Salem's Historic Wharves

Salem's historic wharves at low tide, taken from the cupola of the US Custom House.
The wharves at Salem Maritime at low tide, taken from the cupola of the U.S. Custom House.

NPS photo

The three wharves that extend into Salem Harbor at Salem Maritime are the best examples of the over fifty wharves that once lined the harbor during the height of Salem’s international trade.

Derby Wharf, the longest of the three wharves, was begun in 1762 by Richard Derby, Sr., one of Salem’s wealthiest merchants. Over the years, as the Derby family’s trade expanded, they extended the wharf, until in 1806 it reached its current half-mile length. Hatch’s Wharf, the shortest wharf, was built in 1819, and Central Wharf was built in 1791 by Simon Forrester. Derby Wharf Light Station was built in 1871.

a historic image of Derby Wharf
In this detail from a 1797 certificate of membership in the Salem Marine Society, Derby Wharf is clearly visible. There are 3 three-story warehouses visible on the wharf.

NPS Collections

The wharves of Salem were covered with warehouses, some of which were two to three stories high. Derby Wharf, at one point, had almost twenty structures on it, from three story warehouses to smaller sheds to Elias Hasket Derby's counting house-the headquarters of his international trading empire. Sailing vessels were at times constructed on the wharves, and launched sideways into the harbor.
the wharves at Salem Maritime at flood tide. the water is covering most of the wharves.
In this picture, taken in 2003, much of Derby Wharf and Central Wharf are underwater, and Hatch's Wharf is submerged.

NPS Photo

In Salem Harbor, there is about an eleven foot difference between high tide and low tide. Sometimes bad weather will push the water in the harbor towards land. This is called a storm surge. When a storm surge happens at the same time as a high tide, water can come up over the wharves. This is one reason why warehouses were often several stories high.
The Orientation Center at Salem Maritime is an old two-story warehouse. It is clapboarded, and has four windows in each side.
Waite and Peirce store at Salem Maritime.

NPS Photo

Waite and Peirce, formerly the Orientation Center, which is at the head of Central Wharf, is a warehouse built around 1770. Inside, you can see the huge beams that support the second floor and were designed to hold the weight of tons of exotic goods like tea, spices, and silk. The building now houses a store selling authentic and exotic goods to benefit Salem Maritime.
The original sea wall of Derby Wharf, made of large square timbers piled on top of each other.
Archeology of Derby Wharf.

NPS photo

In 1992, an archeological dig revealed how some of Salem’s wharves were constructed. The 1762 section of Derby Wharf was built by laying timbers on the mud flats at low tide, and then filling between the timber walls with dirt and stones. Later in the 19th century, the wharf was encased with large granite blocks.

Visiting the wharves at Salem Maritime

The wharves are open all the time. Waysides along Derby Street and the length of Derby Wharf explain some of the history of the wharves, the harbor, and the international trade of the city.

Visitors should exercise caution while visiting the wharves after dark or during poor weather. Erosion has led to an uneven walking surface, holes, and other tripping hazards. Also, the wind can be much stronger at the end of Derby Wharf than it is near the shore.

Click here for more information about our film and guided tours.


For More Information

On Derby Wharf Light Station

On International Trade in Salem

On Friendship of Salem

Last updated: January 17, 2018

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Mailing Address:

160 Derby Street
Salem, MA 01970


(978) 740-1650

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