SALEM — Fifty years ago today, 10,000 onlookers gathered near Washington and Bridge streets to watch the first train roll through the new Salem train tunnel.
It marked the end of a yearslong construction project, referred to as the Big Dig of its time. The project involved the demolition of the Salem Depot, through which trains would roll down Washington Street and through the massive granite archway framed by two medieval-looking towers.
A half-century later, the memories of the project and the old Salem Depot are still fresh in many longtime residents' minds.
"Part of Salem died when they did that," said Tony Salvo, 80, a former mayor who remembers the old train station fondly. "It was a big mistake tearing that building down. The old train station was like a castle. It was a landmark."
The project's purpose was to extend the existing railroad tunnel to submerge all the street-level railroad crossings along Washington Street that were causing chronic traffic snarls as automobiles proliferated in the city.
"The automobile was king," said Salem historian Jim McAllister, "so they had to get rid of those crossings."
Even those who can attest to the traffic congestion remember the Salem Depot as a social and commercial hub. Sam Zoll, for one, used to ride the train from the depot daily to attend Boston University.
"From the point of view of community spirit, it was a great institution," said Zoll, 74, another former mayor and retired chief justice of the Massachusetts District Courts.
The Salem Depot, built in 1847, was located where Riley Plaza is today, near Domino's Pizza. Zoll recalls Harry Zarella, who ran the Salem Depot concession with his wife. Passengers would buy coffee, doughnuts and other morning staples there.
"People would line up, much like the Dunkin' Donuts on the corner now," Zoll said. "They say now, 'America runs on Dunkin'.' Well, Salem used to run on the Zarellas' breakfast recipe."