SALEM, Mass. — For four generations members of my family have walked through the doors of the Hawthorne Hotel here on Washington Square, attending meetings of Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce, stepping downstairs into the basement for teen parties, and mingling in the lobby after Thanksgiving-morning 5K races that took our family harriers down Derby Street, past the Customs House where Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked (and took inspiration from an actual house with seven gables) and around the shoreline.
One of us was an immigrant settler, another sold auto insurance, a third a lawyer, still another was in real estate and one was a cub reporter intoxicated with the idea of finding out what secrets were held close to the breast of the old town.
And for all that time, amid all that Rotary camaraderie and pledges of allegiance to the flag, all those stuffy chamber conclaves and March of Dimes meetings, none of us knew — none of us suspected — that what sat six stories above us was one of the great mysterious enclaves of all of maritime Massachusetts — perhaps, as Yankee Magazine was to put it, “the most unusual room in New England.”
So in my seventh decade — and the 12th decade of my family’s ties to this old community — I finally watched the key turn in a tucked-away corner of the top floor of the hotel and saw the door open to the secret meeting place of the Salem Marine Society, founded 1766.
Some perspective: 1766 was the year Bonnie Prince Charlie emerged as the Stuart claimant to the English throne, the year the Stamp Act was repealed, the year Thomas Malthus and Barbara Fritchie were born, the year Benjamin Franklin sponsored John Mills for membership in the Royal Society.
Another perspective: From this secluded room it is possible to look into Salem Harbor and across all the way to Marblehead, glimpsing in one sighting two of the most important sea towns of our colonial past.
It was in that colonial past that seamen, masters and merchants long forgotten formed the Salem Marine Society, their intention to exchange navigational information and to provide benefits to sea captains in distress and widows in need. Some 220 years later, Ronald Reagan would celebrate that notion as community voluntarism. The group still meets, kind of a Skull and Bones of Boston’s North Shore, a secret even to the son of a mayor, state senator and judge, a man who later would be elected to Congress and eventually own the hotel himself.
“I learned my bar-tending skills as a law student in this hotel in the 1950s and had no idea that all those floors above me was a national treasure,” says Michael J. Harrington, who served in the House from 1969 to 1979 — and who sponsored me as a college intern in his congressional office 40 years ago. “I grew up in and around this, and didn’t know a thing about it.”
What none of us knew is that in these waxed-walnut chambers, shaped like a captain’s cabin and outfitted with real captains’ chairs, were medals, navigational instruments, barometers and hygrometers, and the sorts of portraits found in old Yankee men’s clubs, except these subjects are sea captains.
It makes a visitor wonder, for example, about the life and outlook of the 281st member of the society, Captain Thomas West, outfitted with a face like Oliver Cromwell’s. West joined the society in 1806, was a ship’s master from 1834 to 1847 and died two years later in Salem.
Assembled here, too, is a picture of every person who ever belonged to this society, 1,037 Salem souls in all. Some of the names, themselves evocative of a time and a place: Charles Henry Allen, John Buttells Knight, Josiah Dewing, Dudley Leavitt Pickman and one named Jones Very. Another name: Nathaniel Bowditch, sometimes considered the founder of maritime navigation and perhaps, even accounting for Hawthorne, Salem’s most influential writer.
(A mathematician and astronomer, Bowditch was the author of “The American Practical Navigator,” which has gone into more than four dozen printings, the latest only five years ago. Hawthorne spawned more term papers, but Bowditch saved more lives.)
Navigation was the principal draw for the society, which constructed a beacon on nearby Baker’s Island in 1791, saving sailors from fateful encounters with dangerous ledges. An improved lighthouse followed in 1798.
Over the years, a remarkable library was assembled, the collection mostly treating with sea life and travel, but if you feel the need to inspect the logs of the American Board of Supervising Inspectors of the Bays, Sounds and Tides of the United States, this is the place. You might also linger on a volume on the lighthouse stations of the U.S. government.
Salem no longer is home to the nation’s most important mariners, and the phrase “China trade,” once so redolent in this community, no longer refers to clipper ships leaving Derby Wharf for the faraway East. Membership today is open to descendants of members and to ship owners.
A quick story before we go: The society possesses a portrait of Matthew Fontaine Maury, once a prominent and accomplished ship captain. He was given an honorary membership in 1848. A Virginian, he sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War and in 1861 his portrait was turned upside down and backwards. Six years ago a delegation of Virginia preservationists and antiquities experts visited the society headquarters and provided an additional Maury portrait, now hanging right side up.
A full century later, a sea-drawn president reflected on the draw of the oceans. “The sea changes and the light changes and ships change,” John F. Kennedy said in his America’s Cup speech of 1962. “We have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea … we are going to whence we came.”
Before I departed the secret room in the city from whence I came, I signed the guest book, the first to do so in 359 days. Part of the story of my native city is the same as the story of yours: forgotten tales and hidden secrets that ought to be forgotten and hidden no longer. They are worth exploring, even if they are on the seventh floor of a hotel that is so much a part of your mental landscape you hardly notice it anymore.
David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1890).