Whenever a new construction project is proposed or underway, such as the bypass road and the courthouse project, many Salemmites recoil. We think, why change things like “The Overpass”? We look at things downtown and assume they were there forever.
Jim McAllister, local historian, reminds us otherwise in a recent Salem News column, Jim McAllister- Road and bridge work a constant in Salem. The overpass project of 1948-1952, and the new rail tunnel and demolition of the old Salem Station in 1958 were both more momentous—and traumatic—than any road project in the past few years, including the bypass road.
The overpass was the second part of a three-stage project to eliminate dangerous and congestion-causing railroad grade crossings in downtown Salem. The first stage saw the Washington Street railroad tunnel extended all the way to Bridge Street. That project got underway in November 1949 and took 29 months to complete.
The second piece of the project set out to rid the city of one of its worst traffic bottlenecks — the grade crossing at the intersection of Bridge and North streets. Traffic routinely backed up a half mile on North Street during heavy travel times or when a train was crossing the intersection on the Bridge Street tracks. On more than one occasion, congestion was so bad at the intersection that fire trucks heading for North Salem from downtown were rerouted through Beverly.
“The more things change,” etc.
It was traumatic for downtown, too:
The building of the North Street overpass necessitated the razing of the historic bridge that was the site of Leslie's Retreat in 1775 and the taking of 43 buildings located on North, Federal, Franklin, and Bridge Streets, and on Odell Square. Approximately 125 people were displaced.
Of all the buildings that were demolished for the overpass, none would be missed more than the North Street Arena. The rambling wooden structure sat in the middle of a block on the western side of North Street between Federal and Bridge streets, and had been an important venue for sports and civic events for 65 years.
No buildings were taken for the bypass road project. A dozen homes were taken for the bypass road. Three houses were taken for the courthouse project. People are complaining bitterly, Bridge St. residents with good reason, but this seems to pale next to what the overpass project involved, and to what happened next.
A few years later, Salem would go forth with what many say was its most traumatic demolition, the destruction of the old Salem Depot:
SALEM — Fifty years ago today, 10,000 onlookers gathered near Washington and Bridge streets to watch the first train roll through the new Salem train tunnel.
It marked the end of a years-long construction project, referred to as the Big Dig of its time. The project involved the demolition of the Salem Depot, through which trains would roll down Washington Street and through the massive granite archway framed by two medieval-looking towers.
A half-century later, the memories of the project and the old Salem Depot are still fresh in many longtime residents' minds.
"Part of Salem died when they did that," said Tony Salvo, 80, a former mayor who remembers the old train station fondly. "It was a big mistake tearing that building down. The old train station was like a castle. It was a landmark."
As with the overpass, the project was needed to accommodate increasing road traffic; the train tunnel was extended completely under downtown, from Bridge St. to Margin St. People on Washington St. (and City Hall!) are well familiar with the rumble of underground trains.
The tunnel project had three phases that were carried out over the better part of a decade. It cost more than $8 million, and more than 40 landowners were forced to move their homes and businesses to make way for new overpasses, the tunnel, parking lots and the new train station, according to Salem Evening News articles from the time.
The prolonged construction throughout the 1950s dealt a heavy blow to downtown businesses, and the upheaval also frustrated residents.
"This was in the works for years and years and years. It was kind of like the Big Dig," McAllister said, "and people got so fed up with going to Salem that they just didn't."
The merchants never fully bounced back, but the completion of the tunnel coincided with the construction of the North Shore Shopping Center (the present-day Northshore Mall), McAllister said, which changed the way people shopped.
This can’t be understated: The tunnel project doomed Salem’s downtown. When I mourned the loss of Almy’s 25 years later, little did I realize that this had been set in motion even before I’d been born.
We are dealing with the decisions made 50 years ago, when the car was ascendant, the roads seemed to keep going forever, and trains were old fashioned and outmoded.
I hate loss. I would have mourned the Salem Depot, the old North St. Arena, the Flatiron Building and all the other buildings no less deeply than others had I been around at the time.
But part of me is glad the Salem Depot is gone, as much as the rest of me misses it. Had the Depot still been there (the tunnel project would have had to happen anyway), we would have seen no end of opportunistic developers, exploiting the Depot for condos, to make a quick cheap buck on History!
A few years ago, Mike Sosnowski had suggested building a parking garage on one of the old Riley Plaza lots. No problem there. But he suggested making it in the style of the old Depot.
I ripped him one. On live TV too.
I have the deepest resentment for manufactured history, such as we see too much of in Salem. I have even more resentment to making a fake train depot out of a parking garage, which would have been a bitter insult to people remembering the original structure.
Still want to complain about the courthouse? Or the bypass road? Remember, whatever I may think of the project, no houses were taken for it. And those that could have taken the three houses off the state, would not or could not.