I remember sitting on the bus, wondering why Voorheesville high school came back to Salem each and every year; “Surely there must be a reason, something special about the little village we were pulling into”. It was not long after that I found the answer to my question in what soon became my favorite part of the trip. The trolley ride, and, more importantly, the information session that came with it courtesy of our tour guide, played a huge role in my coming to see Salem the way it is: an integration of vastly differing experiences. A blending of emotions: excitement, to concern, to guilt, to pride. Salem is a city of components made up of different cultures, emotions, and a diverse population. And it was not until the trolley ride that I realized Salem’s unique position historically and how it has embraced and come to terms with its past to look towards a better future.
When I first arrived in Salem, I assumed it would have a guilt-ridden atmosphere. Surely everyone knew of the events that had occurred over three hundred years before: The accusations of hundreds, the executions of twenty, and the refusal to admit to wrongdoing by several of those in favor at the time. I thought that must have been a hard pill to swallow for their descendants, many of whom are presumably still living in Salem today. I was wrong. In fact, the feelings were almost the opposite. Not only were the signs still there, not hidden away as I had thought was most likely, but the people and places were in actuality very open to the topic. They almost seemed to embrace their history. Everywhere you looked a reference to a witch could be seen. Pictures on lampposts, clever shop names, the selling of souvenirs filled with references to witchcraft; were all surprising and fascinating. I could not believe a town with a past so dark and shamed could choose to display it so obviously!
But Salem’s history was not all bad. In fact, it was far from it. Salem was established in 1626 on the Atlantic coast as a trading port. It quickly developed into a major colonial city that thrived as a bustling trade center. Many took advantage of the lumber and textile markets. Some were a part of a rapidly growing agricultural system. Others called “privateers” used the local lumber supply and ship-building knowledge to build boats and attack British vessels in the Atlantic, stealing their cargo for profit. All in all, Salem was a very wealthy state for much of its history and had plenty of success to look back on in admiration, as opposed to the disdain felt by some towards respecting the city following the witch trials.
“Now did you know…” may have been the most common phrase starter on the trolley ride that played such a huge role in my mind on the outcomes of the Salem trip. I can still picture the words coming out of our tour guide’s mouth in the distinct Massachusetts accent she had. She was a local, born and raised in Salem, and spent her whole life there. She knew the area inside and out; all the points – big and small – that made up the city and its story. She knew various interesting facts about locations where events occurred, people who lived there, and the development of the area as time passed. She brought a certain joy to the topic – an unmistakable pride in the place she called home. The passion with which she spoke and the mix of utmost respect at times with disgust towards others highlighted the paradoxical nature of Salem as a society today.
While Salem has been marked on maps as the site of a terrible tragedy, the people there do not feel that way. Celebrated perhaps as much as the trials are frowned upon is the success Salem had economically. More importantly, the people of the area pride themselves in the ability of the city to bounce back and grow stronger as a community following the tragic happenings it endured. After the trolley ride, the celebration of a complicated history became more pronounced in my eyes than they had been before. Our guide – a woman who could have chosen to leave such a city but never decided to – helped me to see that sometimes events that appear to be the worst become the most celebrated when they are overcome. Salem banded together after 1693, and it can be seen today through its culture and spirit as a city, three hundred twenty-five years later.