Part II: Salem Harbor Power Station in the Last Century

From China trade to coal, we take a look at Salem Harbor Power Station.

In the late 1800s, the Phillips and Philadelphia wharves became the shipping locus for not only the city, but for the North Shore and Merrimack Valley mill cities. 

The railroads that provided the coal trans-shipment became a driving force for development. In the late 1800s, the railroad expansion necessitated filling in shorelines, coves, ponds and mudflats along the city’s coastline. As shown in the detail of the 1911 city map, the railroads starting on these wharves ran across Derby Street and along the Collins Cove waterfront to Bridge Street where it headed north.

While coal was king, it was also a dangerous commodity. As monster barges made deliveries of 3000 to 5000 tons of coal at a time, those mountains of coal needed to be watched over and kept safe from fires which, if ignited, could and would burn for days.

Over the years, there were several fires that burned for days before they could be suppressed. One can only imagine what the pollution index would have been during those days.

While manufacturing continued to grow, the port of Salem did not. From high tonnage in the 1870s and 1880s, it gradually decreased with better port and rail facilities in Boston. The foreign trade that had been such a staple of the Salem Port disappeared during this time period.

In 1855, the last ship bringing a cargo from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) entered port; in 1858, the last entry from Manila arrived and in May of 1870, the last shipment of goods from Zanzibar, East Africa, arrived. The last shipments from Cayenne in South America's French Guiana made port in Salem in 1877. In 1878, only two vessels cleared the Salem Port in the entire year; one for the West Indies and the other for Liverpool.

At the height of Salem’s trading days, seven vessels would clear in a week. The age of maritime trade had closed on Salem.

While the trans-shipment of coal continued, Salem looked more to its manufacturing base for its future. Business leaders at the turn of the century saw shoe factories, tanneries and the expansion of the power plant on Peabody Street as signs of Salem keeping pace with progress. There were a number of articles in the newspaper expressing the hope that Salem would become a major freight center for the growing Boston and Maine Railroad line. They hoped that by filling in such places as the Mill Pond, there would be a major freight terminal established that would rival Boston.

In 1907, the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company, having already purchased the Phillips Wharf property, proposed that they be allowed to buy the flats at the bottom of Derby Street so they could expand their holdings. Because this land belonged to the city, there was much discussion that resulted in the unique approach of calling a special town meeting even though Salem had a city government at the time.

According to the Salem News of Feb. 25, 1907, the procedure was the same as a town meeting. While it was an official proceeding, the issue could only be discussed and not acted upon, which was the purview of the city council. The thought was that the city council might be influenced, but not bound by any resolutions brought up. The question to be discussed was to consider the expediency of selling city lands and flats.

After much discussion, there was a vote of 88 in favor of and four opposed to selling or leasing the land. The meeting was apparently dominated by those who hoped Salem would become a major coal terminal. People felt this powerful company would move its shipping from Boston as well as have a hand in getting federal funding to deepen the harbor so bigger ships could use the port. At the time, the deliveries of coal were mostly going to Boston.

With city approval, the land where a paint manufacturing plant was, as well as the mud flats, was sold to the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company.

During the course of the early years of the 20th century, coal distribution continued in Salem but lessened and became more for local consumption and not trans-shipment. The mills of the north were being serviced by the rails out of Boston.

At the same time, the harbor was silting up and having an impact on shipping.  A telling episode occurred in 1913. The Salem Bay Line, a steamship freight business, was becoming successful shipping goods between Salem and Boston. Though the company considered adding a boat, instead, they had to cease operations after being grounded dozens of times. Where the harbor channel was supposed to be 10 feet deep, it really was only six feet deep and the ship was unable to navigate. As the manager said, “Steamers cannot run on dry land, as they are not built that way, but like ducks must have water.”

By 1916, the Philadelphia & Reading wharf had all but shut down. The company pockets and coal moving equipment lay idle. For a number of reasons, the hopes and plans for a major coal operation never came to be. For the next three years, the only thing happening here was the rusting of equipment and rail lines. The company ignored local pleas to either use the property or sell it to someone who would use it.  The situation became so dire that legislation was filed to take the wharf by eminent domain.

During 1921, the coal conveyors were being demolished on the wharf while the stone work was crumbling from the wear and tear of the ocean. Philadelphia & Reading spent minimal money to maintain the stonework but were adamant that the coal business would not return because freight rates were prohibitive.

One can be certain that having an unused wharf did not go unnoticed by local rum runners during this time of Prohibition. It appears that this was a favorite unloading spot until a random police patrol in Sept 1923 noticed the activity. After staking out the area for several early morning hours, the officer seized a 1000 gallons of illegal liquor being unloaded here.

