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.