History of Salisbury, Massachusetts

Salisbury is a historic Massachusetts town in Essex county near the New Hampshire border.

It is the northernmost town in Massachusetts and was settled by Massachusetts Bay colonists in the early 17th century.

Before the colonists settled there, Salisbury was the home of the Pennacook tribe of Native Americans. It is estimated that anywhere between 3,000-12,000 Pennacook (the exact number is unclear and often debated) lived in the surrounding Merrimack Valley area where they used the Merrimack River as their primary mode of transportation.

In the summer months, the tribe traveled downstream in canoes and used the wetlands at the mouth of the Merrimack River in Salisbury as their hunting and fishing ground.

The Pennacook established many hunting trails in Salisbury, which the colonists later turned into roads, such as Ferry Road, Seabrook Road and Elm Street.

Salisbury, Massachusetts town seal
Salisbury, Massachusetts town seal

The Pennacook also created large burials mounds where they buried their dead. An ancient Native American burial mound is reportedly located at a place called Morrill Point, somewhere near the mouth of the Merrimack River in Salisbury. It is an earthen burial mound that is 6-8 feet high and 200 feet in diameter, according to the Review of Archaeology periodical:

“The Morrill Point burial site was the first cemetery site in New England to be dated to the Middle Archaic period. The site is located in northeastern Massachusetts at the mouth of the Merrimack River. It produced red ocher deposits with and without cremations, full-channeled gouges, long stone rods, and serrated projectile points…Recent AMS (accelerator mass spectrometry) radiocarbon dates from the Morrill Point Mound indicate that the burial site likely dates back earlier than previously thought, to the Early Archaic period of ca. 8500-8000 B.P.”

According to the website www.trismegistos.com the site was excavated in the 1970s and several skeletons were uncovered:

“Long known as an ‘Indian’ hill, this site was first actively investigated by the Early Sites Research Society in the late 1970’s. Several seasons of excavations produced dramatic evidence of long term use by generations of ancient Indians. The first few layers of the mound showed clear evidence of a feasting site. As the digging continued along the southern tier of the mound, the teams found several burials with skeletons that were almost perfectly preserved. Some were in flexed, fetal position, having been arranged with great care, while other skeletons were found in ancient piles of shells. The age of these skeletons provided a perspective on both long term use and tradition. The earliest set of remains dated back over 6000 years. Perhaps the most intriguing material found with these early burials was red ochre – sometimes called ‘red paint.’ Red ochre is found in many burials along the eastern coast of America. Why it was sometimes buried with the dead is unknown, although it probably had religious significance… A few hundred yards from the mound, the team found a male skeleton that was over 7000 years old. The body was layed out in flexed position with the head pointing toward the east.”

It is not clear exactly where Morrill Point or the burial mound is located in Salisbury but Christopher W. Pittman, the owner of the Cellar Walls website, which is dedicated to historical ruins in New England, posted several photographs of the burial mound on his website. It appears to be in an undeveloped wooded area surrounded by boulders and stone walls.

According to Joseph Merrill in his book History of Amesbury: Including the First Seventeen Years of Salisbury, the Pennacook have left behind a lot of evidence of their activities in Salisbury:

“The favorite haunts of natives seem to have been near the sea and Merrimac. At Salisbury, near the marsh, immense piles of clam shells were found and have remained until recently. Among these, relic seekers have found many arrow heads and some bones which show by whom these accumulations were made.”

According to an article on the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation website, in 1868, a man named Jeffries Wyman discovered a large collection of arrowheads at Salisbury Beach, about one mile from the left bank of the Merrimack River, and also states about 13 shell mounds have been found on the Merrimack River bank.

Shell mounds were dumping spots for domestic waste, such as animal bones, shells and human excrement, and are common in coastal regions where nomadic people once lived.

In addition to the Morrill Point burial mound in Salisbury, there are also a few Native American earthen ceremonial mounds in Maudslay State Park in the neighboring town of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Salisbury in the 17th Century:

In the early 17th century, fisherman visited Salisbury often, prior to colonization, and brought European diseases that hit the local Pennacook population hard, although frequent warfare with the Mohawk tribe is also believed to have dwindled their numbers.

According to Sherburne Friend Cook in his book, The Indian Population of New England in the Seventeenth Century, the Pennacook frequently traveled between the coast and their main settlement in Concord, NH which may have helped spread disease. This is especially true of the great plague of 1617, which started in coastal areas like Salisbury:

“The great plague of 1617 destroyed hundreds of indians all along the coast from the Saco River south to Cape Cod. Ballard, in commenting upon the population decline in the vicinity of Concord, refers to the devastation caused by the Mohawk and continues: ‘It is possible, too, that the ravaging disease which swept off large numbers of natives on the sea coast…brought a portion of its desolation to this region.’ He mentions the frequent visits between the coastal people and those of the interior – visit which could have easily communicated the plague.”

