The Salem Commons and the Tunnels of the City

Secrets of the Commons

Old Map of Salem Common

The Commons had a creek that ran into the ocean. It started where the basketball court is and ran parallel to Washington Square East and turned and ran down what is now Forrester Street towards the Ocean. Land on the north side of Forrester was also land held in common to the town. The creek had five ponds in total attached to it. There was Flag pond that formed after heavy rains to the southeast; then opposite Southwick’s School House was Southwick Pond; opposite Captain Mason’s was Mason’s Pond; then to the east of that was Cheever’s Pond across from Cheever’s tannery; and one near the school house by Forrester Street was Lang’s Pond. Also it had included several hills and hillocks. This area was used to graze unfenced livestock, gather berries, cut flags and hoops. Ducks, horses, cattle, geese, hens, and stray pigs ran free in the Commons. It had several names including “pen”, “Town Swamp”, “Training Field”, “Washington Square”, and “Salem Common”.Previous to 1714 there were disputes between cottagers and commoners who had rights to the swamp. The Rev. John Higginson had a house on thenorth of the Commons and Col. Nathaniel Higginson had a house where the Hawthorne Hotel is now. In 1714 the Commons was voted to be forever a training field for the use of Salem’s militia in front of Higginson’s house.

In 1772 an almshouse was built on the northeast corner on Washington Square South. Also there were a powder house, engine house, and a tavern owned by Beadle. This street was home to the Phillips School House and the Southwick School House.

Winter Street Tunnel Hole Salem MA

On Washington Square East there was the Captain Francis Boardman house built in 1782. The land was owned by John Hodges. Next was the house of Joseph Vincent with his rope walk in the rear running to the Cove and next north of that a two story house owned and occupied by Thomas Briggs. Then an old building which had been occupied by Benjamin Brown as a bake house. Briggs street was not then opened. It was first a Court extending about two thirds the length of the street. Briggs’s Rope Walk commenced at the place now occupied by Hon. Nathaniel Silsbee’s house (Knights of Columbus) and extended to the Cove. Andrew street was not opened till after the Common was leveled. The field extending from north of Briggs’s Rope Walk (to the north of the house which was owned by William B. Vincent which was built in 1799) was owned by Col. William Browne who bought it from Capt. Joseph Gardner who was slain in the battle with the Narragansets in 1675. Col. William Browne will have all of his property in Salem confiscated after fleeing to Canada during the Revolutionary War, including what would become Derby Square. Elias Hasket Derby’s wife was a relation so she inherited most of his property. Vincent’s grandson Jonathan A. Vincent carried on the tanning and currying business there until it was sold in 1791 to another William Browne and his son who continued the tannery until they opened Andrew Street and sold it off as house lots. The Full-Spychalski Funeral Home stands where Dr. Hardy Phippen house was and earlier to that it was Benjamin Ives tan yard and bark house. This site was also the ropewalk owned by Joseph Vincent which stretch to Collins Cove as well. In 1785 a school was built on the commons. In 1788 the Beverly Bridge was opened and Pleasant Street was extended from the commons to meet Bridge Street. Also after the opening of the bridge Winter Street and Bath Street (Forrester Street) was created. Hay scales were erected on Winter Street in 1789 in front of a pond next to Robert Upton’s house half way up the road. On Washington Square North was the Samuel Cheever house who had a tannery in the rear. Then there was James Wright’s bakery. On the corner of Oliver was Mr. Austin’s brass founder shop. After that was Jeremiah Shepard’s grocery store, behind that runs an alley to Rev. John Higginson’s mansion. Next was Jonathan Mason’s shop (the mason William Roberts lived in this home after it was moved to Federal Street) followed by Frederick Coom’s Bakery, The Collins house, Tutle’s Rope Walk, Henry Williams on Williams Street, Thaddeus Gwinn ropewalk, Nehemiah Adams cabinet maker, and the East Church (Witch Museum). On Hawthorne Blvd. was a school house and the Gardner-Pingree Mansion.

