Salisbury Beach History

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Salisbury is a historic town that was first frequented by paleo-indians and Native-Americans for thousands of years and eventually settled by English colonists in the 17th century.

The beach and salt marsh itself was used primarily as hunting and fishing grounds by the Native Americans and then as pastureland for the colonist’s cattle until the 19th century when it suddenly became a popular summer tourist destination.

The following is a timeline of the history of Salisbury Beach:

8500-8000 BP:

  • Paleo-indians build an earthen burial mound about 6-8 feet high at a place called Morrill Point, somewhere near the mouth of the Merrimack River in Salisbury.

Pre-colonial Era:

  • The Penacook tribe travel down the Merrimack River from Concord, New Hampshire in the summers to fish and hunt at the wetlands at Salisbury Beach.


  • On September 6, Salisbury is incorporated as a town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
  • The beach, marsh and dunes serve as common land owned by the 68 original grant holders of Salisbury, who are known as the Salisbury Commoners or share holders. Shares can be sold or split among heirs of the share holders.


  • John Saunders, Richard Wells and William Partridge lay the first road to Salisbury Beach, called Beach Road, which is built on an old Native American hunting trail, in order to provide an access way to the salt marsh to let the colonist’s cattle graze.


  • On June 7, Salisbury resident John Allen testifies against Salisbury native Susannah Martin during the Salem Witch Trials, stating that about a year before he got into an argument with Martin in Amesbury, during which she bewitched his oxen, and when he brought the oxen back to graze on the marsh at Salisbury Beach they suddenly began acting strangely and ran into the ocean and drowned.


  • A military fort called Fort Nichols is built at the beach near the mouth of the river.


  • Prior to 1850, only day trippers and locals visit Salisbury Beach.


  • The Halifax is shipwrecked on Salisbury Beach.


  • Salisbury Beach gains popularity as a resort town for the millworkers of the Merrimack River Valley and tents are erected to house local businesses, concession stands and attractions.
Postcard of Salisbury Beach circa 1906
  • A hotel called the Blue Fish chowder house and a wharf are built at the Black Rocks near the location of the current boat ramp on the Salisbury Beach State Reservation.


  • On September 17, a new festival called the Great Gathering is held for the first time at Salisbury Beach.


  • MDF Steere, agent of Salisbury Mills, builds the first cottage, a Victorian-style house, at Salisbury Beach.


  • Fort Nichols is washed away during a storm.


  • Plank Road is built on Beach Road by the Salisbury Beach Plank Road Company. It is a wooden plank road built across the salt marsh to the center of the beach and is operated as a toll road.


  • A man named Jeffries Wyman discovers a large collection of arrowheads at Salisbury Beach, about one mile from the left bank of the Merrimack River.


  • Organizers of the Great Gathering invite Civil War General Robert E. Lee to attend the festival that year but he declines.


  • By 1870, there are 50 cottages at Salisbury Beach.
  • A larger wharf is built at the Black Rocks to accommodate steamboats.


  • On September 13, the annual Great Gathering festival is held during which Boston orator and abolitionist Wendell Phillips gives a speech titled The People Coming to Power.


  • The steamer ship Sir Francis is shipwrecked on Salisbury Beach.


  • A wooden pyramid-shaped navigational marker, officially known as the Black Rock Beacon but later nicknamed Butler’s Toothpick, is built at the Black Rocks on the Salisbury Beach Reservation to help guide ships in the Merrimack River.
  • On January 3, the steamer ship Sir Francis strikes Breaking Ledge, which is a reef less than a mile off shore of Salisbury Beach, and is wrecked.


  • On November 28, the schooner William Carroll is shipwrecked on Salisbury Beach.


  • On July 18, horse-drawn cars on a railway, called the Sea Side Railroad, begin transporting people from the wharf at Black Rocks to the center of the beach.


  • By 1880, there are 150 cottages at Salisbury Beach.


  • Colonel Edward P. Shaw establishes a steamboat line between Newburyport and the Black Rocks at Salisbury Beach.


  • Colonel Edward P. Shaw purchases the horse car railway that ran from the Black Rocks to Salisbury Beach Center, installs a new standard gauge track, replaces the horses with a steam engine and names it the Salisbury Beach Street Railway.


