The History of the Salem Woods
Updated: 10/20/03

Early History of the Salem Woods
(See also this account of early woods history)

In a volume of historical texts published for the Essex Institute in 1860, the early history of what we now call the Salem Woods is described. As you will read in excerpts below, even then, just before the great devastation to our country of the Civil War, the Woods had already been diminished in size, but were celebrated and valued by Salem’s citizens for their natural beauty. The author details the sweeping views from the hills in the Woods, judging them worthy of any artist’s efforts to capture them. He lists numbers of beautiful plants to be appreciated and advocates that the reader walk in the wildness of the Woods:

“The tract familiarly known as the Great Pasture came down to the present time in this form [in the hands of special proprietors], but recently the proprietors have organized as a corporation, under an act passed by the Legislature in 1855. The Great Pasture was anciently of large extent, as its name indicates, but various portions have been from time to time set off, so that only some 350 acres remained at the time of incorporation, in the hands of a few proprietors.

The section of territory formerly included in the Great Pasture, we regard as one of the most interesting tracts within our domain. Its barren, rocky hills, dotted with a straggling growth of cedars, savins [junipers], and pines, its alder swamps, with an occasional clump of maples, birches, or oaks, in its low lands, make up an unique landscape, attractive from its very wildness and seeming uselessness. There is something peculiarly pleasant and attractive in its rude untamed scenery. We confess that we delight again and again to toil over its rough swelling hills, to force the difficult way through its craggy ravines, clogged with wild vegetation, and to leap its frequent brooks. And it seems always to have been a favorite resort of our town’s people, as we judge from the familiar names which have long attached to its prominent localities.”

“Of the swamps in this section, the chief is Great Swamp, on the line of the Eastern Railroad, two miles out. Half a century ago it contained 55 acres, and was in a wild, untamed condition. During the War of 1812, when wood was high in price, it furnished a great quantity of fuel to our town’s people. Its owner, Judge Samuel Putnam, permitted persons who desired to do so, to remove the submerged trunks and roots of its ancient forest, and large quantities were raised and carried away . . .”

Other swamps existed nearby, Long Swamp, described by the Rev. Bentley in his well known diaries that comprise a rich record of Salem’s past, and Round Swamp, which emptied into Derby’s Marsh. Several brooks also ran through the Woods and emptied into the Forest and South Rivers. The Woods were treasured then so much that the author says of his descriptions of the land,

“We are thus minute and particular in describing these comparatively trivial things, in order that the names anciently applied to these localities may not pass out of mind . . .” He continues,

The Woods were particularly lovely in those days, “the brilliant and favorite Columbine ‘makes the wild landscape with its beauty gay’ in the pleasant days of Spring.” “There are many warm, moist secluded nooks in these pastures, where a wonderful variety of plants occur in their season; and other more rare flowers are found in occasional localities.”

“One of the spots most delightful to visit in this direction, is a little round meadow of a couple of acres, at the head of Great Swamp, and a part of it, but separated by the Swampscot [sic] road. It is a choice locality for the botanist and the lover of fine scenery. In it and around it, upon the hills and cliffs which beautify and shelter it, we find a varied and luxuriant growth of plants which love moist and sunny places, and of the trees and shrubs which are most pleasing in our local scenery. Through the season of vegetation it presents a succession of our favorite native flowers. In early spring the brave and beautiful Hepatica triloba, the familiar harbinger of the vernal year, flecks the hill-side with the abundance of its bright blue blossoms. In mid-summer the purple Cymbidium puchellum peoples the meadow with a crowd of its showy blooms. And in autumn the Fringed Gentian (Gentiana crinata) lingers here until the early frost to adorn the spot with rare beauty.”

“From the summits of the hills extensive views are obtained of the landscape towards Swampscot and Lynn, as well as on this side; and in the valleys and over the hills to the east, towards the Turnpike, we have one of the wildest, ruggedest and most romantic regions yet remaining uncleared in this part of the county. This is the district formerly known as Timber Hills. And if any one is desirous of a wild, lonely walk, which will enlist all his strength and energy, let us commend to him a ramble over this region, from Great Swamp to the floating Bridge. But neither dense thickets, nor treacherous swamps, nor craggy hills, must deter or alarm the adventurer.”

The City’s Acquisition of the Salem Woods

In a letter to the Salem Evening News in 1997, Christopher Burke, who is now President of The Friends of Salem Woods, summarized some of the 20th-century history of the Woods:

“In the fall of 1906, the city acquired 264 acres from the Great Pasture Company in three separate parcels: a) an 18-acre piece bordering Jefferson Avenue (what is now Dove Avenue) for the purpose of quarrying road materials; b) a 10-acre parcel designated for the high school (now Salem’s middle school); and c) for a nominal fee, 239.4 acres for Highland Park.

