At the peak of Salem’s international trade, the town featured more than 50 wharves. Today, the Derby Wharf, Hatch’s Wharf and Central Wharf are the best remaining examples of the community’s boat-mooring structures. These three wharves stretch out into the harbor at the Salem Maritime location.
In 1762, Richard Derby Sr. started building Derby Wharf. Mr. Derby was one of the area’s richest merchants, and with the construction of the wharf, his wealth grew. The family continued to extend the size of the wharf until it reached its current length of half a mile.
Early on, warehouses covered Salem’s wharves. Some of these warehouses towered above the water since they were two to three stories tall while others were small sheds. At one time, Derby Wharf held approximately 20 different structures including Elias Hasket Derby’s headquarters.
Simon Forrester constructed Central Wharf in 1791. Visitors to the area can tour the Orientation Center, which is located at the wharf’s head section. The Orientation Center is a large warehouse that was constructed sometime around 1770. While touring the historic warehouse, visitors can view the large beams that hold up the second floor. The center’s architect designed the beams to hold several tons of exotic merchandise such as tea, silks and spices.
Hatch’s Wharf was built in 1819, and it is the area’s shortest wharf. In the past, shipbuilders would occasionally construct sailing vessels right on one of the wharves. To shift the boats out to the water, workers would launch them sideways into the harbor.
The shipping industry was a major factor in America’s growth as a nation. In fact, it caused Salem to become the country’s sixth largest city at one time.
In 1938, the old waterfront area became a National Historical Site since commercial shipping was so important to the country’s early economy. Visitors can tour Salem’s wharves at any time. More information about the area’s history is available at the sites.