As plans for a redesign of the Essex Street pedestrian mall begin to emerge, the fate of its two once vibrant and refreshing water fountains seems set.
Seven hundred feet apart, they stand as bookends for the brick and cobblestone walkway. As things look today, these fountains, proud but worn monuments to Salem history, will be no more.
Each fountain tells us something of Salem history.
The bigger fountain, across from the East India Marine Hall, details how Salem grew as a result of trade with the farthest ports of the rich east. An Asian gateway represents the maritime trade while two layers of cobblestone display the Salem map as it appeared before and after the landfill projects that eliminated most of the wharves and a lot of the waterfront.
The layers of cobblestones fascinated me as a kid. I would stand there and try to visualize what Salem looked like prior to the landfill projects. The North and South rivers were longer and wider. In my mind's eye, I saw the wharves of the South River with large ships sailing off onto the the open seas. Many a seafaring adventure played out in my imagination.
The smaller fountain in Town House Square tells another older story. Legend has it that this was the location of the main fresh water source in Salem even before the Europeans arrived. The first town pump was built there which became the focus of "A Rill From The Town Pump", Nathaniel Hawthorne's satirical riff on the temperance movement. Its birth in 1976 fulfilled a pump's request from that poem which was: "when I shall have decayed, like my predecessors, then, if you revere my memory, let a marble fountain, richly sculptured, take my place upon this spot. What stands today may not be marble, but it does serve to remember.
This smaller fountain also attracted my young imagination. The bronze relief depicting scenes from Salem history brought me on many a journey. I wore the bronze helmets and encountered the local natives in many a heroic scenario. I love it when tourists engage me in conversation, and I can relate the story of this fountain to them and point out the millstone embedded in the sidewalk in front of Rockafellas.
Over the years, the entire pedestrian mall has degenerated through neglect. It is difficult to blame any one group or person. Years ago, there was a maintenance and repair budget for its upkeep. When I started at the Lobster Shanty, there was a $25,000 budget just for the market place. Over the years, the money in those budgets was redirected and then just eliminated.
If you don't maintain something, it is bound to fall apart and that is what happened here. The cobblestones need to go, they were a nice idea 30 odd years ago but were never practical. Improved access to storefronts is well advised. Better landscaping with some trees is also a nice idea.
Eliminating the fountains? Not a great idea to me. I like them. I appreciate them. I want them to stay. The smaller fountain is situated so as to still allow vehicle access. The bigger fountain when operational and filled with water brings a cool vibe and the story of Salem to a visitor on a hot day.
It will be a sad day for me when the wrecking ball comes to the Town Pump.