After years of disuse in 1923, the Tenney Company, the managers of Salem Electric Light, purchased the Phillips Wharf and other property totaling nearly ten acres of land as well as the mud flats with the intent of building a super power plant on the site. The new owners then sold the equipment and buildings on the wharf to Pickering Coal Company, which moved the equipment to their property at Derby and Union streets, (currently the Pickering Wharf area).

With the removal of the coal equipment, the Tenney Company set to work to prepare the site for their super power plant, which was estimated to cost $10 million. In 1924, they brought in the Middlesex, an ocean going vessel called a sand-sucker, to literally vacuum up sand from the harbor bottom and shoot it onto the flats behind a granite retaining wall, making new land for the plant while deepening the ship channel.

This process lasted many months, filling in the mud flat area between Phillips Wharf and the Philadelphia Pier as well as the cove near Derby Street. It was a difficult and time consuming process where parts had to be shored up with gravel and rocks to stabilize the ground so that coal could be stored on it. It was believed that the land wouldn’t be completely stable for two to three years.

While filling in the flats, workers also constructed a huge coal bridge to transport coal from ships and storage areas to the power plant. Rail lines in a loop from Derby Street were also added. By the time they were done using the sand-sucker, they had converted nearly 30 acres of mud flats into waterfront land for the future power plant.

The plan was to build the power plant in units where each unit would have a capacity of approximately 100,000 kilowatts. As necessitated, more units would be added as the proposed distribution network of some 60 miles of high tension transmission wires grew. In the years before the plant was to be built, the coal deliveries would be concentrated in Salem and distributed by rail and truck to
other electric company plants throughout the area.

During the early to mid 1920s, when there were coal shortages, briquettes became popular. Briquettes are made by chemically treating and pressing soft coal, making it burn more efficiently. Tenney Corporation, while supplying coal to power plants, also built a briquette factory on its property, which was very successful throughout the 1920s.

During the 20s and 30s, amid the Depression era, the coal business on the former Phillips Wharf did well, supplying coal to a number of power plants. For a number of economic reasons as well as World War II, construction of the super power plant didn’t start until 1948. With new piers, upgraded conveyor systems and a network of high tension wiring, the first phase of the power plant went on line in November 1951. Its cost at that time was set at $30 million.

Once this coal- or oil-burning unit was running, they started on phase two, which was the addition of another unit which was completed in late 1952. New England Power continued to run the plant and in 1958 added another unit. These units used oil to run the turbines.

In 1978, the fourth and final unit was added. Amid shortages of high priced oil in the late 1970s, the plant requested and received permission to switch from oil to coal, thus saving 180,000 barrels of oil a month. They completed the conversion
of two units to coal by 1982. At that time, three units were coal burning while one burned oil.

In 1998, US Gen, a subdivision of Pacific Gas & Electric, bought the plant. In 2003, US Gen filed for bankruptcy and a buyer was sought for the plant. In 2005, Dominion purchased the plant.

Last week, Dominion officially .

Once again, Salem is faced with choices on what should happen with this property.

Luckily, we have time to thoughtfully consider future uses rather than succumb to anxiety and look for the quick fix that will be the least disruptive. It seems that when Salem has tried to be accommodating in the hope of growth, it hasn’t always worked well.

With good input and thoughtful consideration of what is best for the city, apart from what is going to generate the most taxes, this land, which is so steeped in Salem’s maritime history, will once again be a vibrant positive for Salem and our harbor neighbors. It is not so much a matter of taxes as a quality of life issue for this and future Salemites. Let us hope future generations will be proud of the choices we make.

Thank you to Nelson Dionne for sharing some source material for this article.

Chris May 16, 2011 at 02:14 PM
Indeed, interesting article. The map's a little small and hard to read, is it on the salem deeds website? I wasn't able to find it. Thanks
KlassySalem May 16, 2011 at 03:19 PM
I'd love to see a bigger, more detailed copy of this map as well.
Jerome Curley May 16, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Hi Chris, The map is from the 1911 City Atlas, Plate 5. Here's the link..when you click on it it gets very large. http://www.salemdeeds.com/atlases_pages.asp?ImageName=PLATE_0005.jpg&atlastype=Atlases&atlastown=SALEM&atlas=SALEM+1911&atlas_desc=SALEM+1911&pageprefix= If you have difficulty, drop me a note and I'll send a copy by email. J.Curley
KlassySalem May 16, 2011 at 06:45 PM
That worked great. Thank you!
Nelson Dionne April 18, 2012 at 02:40 PM
ALL of the Salem Atlases are on the Southern Essex County Registry of Deeds website. See "Atlases & maps". Usually you first see a smaller version of the map, then you can click on it for a huge view. Download a full page ( to big to print ) crop out the portion of the page you want. Each Salem Atlas ( 1874, 1898, & 1910, and The Sanborn Insurance atlas - ( which was constantly updated ) . has 20 or more pages.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »