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The building that now houses the Salem Public Library was once the home of one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts, a merchant and ship-owner, John Bertram. The house was built in 1855 for Bertram and his family, on the former estate of Caroline Plummer. Bertram and his third wife, Mary Ann Ropes occupied the house along with Bertram’s five children from previous marriages. The couple had two children together, both of whom died during childbirth.
John Bertram was born in 1796 into a middle-class farming family, off the coast of Normandy. In July of 1807, Bertram, his parents, and his five siblings embarked for America in the hope of finding a better future. Their ship was destined for Baltimore, Maryland but docked in Boston due to a mechanical issue. Upon recommendation, the Bertram family settled in nearby Salem.
At the time, Salem had a reputation for its prosperous maritime trade, however, it had been halted due to the Jefferson Embargo of 1807 and the war with Great Britain. With trade being cut off from America, Salem’s economy experienced a depression. John’s father, Jean Bertram, a master carpenter was unable to find work. He in turn opened a grocery store but with customers unable to afford to pay their credit, his business quickly failed. When John was 11, his father built a family home and a carpentry shop on Central Street and took John out of school to assist him. Unhappy working in the carpentry shop, John enlisted as a cabin boy at age 16 and began a life at sea. His pay helped alleviate his family’s debts back in Salem and steadily grew himself a fortune. John became a Master in 1824, earning the title of Captain. At the age of 36 in 1832, Captain John Bertram was able to retire and live comfortably in his adopted city. Bertram soon became known for a string of successful investments with his newfound wealth. He established his own shipping firm in Salem and profitably invested money in the railroad.
Captain John Bertram, understanding the plight of poverty, became incredibly philanthropic. He helped aid and establish many of Salem’s charitable organizations, including Salem Hospital, Women’s Friend Society, Plummer Farm for Boys, Bertram Home for Aged Men, and the Old Ladies’ House. He also served on multiple committees such as Salem Common Council and the Massachusetts General Court.
John Bertram died in 1882, at age 86. Following his death, his widow and remaining children donated the Bertram mansion on Essex Street to the city for use as a public library.
The mansion was refurbished to include a main hall, public reading room, trustees' room, reference room and book stacks. The library retained the yard's ornate Victorian fountain. A nod to Bertram’s seafaring days, the fountain features the Greek god Poseidon (Neptune) holding a trident with a dolphin underfoot. It was cast in the 1850s by Robert Wood & Co. of Philadelphia.
Frank P. Hill was appointed the first librarian in January 1888 but soon relocated to New Jersey. He was replaced by Gardner M. Jones, who assisted in launching the Salem Public Library, which opened on July 8, 1889. Jones served as head librarian for the next 42 years. In 1911, architect Clarence H. Blackall of Boston was hired to design two additions, a four-story bookstack ell, and a one-story reference room and office. Following a 1912 renovation, the building remained mostly untouched until 1986 when the Salem Public Library underwent a major systems upgrade followed by the restoration of the building’s historic details. The project was completed in June 1990.
Salem Public Library Photographs and Ephemera