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.”

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