One of the most closely watched pieces of real estate in our region today is that longtime hub of the North Shore fuel and energy industries, the Salem Harbor Station.
The property’s connections to those industries dates to 1836, when Stephen Phillips and Stephen C. Phillips purchased India Wharf at the foot of English Street. That same year, the latter outfitted the first of the 11 whaling voyages he would send out over the next eight years. Whale oil, burned in lamps or made into candles, was a major source of fuel for both residential and commercial lighting.
But Stephen C. saw greener pastures in coal. In 1848, he organized the Salem and Lowell Railroad and had built a rail connector to the Lawrence and Lowell Rail Road. Beginning in 1850, coal and other essential raw materials discharged at Phillips Wharf could be reloaded onto trains bound for the booming mill cities of Lawrence and Lowell.
The supplying of coal to fuel-starved mills would prove lucrative enough to entice the Philadelphia and Reading Rail and Iron Co. to build Pennsylvania Pier, which stretched “half way to Marblehead,” just east of Phillips Wharf. The sight of the state-of-the-art coal facility may have been the reason Willard Phillips, Stephen C.’s son, leased his own wharf to the better-capitalized Boston and Lowell Railroad.
From 1874 until 1923, Phillips Wharf would be home to E.H. Knight & Co., which sold coal to the local market. When the wharf passed into the hands of the Boston and Maine Rail Road in 1887, Knight would be joined on the wharf by the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Co.
The coal industry would be a vital cog in Salem’s economic engine until the early 20th century when much of its business was lost to Boston. Finally, in 1924, the Salem Terminal Co. acquired the now-depressed stretch of the Salem waterfront. The new owners dredged a 26-foot deep channel into their modernized facility and began filling in the flats between Phillips Wharf and Pennsylvania Pier.