Salem Common, the large, attractive park in the heart of the city, has been public land since Salem's early days. However, a portion of these eight acres was originally swampy area, with several ponds and small hills. The higher ground was used as pasture for goats and cows which were brought out to graze for the day and then returned to their owners at night by the town cowherd.
Salem Common on Training Day (1808)
Peabody Essex Museum
From as early as 1685, the dry part of the common was used also as the designated area where people could practice shooting in order to be prepared for military duty. Needing a place for regular military drills, it was voted in 1714 by the commoners to be "forever kept as a training field for the use of Salem".
George Ropes Jr.'s painting, Salem Common on Training Day (1808), is a beautiful reminder of Salem's new center of community activity. Annual Training Day brought local militia units from neighboring towns and communities parading in dress uniform through Salem streets to meet at the Common. Memoirs of early Salem residents fondly describe this day of colorful parades, puppet shows, athletic events and socializing.
In 1801, Salem's Elias Hasket Derby, 2nd, who was a colonel in the militia, raised $2,500 which was used to improve the field conditions. Ponds were filled in, the surface levelled and rows of poplar trees were planted. Unfortunately, all the poplar trees were destroyed in 1815 by a great gale and were replaced with elms a couple of years later.
Western View of Washington Square, Salem (1839)
Woodblock engraving by John Warner Barber
For more background, visit the Salem Common Neighborhood Association's web site.
In 1802, the Salem Common was named Washington Square. A wooden fence with four large, impressive gates was added to the Common in 1805 with one of the gates on the western side decorated with carvings by Samuel McIntire, the famous Salem architect and wood carver. Today the medallion portrait of George Washington and the gold painted eagle which adorned the original gate are preserved in the Peabody Essex Museum.
Photo by Jim McAllister
After Salem's great fire of 1914 which cut a destructive path through much of the city, the Salem Common was filled with tents to house the people who had lost their homes in the fire's devastation.
Reminders of the city's past and evidence of our current lifestyle coexist in harmony on Salem Common today.
A modern playground fills a large area of the park with the sounds of children playing while a handsome bandshell from an earlier era looms silently in the mist.
Photo by Jim McAllister