Driving or walking through the quiet, residential area around , one would not know that this area was a prominent focus during different periods of Salem’s history.
When the area was first explored by the planters who came from Gloucester to settle Naumkeag, this cove was then much larger. The cove area probably covered twice the area it now covers. The cove was wider, extending over what is now Collins Street as well as the Memorial Drive area. The cove extended much closer to the as the maps show. The cove, the Neck and were heavily forested in the 1600s. Those forests were soon cleared for use in building houses and ships. This clearing immediately impacted the coastline with wind and rains causing erosion.
The path along the cove toward the Willows and Winter Island was an important road very early in Salem. While the first houses were downtown, the Neck and Winter Island were the center of the fishing industry. It was also where early forts would be established to defend the settlement. In 1636, the government felt the necessity to regulate the fishing and land use on Winter Island. In these early days, the land was used for drying the catch while the fishermen lived nearby on the Neck. So populous and busy was this area, that they received permission for the first licensed tavern in Salem in 1679.
Before the Common was laid out in the early 19th century, it was a hilly, swampy area that had streams that ran from the ponds down to a seawater creek on what is now Forrester Street. At that time, it was known as East Street. In those days, at low tide, the cove waters remained at least four feet deep.
This depth, as well as its proximity to the first settlements, made it an ideal spot for ship building and fishing. It was here that the first boats were probably built, starting Salem’s boat building that later played an important role for Salem’s commerce. These early boats were copies of the common shallop used in European waters for fishing and trade. A shallop is a small boat of various sizes that can be rowed or sailed. Usually a shallop had one or two masts and gaff rigged sails as the above drawing illustrates.
The cove became home to the shallops — they were moored or beached here, giving the cove its name. In 1635, the cove was referred to as Birdlesse or Burley’s Cove. That name quickly changed to Shallop Cove when it became home to the shallops. In these early years there were fishermen’s shacks along the side of Shallops Cove for the fishermen whose boats were nearby. In 1730, we read that the cove was referred to as Collins Cove, probably named after an early settler who lived on the shore.
When shallops were built along the cove, they would be brought over to the creek on East Street were they were provisioned for sailing at “Shallop Wharfe”. This wharf was built by Benjamin Gerrish on land just behind #12 Essex St. on the creek. Here he built an English and West India Goods store along with a wharf and other buildings. Benjamin Gerrish also had the Customs House here.
In 1847, William Nichols, who then lived at 12 Essex St., was digging in his garden and found the remains of the wharf’s posts, reminding people, then and now, that Salem’s history is buried deep in our soil.
In the first half of the 18th century there was a weather event that resulted in some five acres of land around Andrews Street washing into the cove, having an impact on its depth as well as its shoreline. The deep channels in the cove began to fill in. In 1818, writing in his diary, Dr. Bentley noted that the cove was then only half as deep as it was when he came to Salem in 1783. Erosion helped along by deforestation, along with storms, brought changes which continued to impact the coastline of the Neck and Winter Island. As the cove became shallower, the shallops moved on to the deeper waters around Winter Island. D. Bentley, writing about filling in the cove describes an incident in 1790. While leveling and building a seawall, two gold coins were unearthed. One coin was stamped King Louis XIII and the other King Charles I of Great Britain. Dr. Bentley saw them as relics of the earliest settlers here.
In the 19th century, as Salem shipping turned to coal, railroad lines were constructed along Derby Street and the northern part of the cove. Coal landing at the Philadelphia Pier was shipped by rail to the mill cities of Essex County. This created a need to fill in more land along the contours of the cove. More streets were laid out over and across the tidewaters. In 1869 and throughout the 19th century, more land was leveled, filling in the clam flats around the cove.
In 1911, city leaders, acknowledging that Salem was known generally as a city “without a single tolerable entrance or exit,” appointed the first permanent city planning commission in Massachusetts. After studying the entire city and determining that it needed to be more livable, they undertook efforts to reverse hundreds of years without planning or zoning.
The Commission took special interest in making Salem accessible by laying out a ring road and a shore boulevard that connected with Marblehead’s “West Shore Drive,” hugging the Salem shoreline, and extending into Beverly via a new bridge. Their plan was to circle Collins Cove with a boulevard. This seaside highway would be situated in a park area that would surround the Cove. To this end, they urged the city to start buying up available land around the cove and consider using the new law of eminent domain passed by the legislature the previous year. The loss of land and houses, they argued, would be more than made up by the rise in property values engendered by the renewal. The map above shows their vision.
In addition to this very ambitious plan, there were also proposals to extend roads, widen streets and replant trees throughout the city. While many of the more modest proposals were implemented over the next several years, the larger ones that involved the Shore Road and Ring Road never came to fruition for a number of reasons that mostly involved funding.
Several of the proposals were implemented during the rebuilding process after the great fire of 1914. Others were put on hold for better days that never arrived. When the Great Depression occurred and there were some 1300 Salemites hired for the WPA, (Works Progress Administration) the
projects had a different focus. The largest local project appears to have been the construction of the Smith Pool and its buildings in Cat Cove. In 1935, there was a plan for a WPA funded playground for Collins Cove, but that never got implemented. There were, however, bath houses built in several locations in the city including Collins Cove. The bath house/field house at Collins Cove was removed in 1966. In 1960, the sea wall was finished and the beach wall that had fallen into disrepair was recapped. Since then, a pathway with lights along the top of the cove was installed and is a popular walking/running area.
Having lived on the banks of the cove for some 30 years, I’ve witnessed a variety of cove events. I’ve seen my neighbors gather to try and save boats torn loose from their moorings being driven toward the rocks of the cove during the perfect storm of Halloween 1991.
Collins Cove neighbors have witnessed maritime debris flowing into the cove after storms that routinely wash over the pathway and batter the sea walls. We’ve seen the occasional visiting seal as well as lost whales in danger of beaching. We’ve also seen a car attempt to drive to across the Cove at low tide…he didn’t get very far. We’ve witnessed baptisms by immersion as well as annual swim meets and .
The cove on most days, except for hot summer days when the regular beach goers congregate, is a solitary place where we can touch the sea’s pulse, feel its immutable power and contemplate our place in nature. Such notions call to mind the words of Nathaniel Hawthorne in his, “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore” where he wrote, “When, therefore, the yearning for seclusion becomes a necessity within me, I am drawn to the sea-shore, which extends its line of rude rocks and seldom-trodden sands, for leagues around our bay.” Living not far from Collins Cove, it is likely this native son walked this cove’s shores contemplating the life of Salem found in his writings. You can read his brief story, “Foot-Prints on the Sea-Shore”, that describes his solitary walk along a beach online here.