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."
The tunnel project had three phases that were carried out over the better part of a decade. It cost more than $8 million, and more than 40 landowners were forced to move their homes and businesses to make way for new overpasses, the tunnel, parking lots and the new train station, according to Salem Evening News articles from the time.
And while the old station is remembered fondly, newspaper reports from the time described it as full of pigeons and grimy and dirty from years of ushering coal-powered steam engines through its cavernous body.
The prolonged construction throughout the 1950s dealt a heavy blow to downtown businesses, and the upheaval also frustrated residents.
"This was in the works for years and years and years. It was kind of like the Big Dig," McAllister said, "and people got so fed up with going to Salem that they just didn't."
The merchants never fully bounced back, but the completion of the tunnel coincided with the construction of the North Shore Shopping Center (the present-day Northshore Mall), McAllister said, which changed the way people shopped.
As part of the train tunnel project, a five-story triangle-shaped building, called the Flatiron Building, was torn down. A Salem Evening News headline from 1954 read, "Another landmark to be obliterated."
Jean Levesque, 84, still thinks of the Salem Depot often. That's because he sits next to it — a piece of it, that is. A granite stone from one of the towers still sits in his office in City Hall with a small plaque affixed to it.
Levesque used to work for a taxi company behind the depot and at one point sold newspapers there, as well.
"There are a whole lot of memories," said Levesque, also a former mayor. "I wish it had never been torn down, but they did what they thought was right at the time. They called it progress."