The FlynnTan Tannery in Blubber Hollow

A feature article on the North Shore in National Geographic nearly 40 years past (April 1979) prominently featured operations at the FlynnTan tannery. The sweat, the steam,  the stink, the dankness leaps out of the photo.

FlynnTan factory
The date of the photo in 1979 seems off, as the FlynnTan plant suffered a major fire, reputedly arson, in Aug 1976 that destroyed its oldest building, a late 19th century brick building on Boston St. supposedly the birthplace of American Shoe Machinery Corp, a firm that still exists. With half the plant gone, leather manufacturing continued fitfully in the remaining large 4-story wooden building on the other side of the site along Goodhue St. So the photo could have been taken before the 1976 fire and saved for the 1979 article, or maybe it is contemporary with the article and illustrates the tedious non-automated processes in leather manufacturing extant even in late the 20th century. There is no mention of North Shore tanneries in the National Geographic article besides this sole photo, so why the magazine editors included it is a puzzle.

Either way, tanneries in Salem were doomed, even before the fire kicked FlynnTan in the gut. The remaining half of the plant puttered on for another decade before closing for good in 1988 upon declaration of bankruptcy. The plant degraded further, home to vagrants and druggies, taxes unpaid, fires common, before an EPA cleanup in 1998 cleared the way for demolition of the old wood building in late 1999, leaving a runt of a brick building along Boston St standing, the gold Flynntan logo atop the chimney tower visible to travelers into Salem a long ways down the Boston St entryway. In the new century legal proceedings dragged on for years before the City of Salem finally took possession.

FlynnTan Fire

Salem Firefighters respond to fire at runt of FlynnTan plant. Again

Even then redevelopment was snake bit. The first idea was to rebuild as mixed light manufacturing, but that proposal went nowhere before the first developer handed off  the site to the next applicant. The new plan was to build a large medical clinic, taking advantage of proximity to the North Shore Medical Center, but that floated balloon deflated when it was realized that the half-dozen other medical clinics closer to NSMC were already more than Salem needed. Finally the last plan, years having passed, was for a mixture of townhouses and an apartment building with first floor retail, now under construction.

FlynnTan Development 2

FlynnTan Town Houses along Boston St under construction in Blubber Hollow

FlynnTan Development 1

FlynnTan Apartment along Goodhue St under construction in Blubber Hollow

John Flynn started his leather business in 1920, bringing his three sons and daughter into business with him. It remained a Flynn family business until the end in 1988. The original plant employed a mere 18 persons making 100 dozen skins a day, expanding to a peak of 300 persons in the wartime boom of 1945. The plant initially produced leather for men’s slippers and sweat bands for the hat trade, switching after WWII to produce sheepskins and lambskins for the shoe industry, especially shoe linings.

FlynnTan Jacket

During WWII FlynnTan expanded into cowhide leather to produce Air Force products, such as bombardier jackets, still seen on the internet under the FlynnTan logo.FlynnTan Jacket label

The Salem Mayoral Inaugural Address

OK this is stale news now, but on Jan.1 the inauguration of elected Salem City officers was held in the sunny grand central hall of the Peabody Essex Museum, a warm refuge from the single digit temperatures outside. Mayor-elect Kim Driscoll assumed the oath of office for her fourth four-year term; the eleven city councilors assumed the oath of office for two-year terms, four newbies and seven returnees; and three new members of the School Committee were sworn in.

Newbies are especially prevalent in the four city wards that that cover most (Ward 4) or abut (Wards 2, 3, and 6) the Gallows Hill / Blubber Hollow neighborhood. Timothy Flynn is the new councilor for Ward 4*; Christine Madore the new councilor for Ward 2*; Lisa Peterson the new councilor for Ward 3*; while returnee Beth Gerard of Ward 6* was elected President of the City Council (Congratulations and condolences). New Councilor At-Large Domingo Dominguez owns property on Gallows Hill, and returnee Elaine Milo resides in Witchcraft Heights. So, Gallows Hill is well-represented on City Council, accounting for six of the eleven councilors – now it’s time get to work.

