collage

Orson Welles in John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956); The New Bedford Bethel or “Whaleman’s Chapel”, exterior and interior.

Like nearly every seaport of a certain size, Salem had a Seamen’s Bethel too, but it was a wandering one. It clearly existed in the early part of the nineteenth century (there is an extant sign, and several references to a chapel at the head of Phillips Wharf), but was reincarnated later on. The French Catholic parish, St. Joseph’s, purchased an old Bethel on Herbert Street in 1873, and then it turns up in two locations on Turner Street: first right on the water in the House of the Seven Gables’ front yard, and then alongside it on the street. A large bequest by Captain Henry Barr funded the construction of this later building in 1890-91, but a decade later newspapers across the country were commenting on Salem’s fading maritime glory, testified to by the fact there were simply not enough sailors in Salem to attend services in this new Bethel; consequently the YMCA took over the building in 1911. By the 1920s it was moved to another location on Turner Street to accommodate the expanding House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, and by the 1930s it was gone. The last picture of the Bethel below, taken by the Boston-based architectural photographer Leon Abdalian in 1929, was probably more notable for the blimp than the Bethel at the time!

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The Salem Seamen’s Bethel, 1914 and 1929, Boston Public Library.


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