, Salem, MA

February 20, 2013

Letter: The story of Robert Foster and Leslie's Retreat

The Salem News

---- — To the editor:

As the anniversary of Leslie’s Retreat approaches, some history buffs may recall Capt. Robert Foster, for whom a North Salem street was named in light of the role he played in that event.

Foster Street in Salem runs between North and Franklin streets. First known as Symonds Road, then as Laboratory Street for the large chemical plant once located at its foot, the street was again renamed in 1887 to honor Capt. Robert Foster, a major player in the “first armed resistance” to the British.

Robert Foster was a Salem blacksmith. His shop stood at what is now the corner of North and Franklin streets with his house nearby.

In February 1775, he was secretly given about 17 cannons that had once served as ships’ artillery with instructions to mount them for field use against a probable British attack.

These, of course, were the guns the British troops were looking to confiscate when they marched to Salem on Feb. 26, 1775, in the well-known incident of Leslie’s Retreat.

The Robert Foster house stood for about 200 years at what would become 88 North St., until it was sold in 1958 by Pioneer Properties Inc. to Merit Oil Company.

The building was listed as “vacant” in the 1958 directory. Actually, from a report in the City Documents, it was torn down in 1958. (Ironically, 1958 is also the year that the house of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birth was moved to the Gables property to preserve it.)

When Frederick Clifton Pierce published his genealogy of the Foster family in 1899, he wrote that “the (Robert Foster) house remains with its historic cellar, although the building has been raised several feet and improvements (?) made; it is still occupied by a lineal descendant of its original owner, Capt. Robert Foster ...”

And again, on June 29, 1912, Wm. D. Dennis wrote in the Saturday Evening Observer: “Robert Foster lived in the house now standing on North Street just below the green house of Mr. Stearns ...”

It seems strange, doesn’t it, that a historic dwelling so well-known not that long ago could have slid into obscurity and succumbed to the wrecker’s ball?

Foster, who volunteered in the Revolutionary War, held the distinction of first Master Mason of the Essex Lodge.

He was well-known and liked by the Rev. William Bentley, who wrote in his diary that Foster continued in his trade as a smith until he was 70.

Soon after he retired, though, he lost his robust health and died at age 73. According to the diarist, had Foster only retired by degrees, his life span would have been “incalculable.”

Jeanne Stella