But a listicle of city councilors is not the purpose of this post. The inaugural address by Kim Driscoll listed three critical concerns Salem faces:  housingtransportation, and education. Or, in her words, where we live, how we get around, and how our children learn and grow. Every other city mayor would likely list the same three, though their order might be shuffled.**

Actually all three concerns intersect. Without affordable housing nearby workers have to move far into the exurbs to find affordable housing (drive until you qualify), meaning more cars and more traffic. Conversely, without convenient transit accessibility, more people must have cars, more cars need more parking spaces, tying up land that might be more purposefully dedicated to housing. Similarly, if parents of school age children need to devote half or more of their income to housing, as is common, then necessarily attention dedicated to education of those children gets short shrift. And so on.

After decades of building more roads, or widening existing roads, to ease traffic the realization has finally dawned on urban planners that the solution is to get people OUT of cars, NOT to build room for more cars. Hence programs like Complete Streets. The many programs cited by Mayor Driscoll to reduce cars (bike sharing and bike paths, designing streets around traffic calming to increase pedestrian accessibility, and so forth) have had an effect: “Salem’s population increased by 3 percent, the number of vehicles registered here dropped by almost 2 percent.” Tiny, but in the right direction!

Now onto the real point of this blog post – the Complete Streets plan for Blubber Hollow, funded more than a year ago in fall 2016 and slated to begin in spring 2017, then publicly announced in September 2017 with a start planned in fall 2017 – well here it is a month into 2018 and still no construction in sight. Possible reasons why not: the work of National Grid to replace all gas lines along Bridge and Boston Streets in Blubber Hollow is still ongoing months past anticipated completion; burying of power lines in front of the new Senior Center going up on Bridge St not started yet; flooding of Bridge St by winter storms delays all street improvements.

Complete Streets Plan

Site Plans for Blubber Hollow Complete Streets

So it seems that it’ll be 2019 before commuters of Blubber Hollow will have an uninterrupted bike path to the Salem Depot, before stroller moms can walk along sidewalks wider than the stroller, before school kids can use crosswalks without having to dodge cars.

Let’s end with a line from the mayor’s inaugural address: “let us work together to ensure that Salem is a city that does provide for everybody – a city that is, indeed, created by everybody.”


Four Corners

*Ward 4 = Gallows Hill and Witchcraft Heights;

*Ward 2 = Bridge Street Neck through northern half of downtown and a corner of Mill Hill to McIntire District abutting Gallows Hill;

*Ward 3 = Mill Hill and Castle Hill neighborhoods through the central hinterlands of Salem but encompassing a significant corner of Gallows Hill;

*Ward 6 = North Salem (or Northfields) and Mack Park neighborhoods down to Blubber Hollow.

** From an AP article on the sex scandal of the Mayor of Nashville: “The popular mayor, who was elected in 2015, said progress has been made to offer affordable housing, improve to public education and promote better transportation options.” Same three, different order.

Construction in Blubber Hollow. January Update

Progress on two ongoing major building projects continues apace, despite horrific weather sprouting ice monsters nearby. Since last visited the Salem Senior Center (ahem Community Life Center) has gained a roof, sprouted windows on all sides, 000_0291and been “buttoned up” sufficiently to let plumbing, electrical and HVAC contractors do interior work without undue exposure. 000_0290

On the other half of the site, not visible in the photo, ground preparation continues for the Gateway Center, with groundbreaking planned for late spring.

Across Bridge Street apartment construction at the former Flynn Tan site also proceeds although progress not as dramatic. 000_0289Framing of the ground floor, what will be the parking garage, is completed with the floor above ready to pour as soon as weather cooperates. It seems that the remaining three floors will be wood frame construction, not the steel frame construction of the ground floor. It’ll be seen in the February update how far that framing will have progressed.

Ice Monsters Invade Blubber Hollow

Almost three weeks after Blizzard Grayson (dang already has a wiki page) dumped 16+ inches of snow onto Salem and sea water flooded streets and basements in many parts of Salem, the enormous ice floes left behind still dot Blubber Hollow.000_0292

The floes were lifted out of the North River Canal along Bridge Street in upper Blubber Hollow. So enormous are they that they still float in Leslie’s Retreat Park at the top of Blubber Hollow, despite many days since of 50-plus degree temperatures. For orientation, the mysterious Blubber Hollow Planters are to the right out of the frame of the photograph. Given the size of the ice floes they’re likely to be with Salem until deep into spring. They do so resemble primitive beasts crawling up out of river muck.

