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September 26, 2004
Salem was probably the most important seaport in the United States for many years. Ships from Salem were sent all over the world and brought back goods from exotic ports and traded cod from these waters. It was the very beginning of our export and import business for a developing nation. Salem was front and center. Today, only a small piece of the harbor remains and the National Park Service is doing a good job at telling the story of Maritime Salem.
Start your exploring at the Visitors Center where they have a 17-minute film explaining the role Salem played in shipping and how customs got started here at home. It's a very good film; it is well-made and keeps the story interesting. It gives you a feel of what Salem was like at this time.
Then head over to the Friendship, which is a reproduction of a real mast ship that sailed the world. The real Friendship was built in 1796 and sailed to many far away lands around the world. This Friendship was painfully made to exact detail in 1998. You can go aboard and check out what a 1790s sailing ship was like. My biggest surprise was the cramped living quarters the crew endured. It was cramped, dark, and uncomfortable. Park Rangers are onboard to answer your questions.
Across the street, the majestic customs house still stands. It's a grand building with a huge gold eagle over the front door. Here our customs service began and was the prime source of revenue for a new nation. Nataniel Hawthorne worked in this very building. It's very interesting and again park rangers are on duty to answer any and all questions. Out back you can visit the warehouse where goods that could require tariffs and taxes were stored.
Next door is The West India Goods Store. A real store from 1804 that sold many of the products the ships of Salem carried home. Here you could buy silks from Asia or spices from the Caribbean. Salem had access to many luxuries the rest of the country did not. The store is preserved as it would have looked in 1804. You can still buy spices here or fun toys. The clerk is dressed like as she would have been during that time.
The area is very well restored and very interesting. The fee is only $5 for adults and $3 for kids to see the Friendship and the Customs House. You can check out more at the web site at SMNHS.
So when you're done with tacky witch museums and spell shops, head down to the water for an in-depth look at Salem's maritime history.
From journal Salem - More than just witches.
February 26, 2004
The NHS tells the story of Salem's evolution from the tiny farming and fishing village of the 17th century to the economic powerhouse of the late 18th century (for a period, Salem's import duties provided nearly 20% of our fledgling government’s revenues). You can see the story made concrete by starting at the Derby St. visitor's center and watching their free film. The production values leave something to be desired, but it provides an interesting capsule view of how the town moved from agriculture and fishing to trade.
Perhaps film's most interesting segment gives a thumbnail sketch of the mechanics of the China trade; a china trader leaving Salem would stock its holds with timber, furs, and other goods that were cheap and plentiful in New England, but which sold at a premium elsewhere. The ship would sail to Europe, selling some of its cargo, and using the proceeds to acquire goods that were considered luxuries in Africa. Then the ship would stop in Africa and sell some of its cargo, using the profits to buy goods to sell in India--and so on until the vessel reached China at last. The man who made the decisions about what to buy and sell was called the supercargo, and he was as important as the captain--his decisions affected the venture's profitability. A good supercargo could increase the original cargo's value by 400% by the time the ship returned to Salem.
To see the material benefits of hiring a good supercargo, you need leave the visitor's center and cross the street to the Derby Mansion, home of Elias Haskett Derby, America's first millionaire. His wealth was based on privateering during the Revolution, and on the China trade afterwards.
Unfortunately, the days where silk, tea, spices, and porcelain are exotic and evocative of far-off-lands are now past. But you can take a peak into that time by going next door to the East India Goods store, which sells historical books, a small selection of tea and spices, and other souvenirs.
You can also visit the Custom House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked, and walk the deck of the Friendship, a replica of a China Trader.
Admission to the Custom House, Derby House, and Friendship is $5 per adult, but one of the NHS's most subtle pleasures is free--the half mile walk into Salem Harbor on Derby Wharf--the only surviving colonial wharf in America. There you can feel the sea breeze, meet locals out walking their dogs, and look out to Marblehead and the hills of nearby Beverly.
From journal Salem, Massachusetts: Sorcery, Seafarers, and Samuel McIntire