The area we know today as Salem Common was swampland when the English arrived in Naumkeag in 1626. Over time, they adapted it for public use as a pen for livestock and a training field for the local militia. On November 16, 1713, a group of the proprietors of Salem’s common lands met and voted that the land used as a training field remain “as Itt now layes” for the public use of the town in perpetuity.
In 1801, in an early example of Salem citizens pooling their resources together for the common good (and for the good of the Common), Elias Hasket Derby Jr. led a committee of Salem residents in an effort to raise money for an intensive landscaping project aimed at making Salem Common more accessible to the public. Through the sale of subscriptions, the committee raised over $2,000 to grade and fill the land and plant poplar trees and shrubs. The following year, by order of the town selectmen, the common was renamed Washington Square in honor of the nation’s first President.
Plan of Salem Common, 1800: "Plan of Salem Common made about the year 1800 for the use of the Committee who had the direction in levelling the common & filling up the dirty pond-holes. Gen. Derby was chairman of this Committe & we collected by subscription about 2000[?] to pay the expense." (Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)
In 1805, a collection of public and private funds was again taken up for the construction of four ornamental gateways to the common, designed by local architect Salem McIntire (a replica of the arched western gate can be seen today). A little over a decade later, a new wooden fence was erected around the perimeter of the common. This wooden fence and its gates were replaced by a more ornamental fence made of cast-iron in 1850.
Like so many of the things we enjoy in Salem, Salem Common and its historic fence are a result of our community coming together to make this a better place to live and a special place to visit. Salem is a community that has traditionally treasured and protected its unique history and heritage, and that history and heritage are what draws multitudes of people to our city every year. Historic Salem, Inc. supports the City in its efforts to complete a multi-phase restoration project on Salem Common Fence in order to preserve it for future generations. If we lose the fence, we lose another connection to our rich past, and we become a little less special, and a little bit more like any other place.
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