Salem (City), New Jersey

Essay

As the earliest English Quaker settlement along the Delaware River, the city of Salem was a key port at the mouth of the Salem River in the seventeenth century. Established in 1675 prior to both Philadelphia and Burlington, it was quickly overshadowed by Philadelphia. However, its proximity to the Philadelphia market by ship, steamboat, and railroad spurred additional industry during the nineteenth century, particularly glassworks, flooring manufacturing, and canneries. The closure of former manufactories in the late twentieth century created a pressing need for jobs and industry, as the city declined through population loss, unemployment, and poverty. Government programs and private organizations endeavored to renovate vacant buildings, decrease crime, and revitalize the Salem waterfront, with hopes of bringing new industries to the Port of Salem.

Map of Salem and Gloucester Counties in 1849.
An 1849 map of the counties of Salem and Gloucester, New Jersey, depicts roads, buildings, and landholders’ names. (Library of Congress)

The city of Salem is located three miles from the mouth of the Salem River, which was called “Asamhocking” by the original Lenape people. As various groups of European settlers arrived in the seventeenth century, the Dutch renamed the river “Varkens Kill” (Hog Creek). After English settlers from New Haven briefly attempted to establish a colony there in 1641, the Swedes built Fort Elfsborg at the mouth of the river to assert their authority. Swedes continued to vie with the Dutch for control of the region until it came under English rule in 1664. Colonist John Fenwick (1618-83) arrived with Quakers and other Englishmen in 1675; he christened the river the “Salem River,” with its southeastern tributary named “Fenwick’s Creek.” According to English law, Fenwick owned a one-tenth proprietorship of West Jersey, comprising the later Salem and Cumberland Counties, and he affirmed his claim by purchasing the land from the resident Lenape.

In 1676 Fenwick founded the town of Salem, the name signifying peace, and established the first two streets—Wharf Street (later named Broadway) and Bridge Street (later Market Street). By 1682, Salem served as a port of entry, and the town hosted weekly markets and annual fairs. Early settlers exported grains (wheat, corn, rye, and oats), animal products (beef, pork, tallow, and pelts), and timber (cedar posts, shingles, staves, and cordwood) to New York, Boston, and the West Indies. As their wealth increased, some Salem residents purchased enslaved persons from the West Indies and Africa to conduct housework and farm labor, alongside indentured servants and a handful of enslaved Native Americans.

When Salem County officially organized in 1694, Salem became the county seat, and it incorporated as a town in 1695. To connect Salem with Burlington, at the time the other principal town of West Jersey, the West Jersey Assembly commissioned the Kings Highway in 1681. Other major roads connected Salem with Greenwich to the south. Travelers followed these stage routes to reach the ferry from Salem to New Castle, Delaware, and the ferries from Gloucester and Cooper’s Ferry to Philadelphia.

An Era of Civil Unrest

As New Jersey transitioned from royal colony to American independence, Salem became the setting for civil unrest. The colonial customs collector at Salem Port was universally disliked, tainting public opinion of the British government. Sympathetic to the patriot cause, many citizens of Salem contributed monetary aid for the besieged citizens of Boston in 1774, yet pacifist Quakers strongly opposed the American Revolution. With the outbreak of war, British troops briefly occupied Salem in March 1778 while foraging supplies and terrorizing the rural population. The following November and December, the Revolutionary government tried for treason their Loyalist neighbors who had aided the British, as the conflict led to lingering resentments.

Salem grew considerably during its first century as its population reached 929 in 1810. Most of the initial settlers were Quakers, who obtained land in 1681 for their first meetinghouse and a cemetery on Broadway. A large influx of English settlers and descendants of the Swedish settlers formed an Episcopal church in 1722, followed by Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. As the largest town in the county, Salem contained a bank, several newspapers, a library, and the Salem Academy. Tradesmen and merchants flocked to the city’s streets.

The Quaker influence significantly reduced slavery in Salem County during the years after the American Revolution. More than eighty citizens from the Salem area, both Quaker and non-Quaker, signed an anti-slavery petition in 1770. By the following decade, Salem Quakers had eradicated slavery within their ranks, and many other slaveholders had followed suit. In 1797, Salem included about seventy-five Black residents, of which about thirty-five were free, fifteen were enslaved, and twenty-five were bound out serving a set number of years before freedom. The emerging free Black population soon developed a distinct community. The children attended schools taught by Black teachers, Quakers, or other educators. Rev. Reuben Cuff (1764-1845) established Salem’s first Black church by 1800, forerunner of both Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church and Mt. Hope United Methodist Church.

Abigail Goodwin
Abigail Goodwin, pictured in this nineteenth-century engraving, was a Quaker abolitionist of Salem, New Jersey. Her home operated as a safe house for enslaved Blacks in the 1830s. (New York Public Library)

By 1830, over one thousand free Black residents lived in the Salem area, with only one person still enslaved in the county. Many were new arrivals, formerly enslaved in Delaware, Maryland, or Virginia, who had followed the Underground Railroad and crossed the Delaware River to Salem and freedom. The citizens of Salem responded to this influx with contrasting actions. A few returned the fugitives, but a large crowd of Salem residents spontaneously came to the rescue when a slave catcher attempted to abduct several Black residents one night in 1834. Prestigious abolitionists of Salem included Quaker Abigail Goodwin (1793-1867), whose home operated as a safe house; self-emancipated Amy “Hetty” Reckless (1776-1881), who was active in the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society; and Dr. John S. Rock (1825-66), who studied dentistry in Salem before practicing law in Boston, leading to him being the first African American admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court.

John S. Rock
John S. Rock, pictured in this mid-nineteenth century engraving, lectured on behalf of the abolitionist cause and signed a petition for equal suffrage at New Jersey’s first Colored Convention in 1849. Born in Salem County, he studied dentistry before pursuing a law career in 1861, which led him to be one of the first African Americans admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. (Library of Congress)

River Traffic Grows

Enslaved freedom seekers took advantage of the increased river traffic between Delaware and Salem, as Salem was located only five miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Although the Salem Port no longer handled international trade after the American Revolution, steamboats ran regularly from Salem to Delaware and Philadelphia by the 1830s, transporting both people and goods. As the need for shipping increased, shipbuilders in Salem responded by producing schooners, canal boats, brigs, and steamboats.

From 1840 to 1850, Salem’s population jumped over 50 percent, from 2,006 to 3,052 residents. After a surge of working-class immigration from Ireland and Germany, St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church opened in 1852 to serve the town’s Catholic residents. Around two hundred Black residents lived within the town limits, but substantial Black populations also lived in Claysville directly across the covered bridge over Fenwick Creek, as well as in other nearby Black communities in Mannington and Elsinboro. Several were employed by Salem households and businesses, as well as attending church and school within the town. While Salem offered new opportunities for freedom, it did not yet offer full equality. This was poignantly demonstrated when the New Jersey Legislature rejected a petition for equal suffrage signed by John Rock among other petitions introduced in the state’s first Colored Convention in 1849.

Salem incorporated as a city in 1858. At the onset of the Civil War a few years later, the city immediately mustered volunteers, both Quaker and non-Quaker, for the Union Army. In 1863, the Salem Railroad—constructed between Claysville, just over Fenwick Creek from Salem, and the West Jersey Railroad in Elmer—linked the city of Salem to markets in Camden, Philadelphia, and New York. This changed the primary means of travel from steamboats to rail. In 1882, the railroad extended to Salem City over a new bridge across Fenwick Creek, and the Woodstown-Swedesboro Railroad opened the following year, linking Salem more directly to northern cities.

Railroads in New Jersey
Railroads in New Jersey, as shown in this 1887 map, linked Salem and other towns to markets in Camden, Philadelphia, and New York. (Library of Congress)

Rail service spurred industry. The Salem Glass Works was established in 1863, and Gayner Glass also operated in Salem beginning in 1879. Another prominent industry was flooring manufacturing, beginning with the American Oil Cloth Company in 1868 and culminating with Mannington Mills, which started as Campbell Manufacturing in Salem but relocated to Mannington Township in 1924 and remained a significant flooring manufacturer into the twenty-first century. Capitalizing on the primarily agricultural county, Salem hosted a variety of fruit and vegetable canneries, including the H. J. Heinz food processing plant that operated from 1906 to 1977. The Ayars Machine Company, established in 1878, produced machines for canning, which had an international market. These and other factories provided both goods for export and employment for residents.