Salisbury was settled by Simon Bradstreet and eleven other men in 1638. In August of 1638, Simon Bradstreet and these other men, Samuel Dudley, Daniel Dennison, Christopher Batt, Samuel Winsley, John Sanders, Giles Firman, Richard Kent, Henry Bilye, Reverend John Woodbridge, Edmund Batter and Dr. John Clark, rowed across the Merrimack River from the settlement at Newbury, and explored the area that is now Salisbury, looking for a place to establish a new settlement.

The men found a broad open space on high ground, at what is now Salisbury Square, which had been previously cleared by the Pennacook.

According to Merrill, the settlers probably chose the area due its close proximity to various waterways and its vast natural resources:

“The inducements which led to this new settlement are not quite clear, but there were some advantages which may have had weight in forwarding the movement. The great tract of marsh was near at hand and was a valuable feeding ground for their cattle; clams and fish were within easy reach, and the meadows and beach were alive with various kinds of fowl; indeed tradition has it that at times geese were so plenty as to greatly damage the hay crop. Nor were these alone numerous, but other species of water-fowl were abundant and easily obtained. The soil was rich and of easy cultivation, and water communication by way of the town creek very near and convenient. These were no doubt some of the advantages which induced so many of the colonists at Newbury to remove hither.”

On September 6, 1638, the twelve men filed a petition with the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony asking for permission to create the settlement. The men were granted permission and began recruiting settlers. The first settlers arrived in Salisbury in the spring of 1639.

Map of Salisbury, Massachusetts, circa 1639
Map of Salisbury, Massachusetts, circa 1639

The following is a list of the first colonial settlers of Salisbury who received land in the first land division in 1639, according to the book The Old Families of Salisbury and Amesbury, Massachusetts:

Mr. Sam: Dudley
Mr Willj Hooke
Mr Willj Worcester
Mr Christopher Batt
Mr Sam: Winsley
Mr Henry Biley
John Sanders
Mr Francis Doue
Jno Rolfe
Mr Tho: Dummer
Mr Henry Monday
George Carr
Mr Tho. Bradbury
Jno Harrison
Mr John Hodges
Abra: Morrell
Jno Fullar
Luke Heard
Josiah Cobbet
Jarret Haddon
Anthony Colby
John Bayly Sen
John Stephens
John Severens
Robert Pike
Robt Ring
Richard Singleterry
Tho Macy
Tho. Hauxwell
Jno Clifford
John Eyres
Roger Eastman
Anthony Sadler
Widow Browne

On September 4, 1639, the settlers named the town Colchester but then on October 7, 1640, the General Court ordered the settlement to be called Salisbury, according to Merrill:

“Oct 7th. The General Court changed the town’s name from Colchester to Salisbury. How this change was brought about has been a matter of speculation, but the most probable theory is that it was brought about by Christopher Batt. He is said to have resided in Salisbury [England] previous to his emigration from England. He came over in the ship Reuvis, in May, 1638…He immediately joined the party crossing the Merrimac and was chosen on the first committee to order the affairs of the little colony. He served the colony continually until 1650 when he removed to Boston. He was an influential member of the company and was no doubt the author of the name ‘Salisbury.’”

Yet, a different source, the book Historical Markers Erected by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, says the town changed its name to Salisbury in honor of another early settler of the town, Reverend William Worcester, who was also from Salisbury, England.

The territories of Salisbury used to include what are now the New Hampshire towns of South Hampton, a portion of Kingston, Plaistow, Seabrook, Newton and Hampstead as well as the Massachusetts towns of Amesbury and Merrimac.

The center of the Salisbury settlement consisted of a circular road with many lots of land owned by the settlers. The circular road still exists today but is now a triangular shape that consists of Elm Street, School Street and Bridge Road.

Map of Salisbury Square in 1639, published in History of Amesbury circa 1880
Map of Salisbury Square in 1639, published in History of Amesbury circa 1880

The settlers were awarded a small house lot near the center of town, according to the book The Old Families of Salisbury and Amesbury:

“By referring to Merrill’s map, History of Amesbury, it will be seen that all these lots were located on the ‘circular road,’ except those of Fuller, Macy, Rowell, and Brown. The list looks as if Fitts, Rowell, and Brown were added later, and wid. [widow] Brown may have first had the lot of her son Henry Brown on the ‘circular road.’ Macy’s lot is given on the ‘road to the neck.’ This leaves only Fuller’s lot on the straight piece of ‘beach road,’ and that lot is represented as lying some distance to the north of the road. It seems probable that the first lots laid out were all on the ‘circular road,’ except, perhaps, those of Fuller and Macy, and they either located away from others, or afterwards exchanged lots for those represented on the map. Later, in the same year, perhaps, the straight ‘beach road’ connecting the two branches of the ‘circular road’ was laid out, and most of the new comers were located on that road.”

