Salem Maritime National Historic Site

I went on vacation recently, and having been slacking a lot, hence not that many posts. I had every intention to get this post out around the U.S. National Park Service’s (NPS) Centennial back in August, however I’m about 2 months behind, but better late then never…

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, located in Salem, Massachusetts

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The Salem Maritime National Historic Site encompasses a variety of indoor and outdoor areas. The indoor exhibits are located in several different locations and the hours vary from place to place (visit the NPS website for operating hours); some locations are open to the public, whereas others require a guided tour. Outdoor exhibits are open 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. The best way to get to the historic site is by foot if you are already in the area; or by car if you are traveling from outside of Salem. The historic site doesn’t have onsite parking, but there are several parking lots nearby with a minimal fee (very minimal, some costs as little as $0.25 per hr). The Salem Maritime National Historic Site is a bit further away from the tourist area, but there are  other places to visit nearby, and if you visit all the places within the historic site, it could take a whole day.

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First stop at the historic site is the Custom House, which is open Monday to Friday from 1pm to 4pm and Saturday to Sunday from 10am to 4pm. This Salem Custom House was built in 1819 (there were others prior), and housed the offices for representatives of the U.S. Custom Services. The house is two stories and has a cupola (the cupola is off-limits to the public).  On the first floor, visitors can see an exhibit on the tools used by the Custom Services, which include a variety of measuring devices such as scales and measuring sticks, and the  Collector’s Public Office, where records were kept and where merchants and ship captains paid their duties. Also on the first floor is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s office; his time working at the Custom Service inspired his famous novel, The Scarlet Letter. On the second floor is the Collector’s Private Room and Office. There is an eagle sculpture, known as the Custom House eagle, on the roof of the building. The current eagle is a replica.  The original was carved by Joseph True and place on the roof in 1820s, but weather and time has aged the sculpture, and thus was replaced by the replica in 2004 in order to preserve the original, which is now on display in an exhibit on the second floor.

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Next stop is the Friendship of Salem and Derby Wharf. The Friendship of Salem is a replica of a cargo vessel built in Salem in 1797. (The ship is currently undergoing maintenance, check the NPS website for the latest updates on the Friendship.) The day I visited, the sails and masts weren’t there, so it’s not quite as majestic, but google images of the Friendship and see the ship at its full glory. Visitors are free to walk about the both the main deck and the lower deck. Visitors can pose by the ship’s wheel and pretend to be captain of the ship on the main deck. The lower deck contains the living quarters of the captain and the ship’s crew. Derby Wharf is the longest of the three wharves that are part of the historic site. Derby Wharf was started in 1762 by the Derby family, and as their trading increased, they kept extending the wharf until its current 1/2 mile length in the early 1800s. The Derby Wharf Light Station, situated at the end of Derby Wharf, was built in 1871 and has since helped with navigation in Salem harbor.

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The Derby House and the Narbonne House are two areas of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site that can be viewed only by park ranger-led tours. The Derby House and Narbonne House tour is about 1 hr long, and typically is available once a day at 2:30pm (check the website for tour times). Reservation is required, and the tour can only accommodate 8 people at a time, so interested visitors should visit the Salem Visitor’s Center early to sign up for a spot. First on the tour was the Narbonne House, which was originally a butcher’s house, but has been home to various middle class families throughout the years. The house was built in sections and held together by dowels. The interior of the house is unfurnished, but contains an exhibit highlighting the items found in the house’s backyard. The Derby house was home to one of America’s wealthiest families, the Derbys. The house has many luxuries of the time period, such as a big front door, wallpaper, canopy beds, banisters, and high ceilings. The interior of the house is furnished, but they aren’t original to the house, just imaginings of how the house may have been decorated back when the Derbys resided there. Also worth a visit is the Salem Visitor Center, where there are special exhibits and movie presentations in regards to Salem’s maritime history.

I took about 2.5 hours for both self-guided explorations and the ranger guided-tour of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. As always, other visitors may take more or less time depending on how much they want to see and their interest. (I only covered the highlights of the historic site, there more places to see and tours to take for more in-depth views of the site.) The historic site is a great place for a family outing, as there’s plenty to see and do, and an ample amount of space for children to just run around outside. History lovers will enjoy a visit and the general population should definitely visit too, as it’s free and offers much to see, and even if history isn’t your thing, you’ll enjoy being outside and near the water. Salem is most notable in history for the witch trials of 1692, but it also has an important spot in maritime history and where better to learn about it then at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

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