Salem Cadets

Other facts of the Commons. In 1769 custom agents Thomas Row and Robert Wood were tarred and feather on a Liberty Tree for informing on the Salem privateers to the Crown. Salem never liked paying duties… Then in 1801 Elias Hasket Derby Jr. commanded the Second Corp. of Cadets to fill in the ponds and grade the Commons. The Commons was leveled by the Spring of 1802. Derby had raised a subscription of $2,500 to do so and planted rows of poplars and surrounded it with a whitewashed oak fence. The poplars came from the nursery owned by Joseph Franks on what is now Winter Street.

The bills was:
ESTIMATE OF THE COMMITTEE
1,5000 feet of lumber for railing and posts at $10 per hundred is
$156.00
Labor on the above one man 60 days at 9s
$90.00
Ditto one man for digging post holes Ac 60 days at 6s
$60.00
Poplar trees 10 feet apart at 1s apiece
$100.00
Expenses for Drink
$20.00
1 lb of paint will paint 3 square yard twice over 3s 1733 square ft.
577 lb White Lead is equal to 5 ewt at $13 per ewt
$65.00
10 Galls boiled Oil at 8s per GaM
$14.00
20 days work for painting at 6s par day
$20.00
For Leveling say
$1,000.00
For Gravel Walk say
$1,000.00
Stone Gutter
$100.00
Total:$2,625.00

They received a loan from Benjamin A. Gray that 159 subscribers to the Commons improvement* paid back. Some gave twice when funds fell short. The biggest contributors were William Gray, Elias Hasket Derby Jr., George Crowninshield & Sons Co., and Joseph Peabody. Now out of this list we have two subscribers who were block and pump makers, two who owned hardware stores, two were auctioneers to fence the goods, a carpenter who opens up a coffee shop in Boston afterwards, several people working for the Customs Agency (Bartholomew Putnam Surveyor of Port, Henry Tibbets Inspector of Customs, C. Cleveland Deputy Collector, Elijah Haskell Inspector of Customs, James Cheever Officer in the Customs House, Benjamin Crowninshield Collector of Marblehead, Penn Townsend Revenue Agent, Henry Prince’s son captained a Revenue Cutter, Joseph Hiller Customs Collector), 3 presidents of insurance companies, 4 store owners, 5 distillers smuggling molasses again, 4 tavern keeps, 4 politicians, 2 judges, 3 dry good store owners, 2 hardware store owners, 2 ropewalk owners, 4 grocers, 4 in local government, 2 butchers, 2 die at sea, 1 murdered, 2 Clerks of Courts, several Masons, several merchants and captains, several relatives of Hodges, Derby, Peabody, and Crowninshield.So you have a group of captains and merchants who need to smuggle goods pass a series of bribed Customs employees and politicians. Then convince a group of merchants to construct new homes to attach to the tunnels on the Commons to move money and goods through. These tunnels will need to be pumped out of water so carpenters, muscle provided by the several militias, and masons could create them utilizing hardware and rope from other subscribers. These tunnels will smuggle goods into several stores to sell dry goods and food, molasses to the distillers to make spirits, flour and spices to the bakers, liquor for the taverns to sell, auctioneers to sell your big ticket items, and banks to hide your money away tax free. In 1802 the selectmen changed its name to Washington Square. 1803 a bath house was placed on Bath Street (Forrester Street). In 1817 the popular trees gave place to elms and a new wooden fence was put in.

Car Accident on the Salem Common

In 1850 the iron fence was installed at the cost of $7,000 by Messrs. Denio, Cheney and Co. of Boston. After these improvements in 1801 Derby started getting his accomplices to build 2 brick Federal Style mansions set apart from each other the distance between the Derby House on Essex Street and the Hodges House on Orange Street. The industrial and agricultural appearance of the Commons became opulent. These house were to be used to run the tunnels through town to the jail, courts, each others homes, banks, and the businesses downtown. There is even rumors that the tunnels lead under the Commons. There is a square iron cover over a cement shaft in front of the Knights of Columbus and a round manhole cover in front of the 1926 Gazebo. Who knows…

Commons_Trapdoor_2

Get the book everyone digs before its sequel comes out!
Salem Secret Underground:The History of the Tunnels in the City!
Available at Barnes & Noble, Remember Salem, and Wicked Good Books in Salem on Essex Street. Also on Amazon.com!

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