The only house that still exists from this time period is the John Sanders house at 1 Mudnock Road. This first period saltbox house was built in 1639 by John and Hester (Rolfe) Sanders and features gunstock corner posts, 20 inch pine board flooring, open beam ceiling, a small cellar with 9 inch floor beams, and a rock wall foundation.

Site of John Sanders house, Mudnock Road, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks.
Site of John Sanders house, Mudnock Road, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks.

The first record of a town meeting held in Salisbury is dated March of 1639 during which Simon Bradstreet, Daniel Dennison, Christopher Batt, Samuel Winsley, Samuel and John Sanders ordered that land should be divided up according to financial status. Men who had £50 would receive four acres of land while men who had £150 would receive sixty acres.

According to the book The Standard History of Essex County, Massachusetts, this land division was specifically designed to attract wealthy residents to the settlement.

In 1639, a graveyard was established near the center of town, on the corner of what is now Beach Road and Ferry Road, that is now called the Salisbury Colonial Burying Ground.

The original settlers of Salisbury are buried in this graveyard and many of their graves have rare wolf slabs, a type of granite slab laid over a grave to prevent wolves from digging up the bodies.

Salisbury Colonial Burial Ground, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks
Salisbury Colonial Burial Ground, Ferry Road, Salisbury, Mass. Photo credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Some famous early residents of Salisbury include three accused witches in the Salem Witch Trials, Susannah Martin, George Burroughs and Mary Bradbury, as well as Robert Pike, who represented Salisbury in the General Court for 37 years but was an opponent of the Salem Witch Trials, and John Wheelwright, who was an infamous religious leader and brother-in-law to Anne Hutchinson.

Robert Pike, John Wheelwright and Mary Bradbury are buried in the Salisbury Colonial Burying Ground. A historical marker for the Robert Pike Homestead can be found near Salisbury Square, at 2 Lafayette Rd, which is currently occupied by a CVS drugstore.

Robert Pike Homestead, Historical Marker, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit Rebecca Brooks
Robert Pike Homestead, Historical Marker,  2 Lafayette Rd, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Another notable Salisbury resident was John Stockman. According to the book Magna Carta Ancestry, Stockman was a descendant of one of the Magna Carta barons, and at some point immigrated from Wiltshire, England to Salisbury, Massachusetts where he married Robert Pike’s daughter, Sarah, in 1671.

Garrison House and Court House, historical marker, Elm Street, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks.
Garrison House and Court House, historical marker, Elm Street, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks.

In 1640, a meetinghouse was built on the green in Salisbury Square and a garrison house and court house were built near the corner of Elm Street and Mudnock Road.

In 1642, a bell brought from England by Reverend William Worcester, was hung in the meetinghouse.

First meetinghouse, historical marker, near the corner of Mudnock Road and Elm Street, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks
First meetinghouse, historical marker, corner of Mudnock Road and Elm Street, Salisbury, Mass. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

The primary access to the settlement at the time was via a dock at Town Creek, near Mudnock Road. In 1639, a ferry service between Salisbury and Newbury was established at the Merrimack River.

The price of the ferry service was two pence per person, six pence per horse or cattle, two pence per calf, one penny per goat and two pence per hog.

On March 26, 1642, two acres of Ring’s Island, a peninsula in Salisbury near the mouth of the Merrimack River, was granted to colonist Robert Ring for the purpose of fishing.

In 1643, several New Hampshire settlements, Portsmouth, Dover, Exeter and Hampton, were absorbed into the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Salisbury became a shire town, which was a town that was the local seat of government for a given area.

Salisbury continued to serve as a shire town until 1679 when King Charles II separated New Hampshire from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and made New Hampshire a royal colony.

In 1645, Beach Road was established to provide an access way to the salt marsh.

In 1647, an influenza outbreak hit the Merrimack Valley as well as another smallpox outbreak in 1649-1650. By this time, about 90% of the local Pennacook Indian population were dead due to disease.

The Salisbury settlers continued to expand their town. At a town meeting in 1649, the settlers voted to reserve the salt marsh in Salisbury as common land, stating:

“a beach common running from the Merrimac River’s mouth including all meadow and marsh not disposed of should remain a town common, forever.”

This didn’t last long though because the marshland hay was soon considered valuable for feeding livestock and the marsh was divided into hundreds of “sweepage lots” for the settlers. The marshland hay is still harvested every spring to this day, although now the marsh is owned by the State of Massachusetts.

In 1654, Amesbury officially separated from Salisbury.

By 1675, the remaining Pennacook Indians in the lower Merrimack Valley were forced to abandon the area and migrate north to Maine, New Hampshire and Canada where they were absorbed into the Abenaki tribe.

Salisbury in the 18th Century:

Salisbury’s population rose from about 380 in 1710 to 1,667 by the time of the American Revolution.

Agriculture, particularly hay production and animal husbandry, ancillary grist mills and slaughter houses (of which there were eight in the town in 1791) were the staples of the town’s economy.

