Lesson Plan

Pre-Visit Activity: Wharves of the World

Derby Wharf
Illustration of a bustling, vibrant Derby Wharf.
Fred Freeman


In “Wharves of the World,” students imagine the vibrant, bustling atmosphere in Salem at the turn of the 19th century when Salem and its people were tied to global trade.  Students use close observation to examine an illustration that depicts the wharves, warehouses, vessels, shipyards and the exchange of goods and ideas that that characterized the area.  The lesson, aimed at grades 3-5, will take 30-60 minutes to complete. 


Students will be able to:

  • Describe how the wharves and the surrounding area once looked.
  • List the types of work and activities that took place on the wharves.
  • Explain the importance of maritime commerce in the development of the nation.


Of all the dozens of wharves lining the harbor during Salem's Golden Age of Sail, Derby Wharf was the center of activity. As such, it was crowded with ships arriving from or leaving for exotic ports; the many warehouses and stores held desirable treasures; merchants, shoppers, sailors, curious children and foreigners walked amid the bustle. There was noise from conversations, construction, and animals, as well as smells from the coffee, pepper and tea being unloaded on the dock. It could be a place of happiness when a ship returned from a long voyage with a profitable cargo, or one of sadness when informed of the death of a loved one at sea.



Illustration of Derby Wharf by Fred Freeman. Salem's wharves were a rich and vital scene especially when a merchant ship arrived.


Step 1: Make copies of the wharf illustration and distribute to students or project the image onto a screen so that students can observe its details. The illustration could also be divided and cut into quadrants and given to small groups of students.

Step 2: Ask students to examine the illustration or their particular section and list what is in the illustration.

  • People: Are there people? Who are they? What are they doing?
  • Objects: Are there buildings, boats, animals, wagons or other things?
  • Setting: Describe the place. Does it take place in the past, present or future?
  • Activity: What is happening in the illustration? What types of work is being done? What other activities do you see going on?
  • What else do you see in this illustration?

 Step 3: Questions for discussion:

  • What would you hear and smell if you were standing on this wharf?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe this scene?
  • How many different types of vessels do you see?
  • Look inside the ship in the front of the illustration. What types of goods do you imagine is in the ship? Where do you think the ship has gone or is going?
  • How many buildings are there in the illustration? What are they being used for?
  • In what ways do the wharves connect Salem to the world?



1. Informal teacher observation of the activity in progress.

2. Informal checking for understanding during classroom discussion.



Park Connections

The purpose of Salem Maritime National Historic Site is to promote the maritime history of New England and the United States, and preserve part of the historic waterfront in Salem, Massachusetts. Together, this collection of wharves and buildings tell the story of the development of colonial port towns, the importance of international trade to the early economy of the United States, and the connection between maritime trade and growing industrialization.




1. Assign a writing assignment. Here are several ideas for writing activities:

  • Choose a person and write in the first person as if you are that person. Imagine that you are "inside" the person, writing about that person's life, thoughts, and feelings.
  • Choose an object in the photo and write in the first person as if you were that object.
  • Choose two people in the scene. What do you imagine they are saying to each other? Write a conversation between the two people.
  • Interview person(s) depicted in the illustration. Develop questions for the interview. Invite other students to play the roles of the people in the illustration you have chosen.
  • Who is not in the illustration? Why are they left out? Write a story from the point of view of the person missing.
  • Write a diary entry for a person in the illustration.

 2. Ask students to consider how the wharves connected Salem to the world. How has the trading and shipping experience changed, and what has remained the same? Research the various export and import products of Salem over time (Pre-Revolution, post-Revolution, Industrial Revolution). Find out why shipping left Salem.