And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.  — Where the Wild Things Are

Charlotte Forten – African-American Teacher on Gallows Hill

The observation this week of ML King Day brought out several recollections of Charlotte Forten, the first African-American graduate in 1856 of Salem Normal School, the 19th century predecessor of what is now Salem State University. Her remarkable career was long and worthy – 1st African-American schoolteacher in Massachusetts, abolition activist, writer and diarist and poet, educator of recently freed slaves on the Sea Islands in South Carolina in the Reconstruction Period.

Her connections to Salem are many and varied. There’s even a web site solely devoted to Charlotte Forten in Salem. Check it out for details of her life, which is going to become even more newsworthy with the upcoming dedication of the new Charlotte Forten Hall at the SSU library. Charlotte FortenBut what’s drawn attention of the Streets of Gallows Hill to Charlotte Forten is that her first teaching position in Salem upon graduation from Salem Normal School was on Gallows Hill, at the Epes School on what is now Aborn Street Court a few steps from the Salem / Peabody city line (then the Salem / South Danvers city line, the Peabody name not assumed until 1868).

In the classification of the times Epes was both a Second Division grammar school (older children aged 10-14) as well as a First Division primary school (younger children aged 6-10). In the Salem Directory of 1858 Salem had seven grammar schools and seven primary schools, with several schools like Epes fulfilling both categories. The Epes school serviced what are now the Mack Park and Gallows Hill neighborhoods, anything below North St and above Bridge St. It is not recorded in the Salem Directory of the time which division Charlotte Forten taught. Likely both. She was at Epes for two years until 1858 before resigning to recover from a bout of tuberculosis, though she did return subsequently to Salem to teach briefly at the Higginson Grammar School then on Broad St. Unheard of for the times, she instructed white children NOT black children. There might have been too few black children in Salem at the time to even assemble an all black classroom.

It seems that the Epes School is still standing. On Aborn St Ct there is one building, now an four-unit apartment building, that has the characteristics of a mid-19th century school. It would have been a four-room schoolhouse, two up and two down, classrooms placed back to back, and sits on a large property big enough to have once been a schoolyard. 7 Aborn St CtThough cannot find proof in the form of mid-19th century images of the Epes School, property records have the building constructed in 1841, consonant with it having been a mid-19th century schoolhouse. And the style and size of the building are in line with another grammar school of the period, the Fowler School on Fowler St nearby,

13 Fowler St

itself born a four room schoolhouse and now a four unit condo after an early 20th-century conversion from school to apartment building.

Maps of the time support the argument. In the 1874 Atlas of Salem no Epes School nor Aborn St Ct is indicated, though there is a building of appropriate dimensions where Aborn St Ct would be.

Epes School anyhow would have by 1874 been replaced a new and larger school up Boston St shaded green in the 1874 map and circled green in the current Google map. For comparison’s sake the area of the Fowler School from the 1874 Atlas is also provided. Fowler St 1874As a bonus, the nearby Charles Lenox Remond residence at 9 Dean Street, where Charlotte Forten resided with the abolitionist Remond family while teaching at the Epes School, is also marked. Dean St is now Flint St, the home sited in a condominium parking lot, the grander Bowditch School converted to condos, like the Epes and Fowler schools before it.

Highway Monster that Almost Ate Salem

In the mid-1960s there was a serious plan to build a highway connector, from the proposed I-95 interstate highway through Peabody right through central Salem ending in downtown Beverly, and another spur through South Salem ending in Vinnin Square.

After months of searching finally found a map of the proposed highway, in an article appearing in the Saturday Nov 19 1966 issue of the Salem Evening News, courtesy of the wonderful John F Collins Society. For those not in the know, John Collins was the renowned landscape architect who managed to rescue much of the devastation of urban renewal. Derby Square is his, Essex St pedestrian mall is his, One Salem Green is his. Unfortunately he could not rescue everything, and the blight of the Museum Place Mall and the Church St parking lot are with Salem even unto today.

Gallows Hill Hwy Connector

Thank god better minds prevailed and the Connector never got built, because it would have absolutely annihilated Salem. The Gallows Hill neighborhood would have been cut in half, the highway passing right through Gallows Hill Park. It would have been a death blow to downtown Salem, already seriously wounded by urban renewal plans that wiped out dozens of historic downtown buildings. The exit ramp from the highway, for “convenience” sake to drivers, would have emptied right in front of the Peabody-Essex Museum, the “convenience” of residents be damned. The Vinnin Square neighborhood would have disappeared.