During this time, pirates and British warships became a growing threat to the area. In order to protect the town, settlers built a military fort on the Salisbury side of the Merrimack River around the year 1775-76, according to the book A Sketch of the History of Newbury.

The fort was called Fort Nichol and, although the exact location is unknown, it was reportedly located at the beach near the mouth of the river. The fort was also sometimes known as Fort Merrimac. During the Civil War, Fort Nichol was again used as a military fort and had a nine-gun earthwork battery and two cannons. The fort was eventually washed away by a storm in 1865 and nothing remains of it today.

In 1792, the Essex-Merrimack Bridge (to Amesbury) and the Newburyport Bridge (to Salisbury) were built over the Merrimack River to provide easier access to the town.

Salisbury in the 19th Century:

The population of Salisbury rose to 5,000 in the early 19th century but declined dramatically, to just 1,316, by the latter half of the century because Salisbury Falls was annexed to Amesbury in 1886 which greatly reduced the physical size of Salisbury.

In 1834, the East Parish meetinghouse was built near Salisbury Square, which is still standing today.

In 1840, the Eastern Railroad was extended to Newburyport and then extended across the Merrimack River to Salisbury shortly after. In 1846-47, a short secondary branch line, running parallel to Elm Street, led from the main line to East Salisbury.

That East Salisbury line is now a bike path named the Salisbury Point Ghost Trail. The trail was named after the “Ghost” trains that used to run on that line, which were trains that transported wooden carriages covered in white canvas shrouds that appeared to resemble ghosts.

Saw mills, shipbuilding and fishing were the staples of Salisbury’s economy until the War of 1812 when these types of industries moved to bigger towns on the New England seacoast.

Textiles mills became a new source of income for Salisbury when the industrial revolution reached the United States in the 1810s. The Salisbury Manufacturing Company opened a woolen mill in the town in 1812 and by the 1830s it had expanded to three mills. The mills were located in an area called Salisbury Falls which was later annexed to Amesbury in 1886.

Other manufacturing industries that sprouted up in Salisbury in the late 1800s included small boat building, carriage making and hat and shoe manufacturing that continued well into the next century.

In fact, in 2014 the Massachusetts Department of Public Health investigated a sudden rise in cancer diagnoses in people who lived on Ferry Road, Mudnock Road and Kendell Lane and looked into whether it may have been caused by pollution at some former manufacturing sites in the town, including the site of the William H. Butler shoe factory at 29 Elm Street, originally established there around 1924 or earlier, as well as other businesses that later existed at the site.

An investigation determined the Elm Street site was contaminated with metals, such as arsenic and lead, and scraps of shoe leather, glass and other refuse had been buried in a pit at the site. The department, though, determined that the affected residents lived too far away from the site to have been exposed to the contaminated soil and since there are no wells on or near the site it was unlikely any nearby residents were exposed to the contaminants through drinking water.

Overall, it was determined that the rise in cancer cases in that area of the town was not unusual and not related to pollution at the Elm Street site and instead suggested that the smoking habits of the affected residents, as well as other factors such as age and occupational hazards, seemed to have contributed significantly to the cancer diagnoses.

Salisbury Beach History:

In the 1860s, Salisbury Beach gained popularity as a resort town for city goers trying to escape the overcrowded cities.

The beach had numerous cottages for visitors to stay in but since Beach Road at the time was a dirt road that often flooded at the marsh during high tide, the best way for visitors to access Salisbury Beach was by taking a ferry from Newburyport to a wharf at the Black Rocks on what is now the Salisbury Beach Reservation.

The wharf was located near the current boat ramp on the southern end of the reservation. The visitors would then take a horse-drawn car to the center of the beach, according to the book Images of America: Salisbury Beach by Pamela Stevens:

“M.D.F. Steere, agent of the Salisbury Mills, had the first cottage built on the beach in 1864, but the property was burglarized and torched in 1908. By 1880, there were 150 cottages on the oceanfront. A hotel, the Blue Fish chowder house, and a wharf were built at the Black Rocks in 1860 at about the location of the current boat ramp. The Black Rocks is at the wide mouth of the Merrimack River, where small tidal streams meet at the south end of the beach. The building of another large wharf in 1870 to accommodate steamboats made the beach more accessible to passengers boarding at different locations on the river. At first, horse-drawn cars, referred to as the ‘Seaside Railroad,’ transported people from the wharf to the center of the beach. Steam engines replaced the horses in the 1880s and the line was electrified in the 1890s. A plank road from beyond the square across the marshes to the beach was constructed in 1866.”

The plank road was built over the marsh and began at a section of Beach Road that was often muddy and hard to travel on. It finally allowed visitors to cross the marshland, as one official explained: “A plank road has been built this season, across the worst part of the road near the beach,” and was constructed from wooden planks that were placed directly on top of the marsh and would rise and fall with the flow of the tides.

When the Salisbury Beach railroad was established in the 1890s, the plank road was no longer needed and slowly decayed.