“The park extended from Bertram Field south to Swampscott Road. At that time, Willson Street did not exist, but using it as a reference, 15 acres of the park lay on the hospital side of Willson Street and 224 acres lay on the golf course side of Willson Street.

“Its use as park land was specified in the deed and in the City Council orders authorizing the deal, and in the Park Department’s resolution accepting the land. The Pasture Company, at its stockholders’ meeting, agreed to sell the land for a reduced figure, only if it would be used as parkland.

“The city knew what it was getting and to what it was committing itself. A Salem Evening News article on September 18, 1906 states: ‘The land for park purposes is to be actually purchased by the park commissioners under the park act, and this having once been done, it must be used for park purposes and no other purpose.’

“Our research shows that when land is granted and accepted as a park in this way, a contract is created between the seller and the city. It is called a charitable trust and the park is supposed to be preserved forever. This principle has been enforced by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in several cases, most notably, in Commonwealth v. The City of Salem, when the city tried to build a school on Mack Park in 1962. Since 1906, there have been several pieces of land chipped off the original Highland Park. The transfers were done openly, but quietly, and have not been legally challenged. (My intent, by the way, is not to challenge what has been done, only what is proposed.) The following are the three largest takings from the park:

1) In 1966, Bertram Field, and some additional land around it, was transferred from the Park Department to the School Department. The use of that land as a football field predates the 1906 acquisition by the city, so that transfer is of little concern.

2) In 1971, a Council order allowed several acres identified as part of Highland Park to be used for ‘city or hospital purposes.’ The Shaughnessy parking lot and the most easterly tip of Shaughnessy Hospital were built on the park. Later, when the Shaughnessy was sold to The North Shore Medical Center, that land was still part of a separate deed from the rest of Shaughnessy Hospital. The City Council order dated December 28, 1995, ordered the sale of that parcel, among others, and described the land as ‘surplus and excess public property.’

3) On Nov. 20, 1989, the City Council granted for free, and forever, an easement over a 4.5 acre piece of Highland Park to Salem Hospital. That land was not identified as park land in the Council order or Grant of Easement. Parking lots were built on the land. Were the city councilors fully informed that day about what they were giving away? The paperwork leaves one to wonder, because no mention of Highland Park was made.”

The Great Depression and Olde Salem Greens

In order to understand the economic circumstances under which Olde Salem Greens was constructed in 1932 and ’33, a review of the impact of the Great Depression is needed.

After the Stock Market Crash in 1929, unemployment rose nationally from 400,000 to 18,000,000 in March 1933. “After the crash President Hoover announced that he would keep the Federal budget balanced and that he would cut taxes and expand public works spending.” “At the same time he reiterated his view that while people must not suffer from hunger and cold, caring for them must be primarily a local and voluntary responsibility.” . The first bank panic of the Depression occurred in 1930.

“In 1931, no major legislation was passed addressing the Depression. At the same time, more than half of all Americans were living below a minimum subsistence level; annual per-capital income was $750; for farm people, it was only $273. A second bank panic occurred in the spring of 1931 and unemployment rose to 15.9 percent, reaching 23.6 percent in 1932 and ultimately 24.9 percent in 1933. Over 13 million Americans lost their jobs between 1929 and 1932, out of a total population of just over 123 million, and wages dropped 60 percent. 1932 and ’33 were the worst years of the Depression.” “From 1929 to 1933, the marriage rate fell by 22 percent and the birth rate declined by 15 percent.”

Thousands of banks failed across the country (10,000 between 1929 and 1932) and factories shuttered their doors. In Salem, the Salem Trust Co. with over $3 million in assets and 8,000 accounts, both savings and commercial, closed its doors on December 15, 1931, and a liquidation agent was appointed by the state banking commissioner. Much of Salem Trust’s assets were in local street railway, gas, electric and water bonds, in real estate loans, and in personal and demand loans. “A third bank panic occurred in March 1933, forcing President Roosevelt to declare a Bank Holiday to stop a run on the banks.”

Across the country, workers’ wages were being cut, resulting in frequent strikes. In Boston in April 1932, the building trades mechanics went out on strike when their wages were cut 25 percent. A union plasterer was paid $1.62 1/2 an hour before the cut. Following a 10 percent cut in wages in October 1931, Amoskeag Mills in Manchester, New Hampshire asked its 7,000 employees to take another 10 percent cut just six months later in April 1932. There were fears that Boston Navy Yard might be closed as part of the economy program on the naval budget. Lynn firemen got a 10 percent cut in pay for 10 months.

