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The Great Depression

by Jen Ratliff on 2023-07-18T08:42:00-04:00 | 0 Comments

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“So, Members of the City Council, being ever mindful of the experiences and lessons of the past and with a full realization of the obstacles which lie ahead, let us look forward in a spirit of hope and confidence…I believe we can do much in the next two years to improve some of the unfavorable conditions which have been pointed out in this message. To that end, Gentlemen, let us dedicate our best efforts.” – George J. Bates, 1935

In 1924, George J. Bates became Salem’s 41st mayor at the age of 33. Salem was just a decade removed from The Great Salem Fire of 1914, which had devastated the city. Bates was soon tasked with guiding Salemites through another crisis, the Great Depression.

By 1933, nearly 15 million Americans were unemployed, and half of the country’s banks had closed their doors.

With many unable to find work, Salem Teachers College (now Salem State) altered the curriculum for its business degree. It previously required a one-year business internship and a semester of retail selling. As jobs were scarce and were best filled by the unemployed rather than student interns, the school suspended these requirements. In 1935, the college’s president, Joseph Asbury Pitman, addressed graduating seniors about to embark on their teaching careers in an uncertain world stating:

"A changeless civilization leaves society absolutely without hope. But there are periods in history in which changes come with such a degree of rapidity that society is wholly unprepared to anticipate them or solve immediately the pressing problems which are thrust upon it in quick succession. In these years of your professional training, we are living in such an age of change and uncertainty which places squarely upon us, the teachers of the country, most serious and solemn responsibilities.”

That same year, Mayor Bates addressed Salem’s City Council in the opening of that year’s Annual Report. The city’s industrial businesses had been hit hard by the Great Depression, but recent Workers Progress Administration projects had created renewed hope in the city. Salem had been celebrated as the first New England city to “get back to work” after receiving funds from the emergency public works program. Many credited this to Mayor Bates' submission of a thorough work plan and a personal visit to Washington D.C.

Bates stated: “The year past has been our most difficult one, due in large measure, to the unsettled condition of our local industries. Some industries employing large numbers have moved away…It has been our purpose in Salem to see to it that Federal money, supplemented by local funds, should be used for purposes that would have some utilitarian value, and to be of permanent benefit to the City. To that end we went into heavy construction, so-called, with the result that we feel the money was wisely spent and at the same time gave employment to hundreds of people.”

Mayor Bates referenced multiple construction projects that had been carried out the previous year. Projects included: the creation of a Water Filtration Plant, the full renovation of Old Town Hall, and updates to the city’s schools, streets, and health facilities.

One of the most well-known projects from this era was the creation of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.

Salem Maritime was first conceived of as the Derby Wharf Memorial Project in 1935, following the ratification of the National Historic Sites Act by President Franklin Roosevelt. The project was championed by local resident, Harlan P. Kelsey, a director of the National Parks Association (now the National Parks Conservation Association), who had long advocated the need for a “national shrine” commemorating Salem’s “long extinct shipping glory.” Through fundraising campaigns, donations, eminent domain, and voluntary ownership transfers, Kelsey and the City of Salem secured Derby Wharf, Central Wharf, Tucker’s Wharf, the Hawkes House, the Custom House, the West India Goods Store, Forresters Warehouse, and the Derby House.

Over the next few years, the Department of the Interior and hundreds of laborers employed through the Works Project Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps began work to clear and restore the site as a tribute to Salem’s maritime history. On March 17, 1938, Salem Maritime became the first National Historic Site in the United States.

George J. Bates served as Salem’s mayor until 1937 when he was elected to Congress. George J. Bates represented Massachusetts' 6th District until 1949 when he was tragically killed in a plane collision near Washington D.C.

Digitized Archives
George J. Bates Photographs and Ephemera
Salem Maritime National Historic Site Photographs and Ephemera

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