Winter Island: A Personal and Public History

A Map of the Salem Neck Coastline – Winter Island and the Willows. From

If the Salem Neck was a pair of twins, The Willows would be the photogenic, extroverted older sister, beckoning on to a rowdy day in the sun.  She would be urging chop suey sandwiches on all,  and challenging her friends to play another skeeball round at the Arcade.  Winter Island would be the mysterious and studious one, writing both poems and study tips in her journals lurking in the remains of one of Salem’s oldest and most historical areas.

I first heard about Winter Island four years ago from a friend who had run out on a blustery spring day and wanted to share the place she had discovered, full of abandoned buildings and hibernating sailboats.  I went a few weeks later with my squeaky bicycle on a similarly chilly day, mist in the air, and also encountered the same sense of murky foreboding.  These two first impressions, one aural and one visual –  have continued to taint my impression of Winter Island despite repeated trips out on clear days both in the summer and fall with laughing friends and family.

Winter Island is a place of contrast; in some eras it bleakly provided a site of execution, at other times the frivolous pursuit of the theater.  It’s a place of long historic significance, but also one that is poised to engage in very modern innovation.

From what I’ve read, most historians and journalists agree that Winter Island was used long before any English settlers arrived on the coast by Native Americans as a place to fish, cultivate clams, and trade. The history may even extend back about 4000 years. It was an actual island until a causeway was built in the 1600’s connecting it to the Salem Neck.

Once the English started exploring the coast, they settled on the land and used it for the same purposes as the Natives: fishing and trading as well as a serious maritime shipbuilding and coastal defense area. The first fort was built there around 1643 (which I suppose was prior to the causeway, though the articles didn’t mention that).  The fort went through several name changes, but was finally christened Fort Pickering (it’s current name) in 1799.  While in its early years the area served as a place of both trade and murder.  (If you want to read a little more about that salacious aspect of Winter Island’s history, read this article published Monday July 2 on the Salem Patch)

From what I gather, the island underwent a gradual transition as more trade moved toward the current Salem downtown and the people outgrew the land.  In the mid 1800’s Salem deeded about half the land to the Plummer School, which is currently still in operation.

Winter Island at the time of the Coast Guard 1955. Photo from

In 1935 the land was commissioned by the Coast Guard who built an airplane hangar and several still standing buildings, of most note, the currently dilapidated and gaping Barracks.

They remained stationed there during WWII providing anti-submarine warfare services as well as patrolling the water.  The Coast Guard decommissioned the site in 1970 leaving behind their structural memory.  Currently the Salem Harbormaster makes his headquarters there among one of their left behind buildings, and the hangar and Barracks stand empty.

Winter Island  in the 2010’s is a comparatively less serious place, serving as a campground in the summer time, the site of the Rebel Shakespeare Company, and one location of the Salem Community Gardens.  It’s also a great place for a picnic on a sunny (or somber) day, overlooking the Pickering Lighthouse toward Marblehead.  Walking around the grounds and seeing remains of old clam cultivation canals, the outlines and remnants of Fort Pickering, and standing in front of the Barracks building though, I get a feeling of the heavy history from the last 400 years.

Pickering Light House: June 29, 2012

When it comes to some aspects of archeology we searchers are left with only imagination, historical documents, and a faint nostalgia for a different time as we hold decaying ephemera like letters from past centuries.  But places, like Winter Island, are constantly being adapted to new use to fit the current inhabitants.  It’s necessary to reconcile their previous uses with possible uses for the future.  In the case of Winter Island, there is the chance to be the site of a first wind turbine for Salem, powering clean energy for the future.  Some people are very sure that this should happen, others are less so.  This seems to be just one example of the intersection between history and current events happening right here in our own times.

The pictures I’ve taken at Winter Island are from both March and June, and I honestly can’t decide how I like Winter Island better – in the cool crisp air nearly alone with just my husband and child; or with the shouts of people enjoying a Saturday wedding, and the tents pitched perkily in the midst of Fort Pickering.

Beth Melillo

Many thanks to the authors of various documents I read about Winter Island. (John Goff of the Salem Gazette, The Salem Wind Turbine Feasiblity Study (pdf), Winter Island Barracks Building Feasibility Study (pdf – go to page 28 for the good pictures), this recent Patch Article, and the Fort Pickering Light webpage.)  If you’re interested in more historical photographs, I recommend clicking on any of these links to get pictures amidst the texts)


5 responses to “Winter Island: A Personal and Public History

  1. I have 3 Power point style presentations already “in the can” om the USCG & earlier military history of Winter Island & the Willows ( remember Forts Pickering & Lee.

    One will be shown at the September meeting of the “Friends of Winter Island. I have both Civil War & Spanish American War views of the forts, as well as “what happened to them” info.

    Nelson Dionne, Historian

    for “The Friends of Winter Island”

  2. Pingback: Awesome Camping, Right Here in Salem! | The Salem Garden·

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