The 550-square-mile Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts is a cultural landscape that commemorates 400 years of maritime history and tradition, reflecting the region’s seafaring past. The heritage area has enabled Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which is 9 acres in size, to play a far more prominent role in the region by harnessing the power of volunteers and professionals to take on preservation challenges and interpretation opportunities.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the heritage area, and local partners have built a visitor center in downtown Salem that orients tourists and residents to the region’s history, illuminating central themes including colonial settlement, maritime trade, and early industrialization and providing a rich historical context for the park. The park and heritage area have also worked together to construct the full-rigged merchant sailing ship Friendship of Salem. Former National Park Superintendent reflected “Collaboration on Friendship is a perfect example of what can be accomplished with a collective vision. This magnificent tall ship now allows us to provide a deeper, more tangible experience of this country’s rich maritime history, not only to our current community and visitors, but for the future generations that follow.”
Friendship brings the park’s once-empty Derby Wharf to life, and her annual ambassadorial sailing tours and port visits link the resources along the coast of the National Heritage Area. This has helped build the visibility of the National Park Service. Twenty years ago many residents of Essex County did not know that the National Park Service had two park units in the county – Salem Maritime National Historic Site (the first historical park included in the National Park system) and Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, the earliest integrated iron production facility in the country. The projects of the Essex National Heritage Area have helped draw attention and connect residents to these NPS units.
The renovation of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the construction of Friendship has led to resurgent interest in the historic port of Salem – to the mutual benefit of both the park and the city. For the city – the benefits have been on the water and along the harbor front. The harbor is once again filled with boats – pleasure boats mostly. There is a new Salem Ferry connecting Salem to Boston by water for the first time in 100 years. A new harbor walk has been built along with a new wharf for small cruise ships. The nine-acre site has gained influence far beyond its boundaries. Visitors and residents from around the region now flock to its annual Maritime Festival. The demand for tours and school visits has increased exponentially.
An important contribution of the Essex Heritage has been to expand the visitor experience without increasing the burden of public land ownership. The collaboration on the Bakers Island Light Station is an example of such a project. Located just 3 miles off the coast of Salem and visible from the Salem Maritime Historic site, Bakers Island has played a crucial role in maritime history since its first lighthouse was built in 1791. The Essex National Heritage Commission recently assumed ownership of the light station property from the US Coast Guard. In the fall of 2015, the heritage area is launching educational and interpretation programs on the site.
Visitors to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the heritage area will be able to take a boat directly to Bakers Island and visit the light station. It will be a remarkable experience where visitors will be able to learn about maritime history, see the unique marine environment of the sound, and replicate the experience of long ago visitors and sailor who entered Salem from the sea – via Derby Wharf and the US Customs House – both part of Salem Maritime NHS. All this will be accomplished without NPS owning the property. This story is just one of the many ways that National Heritage and the National Park Service demonstrate the benefits of this joint partnership.