Salem At Peace

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If witches and their meaning for the modern world pall, the other, brighter Salem inhabits many of the same streets walked by the bedeviled citizens of 1692. The red line leads to the waterfront and maritime Salem, whose motto, “To the farthest port of the Rich East,” reflects the late-eighteenth-century years when sea trade made this the sixth-largest city in America. Today the National Park Service operates most of the handsome buildings that face Derby Street, across from the windy, grassy reaches where fifty wharves once stood. Several buildings are open to the public, including the Customs House, where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as a surveyor, and Salem’s oldest brick house, dating from 1762, the home for twenty years of Elias Hasket Derby, known as America’s first millionaire.

The son of Richard Derby, a sea captain whose fortunes were built on an extraordinarily successful career during the Revolution as an owner of privateers and letters of marque (ships authorized to capture enemy vessels and their goods), Elias carried his father’s acumen many steps farther.

“He was the one who took the early chances,” I read in the excellent Park Service handbook. “He was an innovator, the first Salem merchant to use a supercargo, or seagoing business agent, on a voyage.… He developed a centralized world trade network and a system for consigning his cargoes to a foreign house.…” His mansion, with its clean lines and richly restrained furnishings, speaks of a man who was eager not only to help wrest his home country from imperial rule but to take every advantage of the new world he had helped create. “Many gathered around him, many imitated his enterprises, & many shared in their success,” said the Reverend William Bentley, Derby’s eulogist.

As much as the people of Salem may have wished to wash away their year of darkness, in time it brought tourism as well as opprobrium.

At the height of the trade, from 1790 to 1807, Derby’s wharf would have held fourteen warehouses, while the fifty other wharves would have been similarly crowded with ships tied up, cargoes being loaded on and off, crews setting sail, and others disembarking with a little money to spend in the shops that lined Derby Street. Where that raucous life once thronged, there is only the tourist now to wander the half-mile-long Derby wharf, cleared of all but the occasional sea gull and the low-growing cornflower, clover, and bachelor’s button that sprout from the grass. It may look unfinished, but this is a massive work of restoration, brought back from a crumbling wreck by the Park Service in 1938. There are further plans to erect a typical warehouse along the wharf and perhaps to have a replica trading vessel tied up to it. But in its present whispering immensity, the wharf might better remain furnished solely with one’s own imaginings.

—Carla Davidson