A Footprint all but Erased: Recognizing the Post-Industrial Legacy of Salem Harbor Station

“I think, that if I touched the earth,

It would crumble;

It is so sad and beautiful,

So tremulously like a dream.”
— Dylan Thomas

The soot-soaked stacks have begun to fall one by one along the Salem Harbor, and demolition crews are working overtime to bring this once great giant to its knees. The bigger they are, they harder these spires fall, and clouds of dust rise alarmingly from the places where they land. Towers which stood untouched for decades are now crumbling to the sad and beautiful earth. 

Nestled between Salem’s historic streets and the town harbor lies a specter which has dominated the skyline for the past 65 years. Raised by the New England Electric Company (NEEC) in 1948 and decommissioned in June of 2014, that specter is Salem Harbor Station. 

Footprint Power acquired the station in 2012 with the goal of transforming the plant into a greener, more efficient space. Although this will dramatically reduce Salem’s emissions footprint, resulting in better air for the community, it marks the end of an era, and the feelings are bittersweet at best. 

On December 17, 2014, 38 Creative Professionals including photographers, filmmakers, designers, poets, fiber artists, and more took a stroll through the site and ventured inside the soot-soaked halls of the historic space. The day was dark and cold, and water from recent rains stood high around the exterior of the plant. Everyone gathered around the guardhouse in hard-hats and reflective vests, admiring the empty space where one of the towers had been just a few days before. Cameras and notepads were out, glistening with the midday mist, while anticipation moved through the group like a wave. 

Deb Greel, appointed this June as Salem’s first public art planner, was the organizer behind this grand event. She’s planned trips to the plant before, but this time was much different. “Previous trips to the plant have been about the structure itself,” she explains, “but this time it was more about the people.” 

Photos by Joey Phoenix Photography

Among the most significant impacts of the plant closing were the workers who had spent decades here, workers who expected to finish their careers there. One of the guides who walked the group through the site explained “I’ve been here for 35 years, and this week I cleaned out my locker. 35 years of stuff in one locker. That put it all in perspective.” Over the last few months the plant workers have been attempting to transition to new lives, trying to learn skills they never thought they would need, attempting to create new lives they never thought they would have. 

No one will argue that the shift to greener power is an essential step forward to the Salem community, but change is rarely simple. When the plant opened in the late 1940s, the needs of the community were vastly different, and so were public understanding of solutions to those needs. They were doing the best they could with what they had been given. 

Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel, who was among the group that day, said of the plant’s unique history that “it provided over a gigawatt of power to the region that was sorely needed, jobs to over a hundred people, and a significant portion of Salem's tax revenue. When it was designed and built, people had a different understanding of climate and impacts than they do in modern times. A plant like that wouldn't be built in the United States anymore. But that's what we had then, and it did a job for us that we needed for decades.”

Another visitor to the plant during the December 17th tour, John “J.D.” Scrimgeour, a prominent local poet and Coordinator of Creative Writing for Salem State University, came away from the experience with similar feelings. 

“This time, despite all the astonishing imagery, I kept thinking about community, how those who worked there often lived in Salem. I know them; they helped raise money for our schools and volunteered at our children’s events.” 

Photos by Social Palates Photography

Impressions such as these prove that the story of the plant has come to mean more than the structure itself and, instead, it’s become about the community members who spent so much time within its halls.  

“Whatever the power plant was doing to our lungs, it seems important to recognize that people in our community are experiencing dislocation, and to try, in whatever ways we can, to understand that and help them process that and adjust to it. In its own way, the invitation to artists is an effort to do just that.” 

After waiting for some time for the rest of the group to arrive, Beth Tobin, stockroom manager at the plant for 28 years, began giving out instructions to everyone there. 

“Thank you all for coming. It’s extremely dark and cold inside the plant, so watch your steps and make sure you hold on to the hand rails whenever you climb the stairs.” She smiled at the group’s temporary alarm and held up her large industrial flashlight. “Follow me.” 

