If Salem was once a prosperous world seaport, it was not due to the geography of the harbor, but to the enterprise of her mariners, tradesmen, and merchants. Unlike other major ports such as New York, Salem Harbor had no major river to link it with inland towns and markets. The harbor was shallow - too shallow to accommodate the much larger merchant vessels built after 1840. In addition, the many islands and submerged rocks at the approach to the harbor made sailing dangerous at night or in thick weather. To guide ships safely within the harbor, the U.S. Government built the lighthouse on your right at the tip of the wharf in 1871. The original lamp was fueled by oil, and later by acetylene gas. By 1930 the lantern was electrified. Today the lighthouse is still considered an aid to navigation. The light is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard, and the structure is preserved by the National Park Service.
The old wharves are lonely places now, stretching out their arms for ships that never come to port." - Caroline Howard King, When I Lived in Salem, 1822-1866, 1937
Captions:This chart shows Salem Harbor today. The numbers shown on the water are sounding (depth measurements) at low tide given in feet. Note the shallowness of the harbor in this area. The deeper waters of the Salem Channel are maintained by dredging.
The top of this 1797 certificate of membership in the Salem Marine Society bears an engraving of Salem Harbor in 1796. Derby Wharf and its three large warehouses are still visible, but the wharf extension on which you are standing was not built until 1808. In the background lies the harbor entrance and the original twin towers of Baker's Island Light.