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Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Massachusetts

Salem, Massachusetts

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Massachusetts preserves and interprets more than 600 years of coastal New England‘s history.

Founded in 1626, Salem became a major seaport city into the 19th century.  The Site opens a window into the life of a maritime community.

Having been born in Salem, I’ve strolled the Site many times, and love the smell of the sea, the feel of the breeze, and the sense of history.  It was America’s first National Historic Site and is maintained by the National Park Service.

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The Site hosts 12 historic structures on nine acres along Salem Harbor:

Derby House

The Georgian-style red-brick Derby House was built in 1762.  It was a wedding present from shipping merchant Richard Derby to his son Elias Hasket and his wife Elizabeth Crowninshield.

Elias Hasket Derby became owner or shareholder in a number of privateer vessels during the Revolutionary War.  Derby privateers captured more than 150 British vessels during the War.  After the War, Derby began commercial trade with China and the East Indies and is believed to have become America’s first millionaire.

There is a formal “Colonial Revival Garden” behind the House, which features an orchard of fruit trees, a grape arbor, and vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

Hawkes House

By 1780, Elias Hasket and Elizabeth Derby had seven children, and had outgrown their 1762 House.  So they decided to build a bigger Federal-style home next door.  Mid-way through construction, they changed their minds and purchased an existing house in downtown Salem.  Elias Hasket Derby used the unfinished structure as a warehouse for several years, and then sold it to ship-builder Benjamin Hawkes.

Narbonne House

Built in 1675 for butcher Thomas Ives, this house represents a middle-class family home during the 17th and 18th centuries.  It is named for Sarah Narbonne, who was born in the late 18th century and lived her entire 101 years in the house.

Derby Wharf

Richard and Elias Hasket Derby built the Wharf during 1762-70.  Wharves provided places for vessels to dock and load and unload cargo and hosted storage warehouses and the workshops of nautical craftsmen like sail- and rope-makers, riggers, and blacksmiths.  As the Derbys’ success grew, so did the Wharf, reaching 2,045 feet in 1806.  In its heyday, the Wharf housed nearly 20 structures.  Today it’s a lovely spot for a waterfront walk.

Derby Wharf Light Station

The Derby Wharf Light Station features a unique design, approximately 12-foot-square and 20-foot-tall.  It was built in 1871 and is the only surviving original structure on Derby Wharf.  It was first powered by an oil lamp shining through a Fresnel lens, which intensifies light.  Today it is solar-powered.

Friendship of Salem

Friendship of Salem is a replica of Friendship, an 18th- and 19th-century East Indiaman, a post-Revolutionary merchant ship that made trading voyages to and from the East Indies.  The replica is based on a model of the original at the nearby Peabody Essex Museum and is docked at Derby Wharf.

The original 342-ton, square-rigged vessel bore two decks and three masts.  She made 15 voyages to countries including China, Indonesia, India, Venezuela, Spain, and Russia and brought back goods including pepper, silk, sugar, coffee, ale, sherry, tin, salt, cheese, and candles.  During the War of 1812, she was captured by British sloop-of-war HMS Rosamond and sold at auction in London.

Custom House

The Custom House held the offices of the men who collected taxes on the cargos of the vessels coming in to port.  It faces the waterfront, so that the collectors could see the approaching vessels.  The Federal-style building was completed in 1819.

Salem’s most well-known Customs Officer was native son Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote The Scarlet Letter during his tenure.  The book’s Introduction is titled “The Custom-House”, and it acquaints the reader with its nameless narrator, who works in the building and laments his colleagues’ corruption and incompetency and the nepotism through which they secured their jobs.

Scale House

Built in 1829, this small brick building sits behind the Custom House.  It held the scales and other equipment used to weigh incoming cargo goods.  The scales would be carted to the wharf and assembled alongside a returning vessel.  As goods were off-loaded, they would be weighed and measured, and then duties would be assessed on them.

Public Stores

The three-storey Public Stores was built in 1819, adjoining the Custom House.  It was where the government held imports until merchants paid taxes on them.

Pedrick Store House

In 1770, merchant Thomas Pedrick built a store house in neighboring Marblehead.  He most likely used the structure to hold goods and equipment and to shelter vessels under repair.

During the American Revolution, Pedrick invested in privateers.  After the War, he joined his neighbors in international trade.

In 1809, Pedrick’s relative and former Captain of the Friendship William Story purchased the store house.  The National Park Service obtained the building in 2003 and reconstructed it on Derby Wharf over the next several years.

West India Goods Store

In 1796, merchant and Captain Henry Prince bought Derby House.  Early in the next century, he built a “store” next door.  It would have been used to sell goods from all over the world, not just the Caribbean, despite its name.

St. Joseph Hall

Immigrants from Poland began arriving in Salem during the late 19th century.  In 1897, the vibrant and heavily Catholic community founded the St. Joseph Society to provide social-welfare help to those in need.  In 1909, they built the three-storey Hall, which housed new immigrants and hosted social events like weddings.  Within a century, the Polish community had become dispersed, and the National Park Service obtained the building in 1988.

What to Know before You Go to the
Salem Maritime National Historic Site


The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is an open-air district near Pickering Wharf.  It is free of charge to explore.

The Site does not have its own parking lot; there is public garage and street parking nearby.  If you’re coming from Boston during late May through Halloween, you may take the Salem Ferry, which disembarks a short walk away.

The Salem Armory Visitor Center is located at 2 New Liberty Street.  NPS personnel are also available to help at the Waite & Peirce Park Store at 193 Derby Street.

Wear clothing appropriate for the coastal climate and comfortable walking shoes.  Allow two to four hours.

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