Map depicting Plank Road in Salisbury, Mass, circa 1872
Map depicting Plank Road in Salisbury, Mass, circa 1872

On September 17, 1861, a new festival called the Great Gathering was held for the first time at Salisbury Beach. The festival was only open to native residents of Salisbury and they were personally invited by the Committee of Arrangements.

During the festival, the crowd gathered on the beach and ate food and listened to music, according to the book Images of America: Salisbury Beach:

“Many people arrived the night before the Great Gathering, or Salisbury Festival Day, and camped out on the beach. Five thousand people had gathered on the beach by 6 p.m. There was spirited music by a well-trained choir and speeches by local orators, including Caleb Cushing, a native son of Salisbury, a diplomat, and attorney general under Franklin Pierce. Clam chowder was served at the Relay House, even though the crowd had brought enough food to feed the inhabitants of Boston.”

The Great Gathering appeared to be a type of harvest celebration where the “sturdy, industries people of Salisbury, Mass, met annually on the beach to congratulate each other on the happy results of their labors for the season, and to return thanks to Divine Providence their grateful thanks.” according to an article in the New York Times in 1869.

The newspaper estimated that about 15,000-30,000 people attended the event in 1869 but also clarified that it was not, in fact, a festival since there was “even now little of mere amusement afforded, and not much mirth is manifested by anybody; it is emphatically a sober, social ‘gathering’ of people habituated to come together spontaneously, not knowing or needing any special reason for coming.”

Although the Great Gathering was originally only open to Salisbury natives, after a few years it was opened up to anyone who wanted to attend. In 1869, the organizers of the event even invited Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee to attend. Lee, who was a teacher at Washington College at the time, sent a letter expressing his regret that he couldn’t attend due to his teaching schedule.

In 1873, a wooden pyramid-shaped navigational marker, officially known as the Black Rock Beacon but since nicknamed Butler’s Toothpick, was built at the Black Rocks on the Salisbury Beach Reservation in an effort to help guide ships in the Merrimack River.

Butler's Toothpick, Salisbury Beach Reservation, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks
Butler’s Toothpick, Salisbury Beach Reservation, Massachusetts. Photo Credit: Rebecca Brooks

The beacon was nicknamed after Massachusetts Congressman and Civil War General Benjamin Butler, who lived in Newburyport and owned a maritime shipping company there, after he personally urged the federal government to build the beacon to assist local ships.

No one knows exactly why it was nicknamed Butler’s Toothpick but local lore states it was because Butler was notorious for having a big mouth. The marker, located near the current boat ramp, still exists today.

To entertain the crowds of people flocking to the beach during this time, amusement park rides were soon built. In 1885, Salisbury Beach had the first roller coaster, which was built by a man named Stephen Jackman, and was called the Roller Toboggan.

The roller coaster was removed shortly after when a young women, named Kitty O’Neil, fell to her death from a moving cab on the roller coaster. Jackman later designed the roller coaster at Coney Island and Atlantic Beach.

Other rides at Salisbury at the time included a rudimentary merry-go-round and swings set up right on the beach. On what is now Broadway, were concession stands selling food like clam chowder and ice cream.

Pike Schoolhouse, Salisbury, Mass, circa 2019
Pike Schoolhouse, Salisbury, Mass, circa 2019

In 1882, the Pike Schoolhouse, a one-room Greek Revival-style schoolhouse, was built on the green at Salisbury Square where it is still standing today. It was later used as a fire station before being restored as a schoolhouse by removing the large fire apparatus doors and replacing them with two single doors.

In 1895, the Salisbury Beach Schoolhouse was built at what is now 91 Railroad Ave and the Town Hall was built at Salisbury Square, both of which are still standing.

Salisbury Beach Schoolhouse, Railroad Ave, Salisbury, Mass, circa 2011
Salisbury Beach Schoolhouse, Railroad Ave, Salisbury, Mass, circa 2011

In 1897, the Hotel Cushing opened at Salisbury Beach on Cushing Avenue, which is now known as Broadway. The hotel was a three-story wooden structure with a covered verandah and an ocean side open deck on the second story.

Also during the second half of the 19th century, a number of ships wrecked off the coast of Salisbury Beach, including the Halifax in 1852, the steamer Sir Francis in 1872, the William Carroll in 1878, the Jennie M. Carter in 1894, the Florida in 1896 and the Marble Bird in 1904. Although many ships had wrecked off the coast prior to these dates, it wasn’t until the Halifax sank in 1852 that locals began documenting the wrecks.

The wreckage of the Jennie M. Carter can still be seen today during very low tides near the center of the beach (in the water in front of the Upper Deck bar.)

In 2015, wreckage from a 19th century ship, which some speculate may have been from the Florida or the Jennie M. Carter, washed up on Salisbury Beach but it was eventually swept back out to sea.

In January of 2016, more wreckage washed up on the beach near the pavilion.