Gayner Glass Works
Employees of Gayner Glass Works of Salem expertly form glass into patterns. Frank Facemire, William Counsellor, and Harry Morris are pictured in this photo published June 8, 1934, in the Philadelphia Bulletin. Gayner Glass operated in Salem, from 1879 until closing in 1977 as a result of the economic downturn. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Industrial Growth of World War I

With the outbreak of World War I, industry boomed at the DuPont Powder Works and Chamber Works in the Penns Neck region north of Salem, and workers poured into the area seeking employment. DuPont remained a major employer for the rest of the century. A trolley line opened from Salem to Penns Grove in 1917 to provide easy transportation for DuPont employees, operating until 1933. Drawn to the job opportunities, European immigrants and southern Blacks added to the diversity of Salem’s population. A small immigrant Jewish population formed the Congregation Oheb Shalom in 1903.

Delaware Governor Elbert N. Carvel and New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll
Delaware Governor Elbert N. Carvel and New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll shake hands in this photograph taken on August 16, 1951, at the official opening of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The bridge shifted transportation from river and rail to roads and highways.(Delaware Public Archives)

As automobile usage increased, railroad usage waned. By 1928 the number of passenger trains arriving in Salem daily had fallen from eight to two, and passenger service ended completely in 1950. Instead, buses provided public transportation to Camden and Philadelphia. Responding to the demand for automobiles, several car dealerships located in Salem, although they moved out of the city for more room to expand after World War II. The construction of the Delaware Memorial Bridge in 1951 permanently shifted transportation from river and rail to roads and highways.

For most of its history, Salem’s population rose steadily until peaking at 9,050 in 1950. Since then, the population fell as poverty increased. In the latter half of the twentieth century, factories and small businesses closed, prompting a rise in unemployment, poverty, rentals, and deteriorating housing. Because Salem had a large Black population, racial tensions aggravated the situation. State law mandated school integration in 1947, but several Salem restaurants and places of entertainment continued to be segregated. An NBC television special in 1964, which calculated that Salem most embodied “Average Town USA,” also revealed white racist attitudes. Racial tensions escalated in 1966-1967 with a brief rash of cross burnings, which were halted after a peaceful NAACP march in Salem and a petition signed by both Black and white members of the community. At the time, African Americans comprised 29 percent of Salem’s population, but during the following decades, they eventually became the majority. By 2010, Salem was 62 percent Black, with 7 percent Hispanic. Salem elected its first Black mayor in 1992, and both the city council and the police force became increasingly reflective of the city’s overall demographics.

The Heinz Pickle Company Plant
The Heinz Pickle Company Plant, pictured in this aerial photograph from 1929, was located in Salem along the banks of the Salem River. Primarily an agricultural county, Salem hosted many fruit and vegetable canneries including the Heinz Plant. The Heinz Pickle Company Plant began operations in 1906 and closed in 1977. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Meanwhile, Salem was experiencing an economic downturn. Both the Heinz Plant and the Gayner Glass factory closed in 1977, and the sewing factories closed in the 1980s. Eventually, Anchor Hocking Glass remained the only major employer in Salem. To continue freight service to the glass factory, the Salem County government purchased the rail line from Swedesboro to Salem in 1985. In 2011, Anchor Glass Container Corporation still maintained 350 employees, but Salem’s glass factory closed permanently in 2014, leaving many of the city’s workers suddenly unemployed. Although the jail relocated to Mannington in 1994, Salem’s county offices expanded within the city, employing both city and county residents. City residents also commuted to major employers in neighboring townships such as Mannington Mills, Salem Medical Center, PSEG’s Salem Nuclear Generating Station, and Chemours at the former DuPont Chamber Works site.

