A Bridge Street House with a Haunting History
Pointed out as haunted for decades, this historic house is one of Salem's architectural treasures.
As the wealthy merchant class grew in Salem at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, they started building fine homes and mansions.
At the time, merchants looked for desirable areas on which to build. One of the most desirable was Bridge Street because of its straight road with Salem waters and marsh land cooling the area during hot summer months as well as ocean winds sweeping the causeway clear of winter snows. While there were few houses along Bridge Street in 1800, there were some buildings and businesses that were not interested in being displaced. They resisted the idea of making way for mansions so the builders turned their sights on developing a new street. Eventually Chestnut Street was laid out for the future homes of the elite.
One successful merchant, Thomas March Woodbridge, early on in the 19th century acquired land and had a brick mansion built on this prime land in 1809. He was the grandson of Captain B. Woodbridge, an early sea captain. Woodbridge, a Salem merchant, made his fortune with his tannery. In 1801 and 1805, Woodbridge acquired two parcels of land and had the house built at 48 Bridge St. for him and his wife, Mary. Given its Federalist design and interior detail that mirrors other Federalist mansions, the design is ascribed to the noted architect, Samuel McIntire. To ensure this would be one of the best built homes in Salem, the lumber was brought from Fisherman’s Bay, Maine and allowed to weather on the property for a year.
Rev. Bentley, the Salem diarist, in writing about this venerable family that dated back to the first minister in Andover whose son moved to Salem around 1700, noted that the descendant, Thomas March Woodbridge, “has an elegant house upon the land near Planter’s marsh, the corner of Bridge and March Streets.”
After Woodbridge’s death in 1822, the house went through a number of owners. Throughout the 19th century, Bridge Street, one of the main entrances to the town/city, went through a metamorphoses. The streetscape went from few houses on a wooded street with marshland and ocean on both sides, to an industrial center for the city. As ocean and marsh were filled in, the ropewalks gave way to tanneries, railroad yards and gas works.
After a few different owners, the Short family or the Misses Short as they were known, acquired the house in the early 1880s. Here lived Lydia, Harriett, Abbie, Emma and Juliet Short. Emma and Juliet were school teachers for many years who ran a private school on the first floor until 1915. Over the course of some 40 years, the Sisters Short lived here with occasional tenants who were often also teachers at the Ward Two Kindergarten. Other tenants were shoemakers, machinists and laboratory workers.
In 1929 after Emma Short, the last of the Short sisters, passed away, the house changed hands but more often than not remained vacant. In the early 1930s the property was bought by a wealthy elderly New Yorker who removed many valuable furnishings as well as interior fixtures and design features in the house while he renovated the heating and lighting systems. He passed away around 1935, leaving a greatly diminished property for sale.
During this time, the house solidified its reputation as being haunted. A generation of Salemites often pointed to this house as haunted based on unusual and unnatural noises that came from the house. Lacking explanations, the house was the subject of whispered stories of its haunting. Perhaps they revolved around the removal of furniture and fixtures making its spirits unhappy. In 1937 a new “haunting” became newsworthy when the local news heard of a strange old fashioned light appearing in a second floor window in this bleak and empty building each evening.
A reporter wrote how he investigated the mysterious light and saw an old fashioned oil lamp glowing in what he thought was a deserted and decrepit building. He learned that an elderly man was living in an upstairs room as the caretaker for the estate. He lit the lamp “for company,” according to the reporter who saw it as the only bright spot in the gloomy surroundings.
The building was purchased by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now known as Historic New England, in 1939. The Society’s goal was to restore the property then turn it over with special deed covenants to ensure the property would maintain its historical nature. After being vacant for a decade, Helen Hager, a furniture decorator, opened The Black Cat Antiques store here in 1940. This store along with a companion antique shop called the Brick Path operated here until 1955.
After undergoing renovations which preserved the historic interior designs of Samuel McIntire, the building was sold in 1955 to the Children’s Friend and Family Society that had their main offices here for over 50 years. In 1975 this house was added to National Historic Register. Children’s Friend and Family Services is one of the oldest social services agencies in Salem having been established in 1837 as the Salem Seamen’s Orphans’ Society. Children’s Friend and Family Services moved out of this building to larger quarters on Boston Street in 2007. The house then reverted to a residence once again.
This mansion is currently on the market. It retains its elegance throughout with exceptionally fine detail work and is truly a treasure hearkening back to the maritime days of Salem when this elegant house overlooked Planters Marsh and the beginnings of Salem.
You can see photos of the interior here.