When Roger Conant landed in Salem, then Naumkeag, with his small band of settlers in 1626, they found a practically pristine environment. The landscape was forested with gentle rolling hills surrounded by the waters of the North and South Rivers and a protected harbor.
The area that would eventually become the footprint of the today consisted of woods and hilly terrain leading to mud flats and the harbor waters. Sidney Perley, in writing a history of Salem, wrote of these woods teeming with wildlife.
Quoting the writings of early settlers, he describes an area with many deer, wolves and foxes as well as large bears who roamed the forests. The bears, for the most part, avoided the settlers and were only fierce during strawberry picking season. Also in plentiful supply were red eyed ferrets, martins, skunk and musquash which were fur bearing animals whose pelts were sought. The raccoons slept in hollow trees during the day and at night would go to the tidal flats on moonlit nights to dig and feed on the plentiful clams. The settlers would hunt the raccoons with dogs. Along the coast great numbers of fish and birds, including eagles, hawks and cormorants, were described along with seals, shark and huge quantities of clams, oysters and lobsters.
As the new Salemites settled along the rivers and bays of their new land, they soon realized their lives and futures were tied to the sea and its bounty.
Before 1636, fishing centered around Winter Harbor, which was the area between the neck and .
According to Sidney Perley, this was probably so named because winter fishing took place here. This was also probably how Winter Island was named. Early on, fishermen were give lots of land along the neck and Winter Island to use for drying and storing fish. It is probable that the area of the future power plant was used by these fishermen since it is considered the beginning of the Salem Neck area.
Before causeways or bridges were built, the early settlers relied on ferries to get to various places. The ferry to Marblehead went from Butt Point on the Neck, bottom of Turner Street, to Ferry Lane just west of the Naugus Head area of Marblehead. This ferry ran for much of the 17th century.
As the Salem settlement grew, the ocean took on increased importance and became the site of much of Salem’s commerce and life. As such, the coast became home to numerous piers and storehouses. The area that would become Phillips Wharf, being a half mile from Derby Wharf and the center of the maritime action, was probably not used other than for fishing and clamming throughout the early years of Salem.
A New Era
In the midst of the Age of Sail, when Salem ships were crisscrossing the globe opening new ports to commerce and the India trade was flourishing, the number of wharfs increased greatly as merchants sought to expand. The first mention of a wharf on this property was the India Wharf built in 1800 for Far East commerce and shipping by the India Company. With the Embargo of 1812 and the shift of commerce to bigger ports, the Age of Sail came to an end in Salem. In a very short period, the once thriving port became dotted with empty and deserted warehouses and wharves.
Rather than fading into obscurity, Salem turned toward manufacturing and Railroads. With the establishment of train travel, Salem merchants seized the opportunity to become the entry point for coal to the burgeoning mill cities north of Boston.
The India wharf was bought by Stephen C Phillips in 1836. It was he who truly built the Phillips Wharf, which extended beyond the mud flats. Stephen Phillips was a principal in the Salem & Lowell RR. To facilitate the delivery and distribution of coal shipments, freight lines were run from the wharf inland to the mills of Lawrence and Lowell.
As manufacturing grew, so did the coal piles along the wharves of Salem, the most notable being the Phillips Wharf. Stephen Phillips died in June of 1857, one of the 264 victims of the steamship, The Montreal, burning and sinking in the St. Lawrence River. His son,Willard Phillips continued the business.
He granted a 20-year lease of the property to the railroad in about 1871. In 1873, the Philadelphia Pier was built next to the Philips Wharf by the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company.
This pier extended southeasterly nearly 2000 feet into the harbor, which is halfway across the harbor. At low tide, there was 16 feet of water at the end of the pier. The coal company started shipping coal to Salem 1875.
By the end 1877, 90,000 tons of coal had been shipped during that year alone. To accommodate the vast quantities of coal which would be trans-shipped via the railroad that started on the pier, large warehouses were constructed on the pier. The largest referred to as ‘the pockets’ was 200 feet long, 100 feet wide and 50 feet high equipped with a large steam apparatus to move the coal from ships to warehouses then to railroad cars.
During Salem’s glory days of world trading the tonnage brought into port never exceeded the coal trade that grew with the insatiable appetite for power to run the mills and manufacturing plants of Massachusetts. Black mountains of coal spread along the Salem coastline.
The Phillips Wharf area was the center of this trade. This trade grew and continued unabated until bigger and better ports were accessible to the railroads that criss-crossed the state. With the rise of bigger and better equipped ports as well as the growth in trucking Salem’s days as a booming coal port were numbered.