Port of Salem Reestablished

Reestablished in 1982, the Port of Salem brought international trade back to the area through companies such as Mid-Atlantic Shipping and Stevedoring and Sandpiper International Steamship Agencies, which handled weekly exports to Bermuda. The South Jersey Port Corporation acquired the municipal wharf in 1994, operating it as the Salem Marine Terminal. In 2018, the city council adopted the Salem Waterfront Redevelopment Plan, seeking to capitalize on the Port of Salem and highlight its status as a Port of Entry, a Foreign Trade Zone, Urban Enterprise Zone, and Opportunity Zone. The county government began restoring the railroad, hoping to attract new industries to Salem by offering rail service connecting with the port.

To assist with Salem’s revitalization several organizations sought to preserve historic buildings, such as the Market Street Improvement Association in 1975 and Preservation Salem Inc. in 1990. Founded in 1988, Stand Up For Salem was designated as a Main Street Program in 1999 and initiated several programs that contributed both socially and economically to the renewal of Salem, including a Community Development Neighborhood Plan in 2011.

Poverty was a serious obstacle in Salem, as unemployment reached 18 percent in 2010 and over 20 percent of the households received public assistance. Most Salem residences were rentals, with several hundred vacant homes, despite the demolition of over a hundred buildings during a five-year period. The closure of the city’s only grocery store in 2017 threatened to turn the city into a food desert. By 2020, the poverty rate had reached 42 percent, and the population had dropped to about 4,700, almost half of what it had been in 1950. Because of its substantial low-income population, the Salem City School District was designated in 2004 as one of New Jersey’s Abbott districts [cm1] (later referred to as SDA Districts), receiving state funding to ensure Salem could offer adequate public education. With about a quarter of the residences vacant in Salem, the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative provided mortgages from the USDA to low-income households to encourage home ownership. The city also sought to combat violence, drugs, and unemployment with a variety of initiatives.

Despite multiple setbacks, the city of Salem maintained its charm with renovated colonial homes in the historic districts along Market Street and Broadway, attracting visitors from the Greater Philadelphia area with events such as the annual Magic of Christmas Parade, the Yuletide Tour of Homes, and the Walking Ghost Tour. Although employment opportunities had diminished in the city, residents still commuted by bus or car to jobs in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and Delaware. Dedicated city and state officials and citizens continued to work to revitalize the city, with hopes of seeing an influx of new industries and the Port of Salem bustling once again.

Bonny Beth Elwell is a Salem County historian and genealogist, serving on the board of several historical organizations. She works as the editor of the Elmer Times newspaper, the Library Director of the Camden County Historical Society, and is the author of Upper Pittsgrove, Elmer, and Pittsgrove (2013) and other publications. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2022, Rutgers University.

Gallery

Salem Map, 1849

Library of Congress

This 1849 map depicts the counties of Salem and Gloucester and demonstrates Salem’s proximity to the Delaware River. Coming under English rule in 1664, the area that became Salem County was established by colonist John Fenwick as New Salem in 1675. Fenwick focused his attention on improvements, specifically trade, which made Salem influential and prosperous for over a century. The earliest articles exported from Salem included deer skins, pelts, wheat, corn, and beef.
In 1682, Salem received royal permission to be a port of entry, one of the most prized prerogatives for a colonial town. During its first century, Salem also experienced population growth from its position on the King’s Highway, commissioned in 1681 by the West Jersey Assembly and laid out from Perth Amboy to Salem over a portion of a Lenape trail. Travelers followed stage routes to reach ferries from Salem to Delaware and Cooper’s Ferry to Philadelphia.

First Presbyterian Church

Library of Congress

Originally settled by Protestant Swedes, Salem later attracted English settlers seeking
religious toleration and gained other religious denominations including Baptists, Methodists, and
the Presbyterians.
The Presbyterians were the third religious group to establish a church in Salem and a
First Presbyterian Church was erected in 1695. Pictured is the later First Presbyterian Church
building, erected in 1856 at 88 Market Street. Its architect, John McArthur Jr. of Philadelphia,
also designed Presbyterian churches in Philadelphia and later served as chief architect of Philadelphia City Hall. The church is in the Market Street Historic District, significant for its
eclectic range of eighteenth and nineteenth-century architecture.