In his fifth inaugural address, Salem Mayor George J. Bates emphasized “the need of economy”. Councilor Michael J. McGrath, a long-time councilor-at-large, returned 24 checks to the city totaling $1,000, representing two years’ wages as councilor, with the order to, “Cancel the checks.” Unemployed Salem workers anxiously awaited the start of the post office development program, estimated at $250,000, which would employ the local trades. When the post office job was delayed, the mayor desperately telegrammed the local congressman requesting assistance and urging that construction begin. The Salem city budgeting process was page one news and the administration was loath to bond any more projects than absolutely necessary because of the tight economic times. As the economy worsened, the Salem city council was working hard to establish hundreds of subsistence gardens for use by Salem’s residents, which was a major local effort to provide food for the needy. These were hard times and the city was doing everything it could to help its citizens. In January 1932, the city’s welfare department expenditures reach $42,188.22 a month, which was an increase of $20,000 over the same period (January) in 1931.

Meanwhile, in golf in 1929, the first Ryder Cup match was held between teams from the United States and Great Britain. In 1930, the legendary Bobby Jones was a major newsmaker. An amateur, he made a Grand Slam sweep, an historic achievement. He won the U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club in Minneapolis, the U.S. Amateur at Merion in Philadelphia, the British Amateur on the Old Course at St. Andrews and the British Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England. Conceivably, he was the greatest golfer of the 1920s. He founded the Augusta National Golf Club in 1932 and its now well known Masters tournament the following year. Like today’s phenom Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones dominated golf, capturing the nation’s attention in the depths of the Great Depression.

It was in this atmosphere that the idea of building a municipal golf course in Salem was first considered. In 1931, the city’s park commissioners encouraged the city council to build a golf course on the Cabot farm along the shore in North Salem, the “greatest and best opportunity” for a course. They believed that the costs for the land acquisition and construction of the course would be returned to the city from the course fees. In the same timeframe, they rejected the idea of building the course in Highland Park.

“In February 1932, City Engineer Frank P. Morse filed a special report with the city council in regard to the Highland Park site, stating, ‘In my opinion, a golf course at that particular location would be difficult to maintain, owing to the large outcrop of ledge and abrupt slopes.’ The city councilors were not persuaded and, pressed by Councilor Dooley, pursued the construction of the course in Highland Park, “first, as a means of relieving unemployment and second to build a course which eventually will be paid for by the playing public.” In April 1933, the city council unanimously passed a resolution, “favoring Salem residents for the jobs on the municipal golf course.”

The City of Salem Annual Reports for 1931 and 1932 summarize the construction of Old Salem Greens, which opened to the public on September 13, 1933. The 1932 report states, “Information was officially conveyed to the Park Commissioners that the Mayor and City Council wished to make a golf course at Highland Park, as a part of the City’s program of unemployment relief.” In May 1932 the Mayor and Council appropriated $20,000 for supervision, fees, equipment and materials and $5,000 for labor for the course. Stiles and Van Kleek, golf course and landscape architects, began work in May, with their contract completed in November. Extensive additional course work was carried out in 1933 by the Parks Department. Ultimately, $83,808 was spent to construct the course. Nearly half of the labor cost was welfare labor, described in the 1932 annual report as “6,954 men working for $4.00 orders, totaling just over $27,000.” Soldiers Relief funds were also used, as were monies that had been donated by all of Salem’s city workers, who contributed one day’s pay each month to a fund for the unemployed.

Thus, it can be fairly said that the primary motivating factor for building Old Salem Greens in Highland Park was unemployment relief. In the face of a devastating economic crisis, with dire local and national effects, the Olde Salem Greens course was built to provide employment for large numbers of unemployed men, at a time when there was no unemployment insurance, wages were plunging, and banks were foreclosing on home mortgages. Had there not been such a crisis, it is fair to say that no golf course would ever have been built in the Salem Woods, as it would have been much preferred to build it on land along the coast line in North Salem.

Translating the Dollars: The Costs and Figures Used

Using the Consumer Price Index calculator available from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, a dollar in 1933 would be worth $14.12 in 2003. Thus, the amount appropriated by the City of Salem in 1932 for the golf course would be worth $1,833,689 today. A union plasterer today would be paid $23.00 an hour, using the 1933 wage rate quoted. A $4.00 order for labor for men to build the course would be worth $56.50 today. The $42,188.22 expended by the Salem Welfare Department in January 1932 is equivalent today to $595,698. In 2003, Salem Trust Co.’s 1933 assets would be worth $42,360,000.