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Preserving History At Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The Friendship of Salem is the flagship of the National Park Service. NPS photo.

Creaking on the tides under the weight of its three masts and 55 miles of rigging, the Friendship is a floating reminder of a time when the upstart United States laid a commercial claim to the high seas.

From tiny Salem, Massachusetts, up the coast from another Massachusetts seaport that soon would become known as the whaling capital of the world, ships set out to navigate the globe and return home with spices, water buffalo hides, silks, and porcelains.

The Friendship of Salem, an East Indiaman, joined this seagoing fleet in 1797 for the Salem-based mercantile concern of Waite and Peirce. But the venture was relatively short-lived, as the Friendship made just 15 voyages, to distant ports in Batavia, India, China, South America, the Caribbean, England, Germany, the Mediterranean, and Russia, before she became a prize of war during the War of 1812.

Today, though, via a porthole into the past you can smell her sailcloth, sway with her creaking decks, and view the somewhat cramped crew quarters during a tour of a replica of this grand dame.   Though it's uncertain what happened to the original Friendship after the British auctioned her off on March 17, 1813, her spirit resurfaced in 1996 when a reproduction of her keel was laid by Scarano Brothers Shipyard, and in 1998 when her hull was launched.

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The Friendship at sea. Photo by Sarah Waterworth via NPS.

Today she's the flagship of the National Park Service, a museum piece tallship of yesteryear now berthed at the historic Derby Wharf at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site in Massachusetts.

"The purpose of the park is all about bringing the maritime history of New England and the United States to life," explains Salem Maritime Superintendent Patricia Trap, a Park Service veteran who served postings in the Rocky Mountain West but who now seems to have a measure or two of sea water in her veins.

"I’ll tell you, it’s such a tangible, exciting way to make maritime history come alive. It’s a unique experience, but it’s an expensive one," the superintendent adds during a telephone conversation. "So how do we get kids, how do we get youth and adults on the ship, dockside as well as on the water in a way that is affordable? We’re not quite sure. What I’d like to do is increase attention and awareness of the ship and hopefully get some sponsors to underwrite some of the costs.”

Those costs are not insignificant. The first phase of construction cost almost $5 million. A quarter of that sum, impressively, was raised by local school children, the city of Salem, and nonprofit park partner Salem Partnership and the Essex County (Massachusetts) Commission, according to the superintendent.

Once the shell of the ship was towed to Salem, rigging work and additional final touches performed there and at the Charleston Navy Yard in Boston cost nearly $2 million more; much of that was, again, raised through local efforts. While that nearly $7 million produced the finished product, there are ongoing costs, such as regular maintenance, fuel for the two engines on board, and the costs of berths in ports whenever she sails.

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At the historic site a mercantile store displays cargo such as indigo that the original Friendship returned home with. NPS photo.

While the costs of this ship can't be understated, neither can its role in bringing early 18th century maritime history to life, nor its role as an educator, be overlooked. In August the Friendship will sail to New York City with a crew that includes a number of college-aged youth. Called a "Youth Journey on the High Seas," the voyage is intended to expose these youth to both sailing as well as a career in the Park Service, explained Superintendent Trap.

“And we’re really trying to reach an urban and divese audience, meaning everybody’s welcome," she said. "We have three program areas, in Boston, New York and Baltimore, so those three groups are going to combine (in the program). Most of them will sail from Salem to New York City and learn how to sail. When they’re in New York they will host some other groups, dockside, host them on board, and they’re going to take the (NPS) regional director out for a sail into the harbor. Then it will culminate with a youth summit where we'll bring in an additional 90 youth who are involved in youth programs in New York City.

"Then those of our youth intern program, career program, those who weren’t able to sail on the way down will sail on the way up (to Salem)," added Superintendent Trap. "It’s really, really, exciting. One of the marinas in Manhattan, maybe a 10-15 minute brisk walk from Battery Park, has actually just donated the slip space to us, so that’s saving $6,000 right there."

Eventually the superintendent hopes to be able to build on this year's initial Youth Journey by establishing an endowment fund to underwrite such programs and which perhaps could supply scholarships for college-aged students interested in pursuing a related career.

“When you’re out on the ship on the water it really brings history to life in a meaningful way, so how can I give that to as many people as possible, as well as dockside?" wonders the superintendent. "How do I do that for as many people as possible? And be able to cover some costs."

Down the road another ship might be tied up to the Derby Wharf alongside the Friendship. Superintendent Trap is working to bring a late-18th/early-19th century privateer to the historic site to broaden the early maritime history on display.

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Silks were among the cargo brought back to Salem by the Friendship. NPS photo.

“During the War of 1812 it was really the privateers that were heavily featured in that war, so we’re going to try to do this partnership," she explains. "It’s called Fame, it’s a replica Salem privateer.”

But the Friendship is not the only aspect of this 9-acre unit of the National Park System, which tells some of the country's early seafaring history.

According to park historians, "Salem was a vital part of British colonial trade as early as the mid-17th century. Dried cod and timber were taken from Salem to British plantations in the West Indies, and molasses, sugar and rum were then traded for fine and exotic goods in England."

Spend a little time here and you can tour the ship when it's in port, wharves that date to the 1700s and 1800s, the Custom House where taxes were paid on cargoes, the West India Goods Store where goods such as coffee, tea, spices and silk brought to port were sold, the Narbonne house, a modest, middle-income home dating to the late-1600s, and the home of merchant E.H. Derby, a wedding present given to him and his bride in 1762.

The West India Goods Store at Salem Maritime National Historic Site is one of the last early shops to be found in New England. Today, Eastern National, a non-profit partner of the National Park Service, operates a luxury trade shop in this West India Goods Store as part of Salem Maritime National Historic Site. To represent Salem’s early trade period, Eastern National sells spices, coffee, teas, porcelain, and many other items from China, India, Africa, Indonesia, and other foreign ports that are similar to the items available to the citizens of Salem in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The profits from any purchases you make at this store are used to support the interpretive programs of the National Park Service at Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

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I was just here on vacation! It reminded me a bit of New Bedford's historic site.

We visited there last year when in Boston for a family wedding. It has such an unusual feel for an NPS site, as I come from the Pacific Northwest and am more used to Yellowstone or Rainier or such. That broadened my appreciation for the NPS and the scope of their mission. The rangers I met onboard the ship were very helpful, both interpretive and law enforcement. Well worth a visit.

Wow.  This is wonderful.  Those lucky young people.

Worth the money?  To my simple mind, yes, indeed.

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