Salisbury in the 20th and 21st Century:

By 1915, the population of Salisbury was about 1,717.

Around 1900, the Ocean Echo was built at Salisbury Beach at the end of Broadway. The building was a large dance pavilion built on wooden pylons directly over the beach and ocean.

Ocean Echo, Salisbury, Massachusetts
Ocean Echo, Salisbury, Massachusetts

The building burned down after an arsonist set it on fire on January 14, 1920, according to a report printed in Safety Engineering: The Magazine of Safety:

“Cause (supposed), set on fire by unknown person. Fire started in northwest end. Discovered by people in the town at about 8:15. Alarm, telephone. Duration, all night. Stopped after it had entirely consumed the building. Fire was favored by open wooden construction. Fireman handicapped by burst water main and cold weather. Private water apparatus, none effective; as water main was out of order, sprinkling system could not work. Persons in building, none; building closed for the winter. Value of building and contents, $125,000. Property loss, $125,000.”

The Ocean Echo was rebuilt the following year in 1921 and operated until 1937 when it was auctioned off and later remodeled into a new music venue called the Frolics.

The pylons from the Ocean Echo can still be seen sticking up out of the sand today when the beach becomes eroded after strong storms and hurricanes.

In 1920, the Dodgem bumper cars debuted at the beach and remained one of the most popular attractions until the ride closed in 1975.

Most of the historic buildings at Salisbury Beach were eventually destroyed by a series of fires in the early half of the 20th century.

In 1908, a large fire destroyed 64 buildings on the beach.

On September 9, 1913, the Great Fire of 1913 forever changed Salisbury Beach when it destroyed over 125 buildings, including the Cushing Hotel, the Atlantic House, the Ocean View, Castle Mona, Newark House, Hotel Comet, the Leighton House, the Bijou Theater, the post office, all of the nearby restaurants, all of the amusement rides including the Culver Flying Horses merry-go-round, a drugstore, several small grocery stores, concession stands and about 100 cottages.

The fire started after a lamp fell over and ignited chemicals in a photography studio at the rear of the Cushing Hotel. The fire spread to the hotel and sparks ignited several two and three-story buildings across the street, which housed a dance hall, bowling alley, a roller skating rink a hotel and the “Spiral Thriller” roller coaster.

The fire continued to spread south for over a quarter of a mile, burning everything in its path. Firefighters struggled to control the fire because of a poor water supply and lack of adequate fire equipment and it was only stopped after a contractor used dynamite to level several cottages in the fire’s path, according to an article in the Newburyport Daily News. Parts of Salisbury Beach were later rebuilt but it was never the same after the fire.

Fires in 1947 and 1948 also destroyed about 40 buildings in total including a number of amusement rides.

In 1941, the War Department built the Salisbury Beach Military Reservation on the land now occupied by the Salisbury Beach State Reservation. The military reservation was a coastal defense site built to help protect the Merrimack River and Newburyport Harbor from air and naval attack in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The reservation consisted of two sites, a 237 acre site at the mouth of the Merrimack River and a second site about 1.5 miles north of the larger site that was one acre in size and contained a fire control observation tower.

The larger site contained barracks, a mess hall, a BC station and four “Panama mounts,” circular concrete gun mounts, for four towed 155mm guns. The land the site sat on was leased from the State of Massachusetts and was returned to the state in 1945-46 but the military continued to run the smaller site for a number of years.

Two of the concrete gun mounts, which are located near the southern end of the beach, have recently been uncovered on the beach and can now be viewed by visitors.

Sometime in the 1940s, the exact year is unclear, the Frolics Ballroom opened in the location of the former Ocean Echo pavilion and became a very popular music venue. It featured big name acts of the time such as Glenn Miller, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Liberace. It closed sometime around the 1980s and was demolished in January of 2000.

The Frolics Night Club, Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, circa 1995
The Frolics Night Club, Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts, circa 1995

By the mid 1900s, the population of Salisbury was about 3,000.

In 1954, a small amusement park, called Shaheen’s Fun-O-Rama, opened at the beach. The amusement park was located where the Pavilion building now exists and it included the Moon Rocket Ride, the Broadway Flying Horses merry-go-round, which was built in 1890, a water slide, the Himalaya and a roller coaster. The park closed in 1990.

Around 1979, Pirate’s Fun Park opened at the beach. It was the last amusement park to operate at Salisbury Beach. It featured rides such as the Witch Castle, a roller coaster and a merry-go-round. It was closed and demolished in 2004 and replaced with condominiums.

In the 1980s, the population of Salisbury was about 6,645 and has since reached 8,283.

Salisbury Beach is still a popular summertime destination and is currently undergoing a revitalization. Town officials are looking for investors to renovate the beach and turn it into a year round community instead of a seasonal tourist destination.

The majority of Salisbury’s economy is currently based on the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and food service due to tourism at Salisbury beach.