The group slowly shuffled inside, gingerly stepping around sizable puddles on the cold concrete, trying to take in the rapturous sight around them. An enervated Kevin Cornacchio, who’s spent the last 36 years working at the plant and who will stay on to manage the power plant dock, moved expertly through the crowd. He interjected: “If you have any questions about anything, don’t hesitate to ask me. I could tell you so many stories.” 

Photos by Karen Hosking Photography

Salem residents have come to accept the plant as part of their city, and although it will be anything but recognizable in its new capacity, the image of the stacks are permanently implanted in the collective memory. Even decommissioned and crumbling, the plant is a striking example of a time long ago. The industrial age as it has come to be known is over, but its footprint is all but erased. 

Nor should it be, and this is where Creative Professionals can step in to preserve the fading remnants of the past. The process began in early 2014 when Montserrat students came across the bridge to meet with Salem Harbor Station workers in the hopes of artistic collaboration. The intent was to document the lives of the plant’s employees, and display the finished work in a way that would honor those who spent so much time there. The project was exhibited in June and July of 2014, and included works produced by Montserrat students and an evening of poetry among the turbines, organized by the director of the Improbable Places Poetry Tour. 

Photo by Ellen Hardy (Photo from a  previous trip to the plant, we were not allowed on the stacks this time around)

The pieces from that exhibition now sit in storage, but Deb Greel imagines a time when these, and many others inspired by the site, including those from the 17th, will be out on display. “This is just another piece of Salem’s immensely rich history,” she begins. “We’ve come to be known as the Witch City, but that is just a small part of what we are. Through public art development and projects similar to Across the Bridge, we are building a prominent arts community, and creating new layers of artistic opportunity that will draw people to Salem. Now is an exciting time to be here.” 

Salem Harbor Station currently sits on 65 acres, but with the new plan that space will be condensed into 24, which opens up a number of possibilities. Deb Greel agrees: “That space could be anything, a place for sculptors to show their work, a green park with an art exhibitions, or just accessible space for Salem visitors to that part of the coast. 

This was my vision for having all the Creative Professionals come to see it. It’s not just the structure, or the stories of the workers, but also the site itself has immense cultural value for the future of Salem. I can’t create art, but I can be the facilitator for it to happen.” The first step is for Creatives to see and understand the possibilities. 

Her vision wasn’t lost on anyone who attended. Josh Turiel, who has been multiple times, has always seen the plant as more than just a plant. To him, it’s a masterpiece. “I’m obsessed with it. I’ve been obsessed with it since I moved here. It’s a big, beautiful industrial era piece of art.”

Another visitor that day, John Andrews, the owner of Social Palates and founder of Creative Salem, has been inside the structure several times. He remarked on the difference the last few months have made. 

“On the first trip I took to the plant there was a palpable anticipation of the closing and you could truly feel that. The next time I went, it had recently been shut down but you could really hear and feel the echoes of the past, they were there for anyone to reach out and see and experience. This past time, however, was a bit different. It felt like a portion of the soul of the property had moved on, like it didn’t have the time or the desire to hold on to the wasteland it had become. If anything, it felt empty.”

As the group of Creative Professionals wandered the empty halls, casting light into the shadows and searching for fragments of any stories that remained, it seemed as if a clock was ticking somewhere, counting down the minutes until the end. This is the final chapter in a 65 year story, and the photos taken and the words hastily written down will act as the solemn dirge which will ring out through time. 

John continues, “This chapter in the story that is this power plant needed documentation and who better to do that than invested local creatives who have been inspired by the past and look forward to the future. A future that literally will change the coastline of our community and hopefully house some of the same artists and work that participated in the documentation.”

It’s yet uncertain what the future will hold for this historic landmark in Salem, but the stories recorded and the images captured will last long after the last tower falls to the Earth.