Daily dogwalkers through Gallows Hill Park were startled the week before Xmas when suddenly the entire lower portion of the park, the Mansell Playground corner, was closed off by orange netting. Turns out that preliminary testing of the soil in preparation for rehab of Gallows Hill Park had detected elevated levels of arsenic in the soil. According to the City of Salem report:
Environmental consultants initially took seven boring samples from across the entire park, with only one boring, from the soccer field, indicating the presence of arsenic at the reportable level. Subsequently 10 additional borings were taken in the soccer field and playground areas. Three of those 10 secondary borings also exceeded the reportable levels of arsenic.
Levels reportable to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) are >20 ppm, while >40 ppm triggers an immediate site closing. Three of the 10 secondary samples at the soccer field exceeded that 40 ppm threshold. Hence the immediate site closing!
Mansell Playground closed
The immediate question: where did all that arsenic come from? The answer is immediately answered when a 1912 photo of the site surfaced, taken from a position in Gallows Hill Park overlooking what is now the Mansell Playground portion of the park.
That immense six-story building is a tannery, a leather factory resident at 50 Proctor St for nearly 100 years. Home to the Cooke Bros. Leather Co., purveyors of fine sheepskins, and to the Acme Leather Co. (the 1912 Salem Directory does not list the specialty of Acme).
Today the tannery is gone, nary a trace remaining. To orient the viewer to current structures: the homes to the center left still stand along Langdon St; the basketball court is just to their right where a slag heap apparently stands in the 1912 photo; the soccer field extends from the middle of the tannery encompassing all the out buildings and the sluice pond. Mansell Parkway was built after the tannery was razed, as best as can be determined in the early 1950’s, and extends from the top right of the tannery down through the sluice pond.
The gablefront house prominent in the rear is 58 Proctor St, still standing today. Just beyond it is 67 Proctor, odd Victorian tower still extent today. The barren ledge over the top of the tannery is Norman’s Rock, today the place of the Salem Heights affordable apartment complex; beyond that the former Salem High School looms in the distance on Highland Ave, today the Collins Middle School. Left of Norman’s Rock, off the left frame of the photo, is Proctor’s Ledge, where a Memorial to the Witchcraft Trials victims opened in 2017.
A view of 50 Proctor St today, the Mansell Playground, from the opposite orientation of photos above. Langdon St to the right, Mansell Pkwy to the left, Gallows Hill water tower overlooking Gallows Hill Park in the center top.
Just the lower portion of Gallows Hill park is closed, the portion outlined in the dotted red line. The skate park and upper portion of park remain open.Though Gallows Hill Park was established in 1912, one of the earliest parks in Salem, the contaminated Mansell Playground portion was only appended in the 1950’s.
It could be that the arsenic contamination came from factory effluent dumped into the pond behind (see photo above), but the more likely source is the coal ash used to fill in the pond when the factory was demolished and the Mansell Playground created and appended to Gallows Hill park, sometime in the early 1950’s. Coal ash is notoriously high in arsenic. Coal ash would never be used as fill today, but doing so was common practice in the mid-20th century.
After demolition of the tannery Mansell Pkwy was pushed through, and the houses now on that street, and the intersecting Looney Ave, were erected in the period from the late 50’s to early 60’s. The street and the park filled with Baby Boomer children, many of whom returned this past summer for an enormous block party. When they frolicked barefoot in Mansell Playground in the 1960’s the coal ash fill was fresh and its toxins near the surface; today after decades of subsumation the arsenic is a foot underground and likely not a threat to cheerleading practices held daily throughout the fall on that ground.
The street and playground are named for Private Benjamin F. Mansell, a Gallows Hill native killed in action in 1944 in Italy. But how does a street barely 100 yards long with only three houses on its length, four if the corner split-level at 11 Looney Ave is included, merit the honorific parkway?
Many detractors of the Haunted Happenings events that dominates Salem streets each October, thinking that the celebrations trivialize the horrid events of 1692 (and they do, but so what), try to put the focus instead on the maritime legacy of Salem. Those efforts never succeed, perhaps because the maritime legacy itself is trivial, lasting a brief generation with no lasting relevance on American culture, besides upper crust houses in the McIntire District. Even favorite son Nathaniel Hawthorne saw it as such (read, or re-read, the opening chapter to The Scarlet Letter).
A grander, more lasting Salem legacy is the leather industry, but it is a legacy mostly disregarded. After all, look at the size of that factory in a residential area! One of more than a hundred such factories in and near Gallows Hill. Leather was King in Salem for over a century, from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. A half century after the collapse of that industry the consequences linger: soil contamination in parks, deindustrialization of choice properties, battles over new development, pensions that senior citizens counted on evaporated, traffic and transit patterns designed for King Leather hard to redesign.
It is a legacy that this blog intends to return to again and again.
* With apologies to The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.