Salem, Massachusetts is filled with centuries of history and merits a well planned stop on family vacations that include exploring the beaches and towns north of Boston. The historic city was founded in 1626 and was a major maritime center for centuries, The city was also the site of the infamous Salem witch trials in 1692 that resulted in more than 150 men and women being accused of selling their souls to the devil and 20 being put to death for their crimes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Salem grew to be the sixth largest city in the country, and the richest per capita by 1790, due in large part to its highly successful maritime trade with Europe, the West Indies, China, Africa and Russia. Many fine buildings remain from this era overlooking the seaport.
Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, the son of a sea captain, was born on July 4th, 1804. While working in the Custom House overlooking the port, he wrote his novel The Scarlet Letter. The nearby House of the Seven Gables Settlement site includes Hawthorne’s birthplace and is open to the public. Although a major fire destroyed hundreds of buildings in 1914, enough historic buildings survive to provide a sense of Salem in its seafaring heyday.
Simultaneous with efforts to preserve its past, Salem has invested in its downtown and wharf areas to create a pedestrian friendly retail area anchored by a world class museum and Pickering Wharf, home to some of the city’s best seafood restaurants. The 9 acre Salem Maritime National Historic Site preserves some of the original buildings and wharves and is home to the 1797 Friendship of Salem, a full size replica of a three-masted, square-rigged, 342-ton vessel known as a “East Indiaman,” that was used extensively in the China Trade.
Many artifacts brought home by the sea captains are on display at the city’s state of the art Peabody Essex Museum. This city’s darker past is also well remembered by the worthwhile Salem Witch Trials Memorial and a seemingly endless array of witch museums, stores, and shows – most of which come off as decidedly campy tourist traps that we generally try to avoid. The city’s fascination with the supernatural is evidenced by the number of citizens and visitors who are seriously committed to the study and practice of witchcraft including the Witches League for Public Awareness which has the goal of dispelling misconceptions surrounding Witchcraft and Wicca by working with schools, government agencies, and the media.
If your family is interested in maritime history be sure to plan ahead to make sure the sights you want to explore are open and make reservations for tours of the Friendship and some of the historic buildings. Government funding cutbacks have shortened some viewing hours and curtailed some activities. Sites like the Custom House and the Friendship are only open to scheduled tours which we unfortunately missed.
We visited on a Sunday afternoon but started with the exhibits at the Peabody Essex only to find that by the time we made it over to the maritime site most everything was closed. The museum is undergoing renovations so not all of its collection is on exhibit at present. The Chinese House is worth the extra admission fee for an up close view of how traditional Chinese families lived. Your Museum ticket also provides entry to several historic homes located near the main museum building.
Beyond the history, you will usually find modern day witches and ghouls on the streets encouraging you to browse in a myriad of shops related to witchcraft. The people watching is always fun in this eclectic city. We ate dinner at family friendly Finz at Pickering Wharf and enjoyed the helpful service, the great seafood and the wharf-side views before heading home. It was a fun day but would have been a little better if we had done our research ahead of time instead of winging it at the last minute. If you visit Salem, let us know what you think.