Salisbury’s economy has dramatically declined in the past few decades, with over 14% of its residents currently living below the poverty level, and the town has been hit especially hard by the recent opioid epidemic, according to an article in New York Magazine in 2017:

“Salisbury, Massachusetts (pop. 8,000), was founded in 1638, and the opium crisis is the worst thing that has ever happened to it. The town lost one young person in the decade-long Vietnam War. It has lost fifteen to heroin in the last two years.”

For more information on Salisbury’s history, visit the Salisbury Historical Society Museum at 16 Elm Street, Salisbury, Massachusetts. The museum features historical maps, flags, furniture, documents and Civil War memorabilia. The museum also employs a genealogy expert with over 20 years of local genealogy research experience. Hours are by appointment only. The phone number is 978-358-0015.

Salisbury Historical Sites:

Robert Pike Homestead Historical Marker:
Address: 2 Lafayette Rd, Salisbury, Massachusetts

John Sanders House:
Address: 1 Mudnock Road, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Meetinghouse Historical Marker:
Address: Corner of Elm Street and Mudnock Road, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Garrison House and Court House Marker
Address: Elm Street, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Pot Lid Square:
Address: Elm Street, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Pike Schoolhouse:
Address: Corner of Bridge Road and School Street, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Salisbury Colonial Burial Ground:
Address: Corner of Beach Road and Ferry Road, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Salisbury Square:
Address: Center of Elm Street, School Street and Bridge Road, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Salisbury Point Ghost Trail:
Address: Trail begins at Lion’s Park, on Lion’s Way, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Town Hall:
Address: 5 Beach Road, Salisbury, Massachusetts

East Parish Church:
Address: 8 Lafayette Rd, Salisbury, Massachusetts

Black Rock Beacon aka Butler’s Toothpick:
Address: near the boat ramp next to the campground, State Reservation Rd, Salisbury, Massachusetts

WWII Gun Mounts at Former Salisbury Military Reservation:
Address: southern end of the Salisbury Beach Reservation, State Reservation Rd, Salisbury, Massachusetts. The concrete gun mounts are along the edge of the dunes and are surrounded by beach fencing

Morrill Point Burial Mound:
Address: exact location unknown
I have been unable to determine the exact location of Morrill Point or the burial mound. According to various archaeology journals, the mound is located west of a place called Morrill Point proper in an area collectively known as Indian Hill. It is surrounded by a wooded swamp in an area that borders the salt marsh on the north side of the Merrimack River.

One source has indicated that the land the mound currently sits on is owned by the New England Power Company but stated there are no signs posted on the property announcing this. I have since been informed by individuals who have seen the mound that the archaeologists who excavated the site wanted it to remain unknown in order to prevent people from disturbing it.

Smallpox Cemetery:
Address: unknown
According to the Salisbury Reconnaissance Report, a smallpox cemetery also exists somewhere in a wooded area on a private property but the exact location, date of the cemetery and other details remain unknown. Officials are seeking any information about the cemetery in order to document it before it is lost to time.

Sanders, Paul F. “Fwd: Norton – Early Salisbury, Mass. History.” Rootsweb.com, 5 May. 2008, archiver.rootsweb.ancestry.com/th/read/MAESSEX/2008-05/1209973005
Harris, Gordon. “First Period Houses of Essex County.” Historic Ipswich, www.historicipswich.org/first-period-houses-of-essex-county/
“Early Holocene Occupation in Northern New England.” Occasional Publications in Maine Archaeology, Number 9, babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=wu.89058392648;view=1up;seq=87;size=175
“Salisbury Historical Society Museum.” Essex National Heritage Area, www.essexheritage.org/attractions/salisbury-historical-society-museum
“Ghost Trail, Salisbury.” Coastal Trails Coalition, n.d., coastaltrails.org/our-trail-network/salisbury-ghost-trail/
“A Unique Affair: The Annual Gathering at Salisbury Beach – A Letter from Gen. Robert E. Lee.” New York Times, New York Times Company, 19 Sept., 1869, www.salisbury-beach.org/resources/great-gathering.pdf
Griggs, Frank, Jr, “Newburyport Bridge.” Structure Magazine,  June 2013, www.structuremag.org/?p=117
“About Salisbury.” Salisbury.gov., www.salisburyma.gov/about-salisbury
Chiaramida, Angeljean. “History Unearthed.” Newburyport Daily News, 14 Mar. 2013, www.newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/history-unearthed/article_b5b7a4d9-4ba5-5422-a0cb-c34d387c7b14.html
“Salisbury Beach Heydays.” Boston Globe,  Boston Globe Media Partners, 9 Jan. 2014: www.bostonglobe.com/metro/regionals/north/2014/01/09/salisbury-beach-heydays/viOTMmi5dWo2fjxsmTOq1L/story.html
Chiaramida, Angeljean. “Remnants of Centuries-old Shipwreck Wash Ashore at Salisbury Beach.” Newburyport Daily News, 23 April. 2015, www.newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/remnants-of-centuries-old-shipwreck-wash-ashore-at-salisbury-beach/article_7d6e2781-d7a5-5235-9f80-223908847145.html
Chiaramida,Angeljean. “A Mystery from the Sea.” Newburyport Daily News,  27 Jan. 2016, www.newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/a-mystery-from-the-sea/article_af9fd3a4-8d96-57a4-8666-c9c76712f656.html
Callahan, Joe. “Today Marks 100th Anniversary of Devastating Salisbury Beach Fire.” Newburyport Daily News, 9 Sept. 2013, www.newburyportnews.com/news/local_news/today-marks-th-anniversary-of-devastating-salisbury-beach-fire/article_897c9099-d07b-5c13-83aa-73e2bb3bf576.html
“Town of Salisbury 29 Elm Street, Salisbury, Ma EPA Cleanup Grant.” Salisbury.gov, 16 Oct. 2009., www.salisburyma.gov/sites/salisburyma/files/file/file/pbbrownfieldsfy10grant.pdf
Chiaramida, Angeljean. ” Remains of WW2 Fort Found in Salisbury Dunes After Storm.” Eagle-Tribune, 14 March. 2013, www.eagletribune.com/news/local_news/remains-of-ww-fort-found-in-salisbury-dunes-after-storm/article_4ffa3c67-8e19-5934-8037-65b52bc76fca.html
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“Salisbury Beach State Reservation Barrier Beach Management Plan.” Mass.gov, Sept. 2008, www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/pe/salb-mgt-plan-final-sept-2008-text-only.pdf
“Salisbury Reconnaissance Report.” Mass.gov, May. 2005, www.mass.gov/eea/docs/dcr/stewardship/histland/recon-reports/salisbury-with-map.pdf
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About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

