Salem Willows Park, a family-friendly park and arcade in Salem, Massachusetts, has been a local favorite since it opened to the public in 1858. Nowadays, guests from all over enjoy an arcade, outdoor theater, oceanfront views, top-notch snacks, and more.
By Bethany Bourgault
Jul 05 2018
The sign for Salem Willows Arcade is reminiscent of days gone by.Photo Credit : Bethany Bourgault
The surest sign of spring in Salem is the greening of the 200-year-old trees in Salem Willows Park. Located on 35 acres of beautiful waterfront property, this historic park is home to kids’ rides, an outdoor theater, an arcade, and more. All it takes is a quick look around to see that Salem Willows is a delight for the whole family.
The willow trees for which the park was named are living testaments to the park’s rich history. They were planted over 200 years ago, in 1801, to serve as a diversion for the patients of a nearby smallpox hospital. The smallpox vaccination had recently become available to the public, and the Salem facility was used to house patients that had recently been exposed to the virus as part of the immunization process. The willow trees and fresh sea air helped to brighten the patients’ otherwise rather unpleasant days.
As safer modes of vaccination replaced inoculation, the Salem facility was no longer necessary. Instead, the area opened as a public park in 1858, and quickly attracted large crowds. Travelers from nearby Boston came for the tranquil willow trees, and locals reveled in the abundant fishing areas. The Naumkeag Street Railway soon capitalized on the park’s popularity, running horse-drawn trolleys to the park every 15 minutes starting in 1877. Land was set aside to build an amusement park on the property, which welcomed its first patrons on June 10, 1880. As many as 10,000 visitors were recorded daily. The park even had its own column in the Salem Evening News.
Perhaps one of the most loved attractions at the park was Mr. Joseph Brown’s carousel. Brown, a Bavarian immigrant, was an exceptionally talented woodcarver. He hand-carved all of his horses and even the details on the carousel apparatus. His “flying horses” operated for almost 70 years until his son-in-law, who had taken over the business after Mr. Brown, passed away in 1945. The horses were sold to Macy’s in New York City for Christmas displays, but Salem residents will always remember the horses’ original home.
Nowadays, a different carousel operates near the arcade.
The street at the north end of the park was at one time filled with so many eateries that it eventually became known as Restaurant Row. All of the original restaurants have since closed, but park visitors need not worry—The Clam Shack has them covered. This two-year-old eatery gets rave reviews for its seafood and lobster rolls, served in outdoor picnic fashion.
If seafood isn’t what you had in mind for your day-at-the-park snack, check out the variety of eateries near the arcade. Just as they could on the old Restaurant Row, park-goers can find just about anything from Chinese food to pizza to fried dough here.
Before my trip, I had been told that the only way to celebrate the beginning of summer in Salem was with a box of E.W. Hobbs popcorn. Turns out this local gem is credited with popularizing the ice cream cone in America, too. Snacks and history? Yes, please.
My sister and I followed the deliciously buttery scent all the way to a dark green building at the end of the midway. Hobbs had only been open for a few minutes, and already a small crowd had flocked to its take-out window.
“Is it good?” my sister wondered aloud.
A woman standing nearby turned around with a smile. “It’s the best,” she said.
“Think I should try some?” my sister asked.
“You have to,” chimed the woman’s husband.
Not ones to question enthusiastic backing from locals, my sister and I indulged in a box of the famed Hobbs popcorn. Our informants were right—it was the perfect combination of sweet, salty, and buttery. We both agreed that if definitely lived up to the hype.
“Oh look, the box closes, we can save some for the ride back,” my sister said, toying with the top of the classic red and white striped popcorn box. Well, that sure wasn’t going to happen. We finished the delicious treat in 15 minutes. Guess we’ll just have to go back and get more!
Have you ever visited Salem Willows Park? Share your memories in the comments!
Salem Willows Park. 167 Fort Ave, Salem. salemwillowspark.com
Salem Willows Park is open the public year-round. Most businesses associated with the park (like the arcade) are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.