Too Many Irons in the Fire

Saturday, April 28, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

On the History Highway, Day 45:  Salem, MA to Exeter, NH

For a change we got an earlier start today and left the hotel by 9:30.  Looking back at journals from our travels when we first retired, we marvel to read that we often checked out before 7 a.m., but then those were two-week trips, not two-month journeys, and we were ten years younger and not letterboxing or blogging.

Today we were pleased to arrive at the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site in Saugus, MA, an hour after they opened for the day.  The lonely ranger on duty was so excited to welcome the first visitors of the day that she rushed to the door as we approached and ushered us into the visitor center.  When iron ore deposits were discovered in the Boston area in 1640, the first iron works in the colonies was established on the Saugus River, which provided water power and transport.  By 1646, a group of English and Welsh artisans, enticed to emigrate as indentured servants, were producing iron products for both Massachusetts and England.

Saugus Iron Works (reconstructed buildings)
In less than ten years, the company was floundering from mismanagement and financial struggles from which it never recovered.  With no federal government to bail it out, the company failed by 1668, but not before introducing a complex technology into what had been the simple world of colonial America.  At the time this significant manufacturing plant was built, just 20 years after the Pilgrims' arrival, there were only a dozen comparable facilities in all of Europe.

Reconstructed furnace (water-powered bellows on left)
The rationale for reconstructing and maintaining this bankrupt ironworks as a national historic site, we're told, is its role as a training ground for skilled iron workers who would help create America's iron and steel industry.  Decision makers in the National Park Service apparently believe that the site's annual visitation in the 10,000 range (most of whom are probably squirming school kids who wish they were anywhere else) justifies the cost of maintaining this complex ($894,000 in FY2012, according to the NPS budget).

Reconstructed wharves at Salem Maritime NHS
From Saugus, we drove ten miles to another NPS unit, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.  Unlike the ironworks, Salem's maritime industry was an international force for more than a century.  Soon after its founding in 1626, Salem became a colonial center of shipbuilding, starting as a fishing port but soon switching to the more lucrative shipping trade.  By the 1700s ships from Salem were importing luxury goods from India, China, Europe, Africa, and even Australia.  When the English crown imposed taxes and duties that cut deeply into the merchants' profits, Massachusetts shipowners stepped up as major financial backers of the American Revolution.  After an embargo imposed during the War of 1812, the Salem shipping industry never recovered, and the city's economy turned its focus to manufacturing.

One of the places we didn't open our wallets to
Without doubt, Salem is most remembered today for an ugly chapter in its colonial history—the witchcraft trials of 1692-93.  We were a bit taken aback at the plethora of local businesses capitalizing on historical persecution.  A few offerings:  Salem Wax Museum of Witches, Salem Witch Museum, World of Witches Museum, Salem Witch Hunt, Witch History Museum, Salem Witch Village, and Spellbound Museum.  Salem is also home to the bizarrely named 40 Whacks Museum.  Although the famed Lizzie Borden allegedly wielded her ax in Fall River (70 miles away), the museum owners apparently were attracted by Salem's steady stream of tourists overly willing to part with their cash to kitschy witchy sites.

Salem Witch Memorial
What to do?  We had to commemorate this historical event, but there was no way we would pay to see one of these cheesy tourist traps.  What we chose to visit was the Salem Witch Memorial.  Unlike the commercial sites, the memorial is a respectful tribute to the 20 persons, both male and female, executed in the witch trials, a textbook case of mass hysteria in colonial Salem.  A simple courtyard adjacent to the Old Burial Ground cemetery in the center of town, the memorial includes twenty stone benches, each engraved with the name of one of the witch trial victims.  

Far superior to any of the commercial Salem efforts at telling the story of the witch trials, Arthur Miller's legendary drama The Crucible, a fictional account of the Salem tragedy, effectively evokes the wrenching emotion and terror of the accused, whose innocence was of no consequence to the hysterical masses.  We saw an outstanding production of The Crucible in York, England, last year and highly recommend the play to anyone who has an opportunity to see it.

On the way from Salem to Exeter, NH, our destination for the next couple of days, we found the perfect location to plant our Massachusetts letterbox in the aptly named town of Boxford.

DAILY STATS:
Miles driven:  87
Walked:  1.8
Letterboxes:  3 F, 1 P
Witch-named attractions in Salem:  76
Other visitors at Saugus:  1

More Photos from Today

Walking tour for couch potatoes
Detail from Salem Witch Memorial
Salem Custom House
Wooden carving of a fireback (a cast iron plate mounted at the back of a fireplace) cast at Saugus
Iron Works House, the only original building at Saugus site
Chain bridge over the Merrimack River to Deer Island