Abigail Goodwin

New York Public Library

Abigail Goodwin, pictured in a nineteenth-century engraving, was born in Salem County on December 1, 1793, to William and Elizabeth Goodwin. One of six daughters and a birthright Quaker, Abigail’s upbringing heavily influenced her abolitionist mindset. Before she was born, her father and uncle manumitted their slaves during the War for Independence. Most members of the Religious Society of Friends of Salem County followed the same practice. Abigail devoted her adult life to helping oppressed people and was one of the most important Underground Railroad agents in the movement.
In 1814, Goodwin was among the founders of the Female Benevolent Society of Salem and served on the committee to Visit the Sick. She emerged as an active abolitionist in 1837 and her home operated as a safe house for enslaved Blacks in the 1830s. She aided fleeing refugees from southern slavery from her home at 47 Market Street in Salem. From the 1840s until the Civil War, hundreds of runaway slaves traveled to the counties of Salem, Cape May, and Cumberland. Goodwin and her sister, Elizabeth, along with Quaker friends, helped runaways make it safely to New Brunswick by way of the Raritan River.
Throughout the 1850s and 1860s, Goodwin worked tirelessly to raise money that she sent to abolitionists in North and South Carolina to purchase slaves with the intent to set them free. As Goodwin and her fellow agents received fugitives, they clothed them, rescued some, raised money for their care, and arranged their transportation.

New York Public Library

John S. Rock

Library of Congress

John S. Rock, pictured in the mid-nineteenth century engraving, was an African American born in Salem County to free parents in 1825. He was an abolitionist, educator, medical practitioner, and lawyer. In his relatively short life, Rock waged a long and continual struggle to obtain and protect the right to vote for African Americans.
Rock was educated in the public school system in Salem County until the age of thirteen. He taught grammar school from 1844 until 1848. At the same time, he studied medicine and worked as an assistant to two white doctors. Initially denied entry into medical school, Rock studied dentistry with Dr. Samuel C. Harbert in Salem. In 1849, Rock was involved and appointed secretary of New Jersey’s first colored convention. In 1850, Rock opened his dental practice, and in 1852 he was admitted and began attending the American Medical College. He became the first African American to receive a medical degree at the age of twenty-seven. That same year, he married Catherine Bowers and they moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Rock established his medical practice.

Railroads in New Jersey

Library of Congress

The first railroad to reach Salem from Camden, arriving in 1863, shifted the county’s primary interests from Wilmington to Philadelphia. The railroad revived the old glass industry and increase other industrial efforts. On July 1, 1863, the first train arrived in Claysville to inaugurate the rail service between Salem and Camden.
The new railroad linked Salem to markets in Camden, Philadelphia, and New York. This map of the railroads of New Jersey shows the extent of railroad networks by 1887. Rail service changed the primary means of travel and spurred industry. Salem Glass Works, for example, founded in 1862, became one of the largest hollow glassware makers in the world within ten years. Flooring and manufacturing were also prominent industries as a result of the rise of the railroad.

Gayner Glass Works

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The Gayner Glass Factory and Anchor Hocking were major employers in Salem County. The county became a location for prominent industries, including glass and floor manufacturing, after the railroad linked Salem to markets in Camden, Philadelphia, and New York. John Gayner Glass Manufactory opened its doors in 1879 under the business partnership of John Gayner and S.J. Pardessus. In 1884, a fire destroyed the factory, and Pardessus left the company the following year. Gayner built a new factory in 1885 on Front Street in Salem. On November 17, 1898, the firm was incorporated as the Gayner Glass Works. In 1913, Gayner began incorporating new techniques to make battery jars, carboys, and water bottles. He also incorporated a general line of large ware that included a combination of mouth-blown and semiautomatic machinery techniques, which is demonstrated in this photograph of employees forming glass into patterns.
The company remained under Gayner Family control until 1957, when Star City Glass Co. purchased the firm. Led by president Bernard Sachs, the company shifted production to liquor bottles and flasks. Star City Glass Co. merged with the National Bottle Corp. the following year and became “Gayner Glass Works, a Division of National Bottle Corp.” In 1975, National Bottle Corp. ceased operations. Gayner Glass Works permanently closed in 1977.