13 thoughts on “History of Salisbury, Massachusetts

  1. Wayne Chase

    I know the exact location on “Indian Hill”. I was there when Jim Whittall did the dig.

    Also, even though I don’t know the precise location of the smallpox cemetery, I can narrow it down.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi Wayne, I saw your post on facebook and I totally understand now that the reason Whittall didn’t want anyone knowing where the mound is located is because he didn’t want anyone to disturb it. I decided that even if I figure out where it is I’m not going to post it here because I don’t want it to be disturbed either.

  2. Raelene Sawyer

    My relative is John Eaton who had land ringing the green but for some reason decided instead to place his home away from the green on his planting lot of six acres on the beach road. In 1646 he gave the home and land to a son and moved the rest of his family to the new settlement of Haverhill.
    My sisters husband, a Brooks, is a descendant of Mary Bradbury, tried for witchcraft in the late 1600’s. So The Eaton’s and the Bradbury’s have history since the 1640’s! Nice article, thanks!

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Hi Raelene, growing up in Salisbury I always knew that the Eatons had some deep roots there but I had no idea until I did the research for this article that they were some of the first settlers of the town. It seems that many of the early settlers still have a lot of descendants in the area. One of my favorite things about writing this blog is that it helps people find more info about their family history. That’s why I try to include as many names as I can in the articles – so people can find it when researching their families.

  3. David

    Wow thank you for such a detail history of a former hometown. I lived in Salisbury for three years as a teenager. I lived on Old Elm St (the railroad was our rear property line) so I was closer to I-95 then the beach, but honestly at the time we only cared about playing football and baseball, unlike the years I lived in Beverly were hockey was the game of choice. I didn’t realize Salisbury’s history was so interesting, so thank you again.

    1. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks Post author

      Thanks David! That’s exactly why I wanted to write this article. I found Salisbury’s history fascinating and I felt more people should know about it. I think small towns like Salisbury kind of get overshadowed by Salem and Boston so I wanted to bring it the attention it deserves.

  4. Beverly King

    There was no mention about the pole lights that were erected at Black Rocks (near the toothpick) One front and one rear light, that had to be lit each night . They were erected by the Federal Government following the many shipwrecks. William H Pierce was the lightkeeper , employed by the Federal Government at the time. Pierce and his family lived at Black Rocks in a home the governement built for this purpose. (See the book Salisbury Beach written by Pamela Stevens. There are many photos of the Pierce family at this location. The lights were erected in the late 1800’s and taken down in 1920.

    1. John Fowler

      WH Pierce was my Great Grandfather. Anyone know where I can get a copy of that book? Also any information on the Pierce, Brown or Gage familes will be appreciated. Thanks

  5. Kristy Hutchinson

    3 of my ancestors are on the 1639 map- (Eaton, Wheeler, and French), and my best friend of 45 years.. her 9th great grandfather was George Carr.

  6. Joyce M

    Does anyone have any historical knowledge about “Baker Woods”? How about the “John O Fulford House” (perhaps at the corner of Baker Road and True Road?)

  7. mark mercer

    lewis hewlet name not listed first colonial settlers of salisbury yet is on map of salisbury 1639 upper left top corner

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