It helps to see a representation of the highway over a contemporary map of Salem. Gallows Hill Hwy Connector todayThe Witchcraft Heights subdivision, just getting started in the mid-1960s, would have been stillborn. Even the sacrosanct McIntire District would have been upended, the lovely River St paved over. All this for a freakin’ highway to cut off 1 minute of commute time!?

It’s hard to recall from this distance from the past just how much the automobile was adored by city planners. Any other consideration ‒ housing, employment, schools, neighborhoods, people ‒ was moot. It recalls the words of noted literary critic Lewis Mumford: The automobile  is…“nothing less than a license to destroy the city.” Mumford also gave a prescription to restore sanity: “Forget the damned motor car and build the cities for lovers and friends.” Fortunately 50 years ago citizens of Salem averted the danger, keeping Salem a gem for “lovers and friends.”

Gallows Hill Park – Then and Now

Gallows Hill Park in the center of the Gallows Hill neighborhood was the location of two longstanding Salem traditions no longer followed – the annual Independence Day bonfire atop the ridge where the Gallows Hill Water Tower now sits, and the annual flooding of the ball fields each winter to turn them into an enormous skating rink.

The bonfire tradition ran until 1960 or so, ending when the fuel, wooden barrels contributed by local tanneries, became unavailable given the post-WWII collapse of the leather industry centered in Blubber Hollow. Though one would think that the history of the Great Salem Fire, the origin site lying just a few hundred yards from the bonfire site, would have ended the bonfire tradition long before the ’60s.

The skating rink tradition lasted longer, apparently until the early ’80s, before it too ended due to safety concerns, though the fire hydrant turned on every year to flood the field still sits in the park, hidden behind deep brush.

Searches for photos of skating at Gallows Hill Park have uncovered nothing, but a photo of part of the park ca. 1980 Gallows Hill Park 1980shows how much the park has changed even in recent decades. The photo taken from the parking lot at the corner of Mansell and Witch Hill clearly shows the paths (aka toboggan runs) leading from the top half of the park. Even a basketball backboard on the upper park is visible. Gallows Hill Park 2018Contrast that to a current image of the slope taken from nearly the same vantage point. So deep is the brush, even in mid-winter desolation, that the toboggan runs are not visible. Never mind sledding, in summer the paths are barely walkable, so much has the brush been allowed to swarm unimpeded over everything. The cost of deferred maintenance.

Returning the park to its 1980 state would require an investment well beyond the capability of the Salem Parks and Recreation department. And it is not just Gallows Hill Park. Every park in Salem, except perhaps The Common, is in deplorable state, and even The Common draws severe criticism from neighbors. It is for reason of poor maintenance that this blog writer opposed the purchase of the 289 Derby St lot as Salem’s newest park. Until there is some long-range solution to deferred maintenance, the new park will gleam for a few years after the ribbon-cutting but will soon decay into an unsightly mess complete with homeless encampment, just like all of Salem’s other parks (there are at least three such camps currently in Gallows Hill Park). Already there is a homeless encampment on the Salem Harbor Walk behind 289 Derby St, so they wouldn’t have far to move.

Memorabilia at the Proctor’s Ledge Memorial

Among the numerous trinkets left by visitors to the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials Memorial — flowers, coins, stones, dolls — are a surprisingly large number of poignant letters personally addressed to the departed.

Proctor's Ledge memorial 7_12_17

Surprising, because who after all is the intended reader? The numinous articles gifted to the memorial show how strong the hold of that event is in the souls of those alive today, centuries after the distressing events played out. Perhaps donated items should be collected and preserved, and not discarded as they are now, much as the National Park Service preserves and catalogs items left at the Vietnam War Memorial. The natural choice for preservationist would seem to be the Peabody-Essex Museum, curator of the remaining artifacts of the Witchcraft Trials, but given the recent plans of the PEM to abandon Salem as the home of its historical collections perhaps not.

A sample is this rambling four-page missive collected during a recent dog walk. Despite the admonition that “A protective spell has been placed on these pieces of paper. Do not disrupt, been warned” the letter was not lifted from the memorial but from the back parking lot of the Walgreen’s where winds had deposited it. There was no sign of the “orange lilies as a gift of your sacrifices and sufferings.” As is routine for all other letters viewed, there were no signatories.