The Heinz Pickle Company Plant

Library Company of Philadelphia
Henry J. Heinz, founder of the Heinz Company, began his business in 1869 in western Pennsylvania and ran it for fifty years until his death in 1919. The company expanded by introducing new products and constructing more plants in locations including Grand Rapids, Michigan; Hilton, New York; and Salem, New Jersey in 1906, pictured in the aerial photograph from 1929. The Heinz company was best known for Heinz Ketchup but also produced apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, and Henry J. Heinz’s first product, horseradish.
The Heinz Plant in Salem, once a year-round operation, began to lay off most of its employees during the economic downturn of the 1970s and transitioned to a seasonal operation processing tomato paste and sauce. In late 1977, Heinz announced plans to permanently shut down the plant, putting many employees out of work. This distressed the city government as Heinz had plans to expand the plant. Heinz moved out of New Jersey and local townspeople could only reminisce of the scent of warm, sweet spiced tomatoes being processed into Heinz ketchup at the Griffith Street plant.

Delaware Governor Elbert N. Carvel and New Jersey Governor Alfred E. Driscoll

Delaware Public Archives

The construction of the Delaware Memorial Bridge in 1951 shifted transportation from river and rail to roads and highways. Its completion impacted Salem, located four miles southeast of the bridge on Routes 45 and 49, as the bridge Pennsville in Salem County directly to New Castle, Delaware.
The Delaware Memorial Bridge replaced ferry travel along the Delaware River. Linking Delaware and New Jersey, the bridge began with one span constructed in 1951 and a second completed in 1968, each built utilizing the technology of its time.
The Delaware Memorial Bridge brought change in Salem County. Transportation improvements mitigated the county’s previously isolated location. Salem remained largely agricultural, but urban and industrial businesses developed in riverfront communities. Buses provided public transportation to Camden and Philadelphia. Depicted here in a photograph of its official opening in 1951, of the Delaware Memorial Bridge represented an important link in the transportation system for the eastern United States.

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Related Reading

Buzby, Harlan. John Stewart Rock: Teacher, Healer, Counselor. Salem, N.J.: Salem County Historical Society, 2002.

Chew, William H. City of Salem, New Jersey. Salem, N.J.: Chamber of Commerce, 1927.

Salem County Hand Book. Salem, N.J.: Salem National Banking, 1924.

Cushing, Thomas and Charles E. Sheppard. History of the Counties of Gloucester, Salem, and Cumberland, New Jersey. Philadelphia: Everts & Peck, 1883.

Harrison, Charles. A History of Salem County, New Jersey: Tomatoes and TNT. Charleston, S.C.: History Press, 2011.

Harrison, Charles. Salem County: A Story of People. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1988.

Nathan, Roger. A Bicentennial History of Public Education in Salem County, New Jersey. Salem, N.J.: Salem County Board of Chosen Freeholders, 1976.

Salem County Planning Board. Salem County Heritage. Salem, N.J.: Salem County Planning Board, 1966.

Salem County Tercentenary Committee. Fenwick’s Colony. Salem, N.J.: Salem County Tercentenary Committee, 1964.

Sickler, Joseph S. The History of Salem County, New Jersey. Salem, N.J.: Sunbeam Publishing, 1937.

Williams, Robin M. Jr. & Margaret W. Ryan, eds. Schools in Transition: Community Experiences in Desegregation. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.

Related Collections

Related Places

Salem County Historical Society, 83 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Salem Fire Museum, 166 East Broadway, Salem, N.J.

Johan Printz Memorial Park & Log Cabin, near 15 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Salem Friends Cemetery, West Broadway, Salem, N.J.

Old Salem County Courthouse, 113 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Abigail Goodwin Historic Marker at the Goodwin Sisters House, 47 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Amy Hetty Reckless Historic Marker at Johnson Hall, 90 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Dr. John Stewart Rock Historic Marker, 81 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

A Slavecatcher on Trial Historic Marker, 113 Market Street, Salem, N.J.

Links

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy