With stunning views of Salem Harbor, historic Winter Island is considered a cultural and archaeological treasure trove as it has hosted settlements dating back to prehistoric and Native American times. The Naumkeag called this small island home long before colonial settlers began Salem's first fishing and ship building industries or the U.S. Coast Guard used it as a base for search and rescue.
The one-time island is now connected to the mainland at Salem Neck, creating a 45-acre peninsula that served as a military installation through out much of its early history. Today, it is dotted with a dozen residences, the Plummer Home for Boys, and the Winter Island Marine Park that provides ample recreational opportunities as the island awaits further possible transformations in the future.
Winter Island's history dates back to the colonial era, and was home to the community's first tavern and shipyard as well as a fort erected at the site by the townspeople as early as 1643. The USS Essex was launched from the island’s shores in 1799, and would go on to sail under the red, white, and blue of George Washington's U.S. Navy. The site was renamed Fort Pickering that same year in honor of Colonel Timothy Pickering who was the Secretary of State and previously served as Secretary of War under President George Washington.
The 18th century would bring continued use as fortification in times of war, including use during the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, and the Civil War. In 1867, the War Department turned over a larger part of the land to the City for unlicensed use unless it was once again necessary for defense purposes. In 1870, the Secretary of War permitted the Trustees of the Plummer Farm School to establish their institution on Winter Island. A year later, Fort Pickering Light, known to many as Winter Island Light, was built of iron, lined with brick, and guided mariners into Salem Harbor with the aid of Derby Wharf Light and Hospital Point Light in Beverly.
The United States Coast Guard created a Search & Rescue Base on the Island in the 1930’s, but was eventually replaced by a base on Cape Cod. The Coast Guard left in 1969, replacing the signal with an offshore buoy that later left the lighthouse in disrepair.
The City of Salem didn’t officially regained control of the island including all remaining federal buildings until 1973. Concerned citizens and businesses formed The Fort Pickering Light Association in the 1980s to refurbish the lighthouse and repair its foundation. It was relit in 1983, and received yet another facelift in 1999.
Fort Pickering was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 while the entire island was later added to the list in 1994 as the Winter Island Historic and Archaeological District. In 2007, the U.S. Coast Guard Barracks Building Re-Use Feasibility Study was prepared for the City of Salem with funding provided by the Massachusetts Historic Commission.
Today, the Friends of Winter Island (FOWI) work to promote and guide the preservation and restoration of endangered historic resources on Winter Island, which is operated by the City of Salem. Winter Island Marine Park now sits on the former Coast Guard site on the southern portion of the island, including Fort Pickering, the Fort Pickering Lighthouse, a boat launch, a beach, RV & tent camping, and the former Coast Guard hangar and barracks.
Fun Facts about our Park
• During the 1930's, the United States Coast Guard created a Search & Rescue Base here on Winter Island Park.
• The Frigate USS Essex was built and launched in 1799 from this location. It served General George Washington in the U.S. Navy.
• The three bunkers located in historic Fort Pickering once stored ammunition as early as the Civil War.
• Winter Island had Salem's first tavern and first shipyard. A fort was erected as early as 1643.
• In 1867, the War department "turned over" to the city "for puplic use" the part of the island not occupied by the fort, until it should be wanted for defense.
• On December 28, 1928, Salem's Park Department took formal possession of the island.
• The fort was renamed Fort Pickering, after Colonel Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State and War in Washington's Cabinet.