Cry Innocent Ltr


Salem Plastic Bag Ban – Stop & Shop Falls in Line

The plastic bag ban for the City of Salem went into effect on January 1, 2018. The Stop and Shop on the Peabody / Salem line has reversed initial policy and now will adhere to the plastic bag ban, passing out paper bags to customers who do not bring reusable bags. The Stop and Shop had been expected to legally elude the ban on a technicality, because the check-out stands where bags are disbursed is in Peabody, not Salem, even though the bulk of the supermarket resides in Salem.

Stop and Shop city line

This customer is walking on the city line, check out stands in Peabody to his right, groceries in Salem to his left.

Evidently corporate changed its mind, or had its mind changed. Let it be reminded that it was never store managers and employees who wanted to elude the plastic bag ban. When spoken to they were fully in favor of the ban, but hands were tied by corporate big wigs. What changed minds is unknown. It could have been pressure from Salem Recycling Committee, complaints from customers, pleas from store managers – whatever. Salem is much the better for the largest supermarket (mostly) within Salem following the plastic bag ban.


Great Salem Fire Origin – Then & Now

In the early afternoon of June 25, 1914, the fire began when the Korn Leather Co. factory at 55 Boston St. blew up. Before the conflagration was brought under control almost a day later (what is now Pickering Wharf smoldered for weeks after) nearly a third of central Salem was gone: all of The Point neighborhood, nearly all of the Mill Hill neighborhood, much of the South Salem neighborhood along Lafayette St, a slice of the McIntire District (narrowly missing famously elegant Chestnut St), and portions of downtown Salem along the Derby St waterfront.

Gone were many institutions: half of the tanneries that provided a substantial chunk of jobs and tax revenue for Salem: the Pequot Mills cotton plant that employed the other half of the Salem labor force not laboring in the tanneries; Salem Hospital on Charter St downtown, young then and suddenly absent; and even two fire stations, one at the end of Essex St rebuilt soon after and still operating, and one that occupied what is now Lafayette Park in The Point.

Given this history it is entertaining to view this day-after photograph of the origin site, Salem Fire Origintaken from the crest of Proctor’s Ledge of Gallows Hill. What’s left of the Korn Leather factory fills the central portion of the photograph, spectators along Proctor St shaking their heads at the damage. An apartment building and a factory across Proctor St are destroyed, but most of the destruction was to the right of the frame of the photograph, spreading first along Boston St then Jackson St. into Mill Hill, crossing the railroad tracks (narrowly missing the train station where Riley Plaza now lies) and spreading through neighborhoods along Salem Harbor.

More entertaining is to see what became of the area in the photograph. In this annotated Gallows Hill Fire Annotatedimage can be seen what buildings stand there now. The Korn tannery was rebuilt in the same location, decades later going out of business, and the entire lot dispiritedly now occupied by a Walgreen’s. Dispiritedly, because perhaps the two most hallowed sites in Salem, the Great Fire Memorial and the Proctor’s Ledge Witchcraft Trials Memorial, both sit in the parking lot of a chain pharmacy. Across Boston St was built the Hygrade Lamp factory, which stood almost 80 years before being torn down, the long-standing vacant lot soon to be filled by the Gateway Center of apartments and retail outlets.

Across Proctor St the apartment building at 65 Boston St was amazingly rebuilt and is now condos. Amazingly, because look at the damage, the building was gutted. Though the missing roof was replaced not by a gable roof to match its neighbor but was squared off adding a full fourth floor to half the building. The small tannery at 6 Proctor St was not rebuilt but was replaced by a two-family house still standing.

Diagonally across the intersection the site where horse carts are parked at the confluence of Boston and Goodhue Streets is now the parking lot for an outlet of the ubiquitous Dunkin Donuts. Across Goodhue St the tannery then there was replaced at the onset of the 21st century by a Public Storage building.

Examining the area now from the same crest of Proctor’s Ledge from where the photo was taken, what stands out is how concentrated was the area then, how dispersed now. It is a theme this blog has hit up before, and will hit again – Salem of a century ago was twice as dense as it is presently.

A single-story Walgreen’s occupies a full block where three multi-story factories once stood. The Gateway Center to be built in the coming year, while seemingly large (four-stories, 117-units), will be about half the size of the Hygrade plant that once filled the site. Three multi-story buildings once filled the triangle where a small single-story Dunkin Donuts now sits. Even the seemingly substantial Public Storage building is much smaller than the immense five-story building on the site in 1914.

As the Joni Mitchell song tells:

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone
They paved paradise Salem
And put up a parking lot.