  • The first roller coaster is established at Salisbury Beach, which is built by a man named Stephen Jackman, and is called the Roller Toboggan. It closes shortly after when a passenger falls to their death from the ride.


  • Colonel Edward P. Shaw extends the Salisbury Beach Street Railway from Salisbury Beach to Salisbury Square. The railway line is eventually extended to Amesbury and Newburyport.


  • On July 7, the newly constructed Hope Chapel is dedicated at Salisbury Beach.


  • The Salisbury Beach Street Railway line is electrified.



  • The Salisbury Beach Schoolhouse is built at what is now 91 Railroad Ave, which still stands today.


  • On February 9, the schooner the Florida is wrecked on Salisbury Beach.
  • The Star of the Sea Chapel, a Victorian Eclectic-style Roman Catholic church, is built on North End Boulevard.


  • On June 26, the Hotel Cushing opens on Cushing Avenue, which is now known as Broadway.
Hotel Cushing, Salisbury Beach, Ma circa 1905
  • A Lifesaving Station is built about one mile north of the center of the beach.


  • In April, a railroad line is constructed between Salisbury Beach along North End Boulevard to Seabrook Beach.
  • Colonel Edward P. Shaw and CG Gale purchase the Plank Road and allow it to decay in order to promote use of Shaw’s streetcar line instead.


  • The Ocean Echo, a large dance pavilion, is constructed on wooden pylons directly over the beach at the end of Broadway.


  • On September 16, Hope Chapel is destroyed in a fire.


  • On July 17, the newly rebuilt Hope Chapel is dedicated.


  • The Salisbury Commoners purchase all the beach land owned by the town, which consists of the east end of the beach, except for the schoolhouse lot, for $11,000 and then sell the land to Colonel Edward P. Shaw for $40,000.


  • On July 6, the ship the Marble Bird is wrecked on Breaking Ledge just off the shore of Salisbury Beach.


  • On October 27, a large fire destroys 64 buildings at the beach including MDF Steere’s 1864 cottage and Hope Chapel.


  • On July 4, the newly rebuilt Hope Chapel is dedicated.


  • The Salisbury Beach Association, a realty trust, is formed by Walter Colson, James E. Simpson, and Portal M. Black.
  • On April 25, the Salisbury Beach Association purchases all the beach land that Colonel Edward P. Shaw purchased from the Commoners in 1903.


  • On September 9, the Great Fire of 1913 breaks out and causes several fatalities, destroys over 125 buildings including the Cushing Hotel, the Atlantic House, the Ocean View, Castle Mona, Newark House, Hotel Comet, the Leighton House, the Bijou Theater, the post office, all of the nearby restaurants, all of the amusement rides including the Culver Flying Horses merry-go-round, a drugstore, several small grocery stores, concession stands and about 100 cottages. Victorian-era Salisbury Beach is completely wiped out by the fire and the beach never fully recovers from the devastation it caused.
  • Willey’s Candy Shop is established on Broadway by Leo and Luna Willey.


  • A new carousel building is constructed at 2 Broadway and a new carousel, the Broadway Flying Horses, is installed later that year.
The Flying Horses, Salisbury Beach, Ma
  • The Kelley Hotel, a five story hotel, is built by Michael J. Kelley on the corner of Ocean Ave and Ocean Front South.


  • On June 9, the British schooner, the Virginian, is shipwrecked on Salisbury Beach.


  • Around 5:00 AM on August 13, the Brazilian steamship Guarabuba struck a sand bar near the jetties at Salisbury Beach and became stranded but later freed itself from the sand and headed back out to sea later that afternoon.


  • Joe and Jennie Haballa open a popcorn stand at Salisbury Beach called Joe’s.


  • On January 14, arsonists set the Ocean Echo building on fire and it is destroyed.
  • The Dodgem bumper cars opens on the south side of Broadway midway between Ocean Front South and Railroad Avenue.


  • The Ocean Echo building is rebuilt.


  • The Salisbury Beach Police and Fire Station, a Colonial Revival-style brick municipal building, is constructed at 18 Railroad Ave.


  • A roller coaster called The Wildcat is constructed on Broadway for the Dodgem Corporation.


  • The Dodgem Corporation builds a new Dodgem attraction next to the Wildcat roller coaster on Broadway.


  • The Ocean Echo building is auctioned off and remodeled into a music venue called the Frolics. The Frolics opens sometime in the 1940s, the exact date is unknown.


  • The War Department establishes the Salisbury Beach Military Reservation, on the land now occupied by the Salisbury Beach State Reservation, which it temporarily leases from the state.


  • The military ends its lease of the Salisbury Beach Military Reservation but continues to run a small, one-acre military site about 1.5 miles north of the reservation.
  • On Memorial Day, Tripoli Pizza opens a pizza stand at Salisbury Beach where they sell square, thin-crust pizza that is soon nicknamed “beach pizza.”


  • In March, Cristy’s pizza opens a pizza stand at Salisbury Beach where it also sells “beach pizza” and a friendly rivalry between Cristy’s and Tripoli soon develops.


  • A fire destroys 35 buildings on Fowler Avenue, Vermont Street and Railroad Avenue but the fire does not reach the amusement park.


  • On September 9, a fire breaks out at William Clark’s refreshment stand on Broadway and destroys the amusement park, including the Dodgem bumper cars and the Wildcat roller coaster, and several buildings.


  • The Salisbury Discount House is established on Broadway.



  • A small amusement park, called Shaheen’s Fun-O-Rama, opens on Ocean Front North in what is now the parking lot of the Blue Ocean Music Hall.
  • On August 31, Hurricane Carol hits Massachusetts and 400 people are evacuated from the beach cottages and brought to the police station. The hurricane floods almost all the roads, knocks down the power lines, downs trees and destroys the roller coaster at Shaheen’s Fun-O-Rama.
  • On September 11, Hurricane Edna hits Massachusetts and the state police evacuate 600 people from the beach and bring them to a temporary shelter at the Salisbury Memorial School.


  • Hope Chapel closes its doors to the public.


  • On May 29, Hope Chapel is destroyed in a fire for the third time and is never rebuilt.



  • The Morrill Point burial mound is excavated by archaeologists.


  • In July, a woman jumps or falls to her death from the topmost section of the roller coaster.


  • The Dodgem Bumper Cars attraction is closed.


  • The Broadway Flying Horses are sold and moved to Santa Monica, California.


  • On February 6-8, the Blizzard of ’78 hits Massachusetts and 100 people are evacuated from Salisbury Beach. The storm causes massive flooding with 14-foot tides, several cottages are destroyed, the 5 O’clock Club building collapses and Shaheen’s Fun-O-Rama Park, Barkers Arcade, the Frolics Building are heavily damaged.


  • Pirate’s Fun Park opens on Broadway.


  • In July, a water slide is constructed on the former site of the Broadway Flying Horses at 2 Broadway.


  • The Frolics building is closed.


  • On September 27, Hurricane Gloria hits Massachusetts and 50 residents from Salisbury Beach are evacuated and brought to a temporary shelter at the Salisbury Memorial School. The storm causes major flooding and downs power lines.


  • Shaheen’s Fun-O-Rama is closed.


  • In January, the Frolics building is demolished.
The Frolics Building, Salisbury, Ma circa 1995


  • Pirate’s Fun Park is closed and demolished.
  • The Salisbury Beach Preservation Association raises $200,000 in an attempt to re-purchase the Broadway Flying Horses at an auction in California but are outbid by another buyer.


  • In September, scenes from the movie The Equalizer, starring Densel Washington, are filmed at Salisbury Beach.


  • Wreckage from a 19th century ship, which some speculate may have been from the Florida or the Jennie M. Carter, washes up on Salisbury Beach but is eventually swept back out to sea.


  • In January of 2016, more wreckage washes up on Salisbury Beach near the Blue Ocean Music Hall.


  • The Salisbury Beach boardwalk is built on Ocean Front South and opens to the public in June.
  • In August, scenes from the movie I Feel Pretty, starring Amy Schumer, are filmed during a two-day shoot at Salisbury Beach.
  • A new 18,000-square-foot police station is built at 181 Beach Road.


  • The Salisbury Beach Partnership purchases a 110-year-old hand-carved Looff-Mangels carousel for $600,000. The carousel is installed on the Broadway mall while it awaits construction of a new building to house the carousel.


  • On March 17, non-essential businesses at Salisbury Beach are closed by the state in response to the Covid 19 pandemic.
  • In late March, the Dolphin Bar and Grill is shut down by police when it is discovered it is violating orders by the state that prohibit the on-site consumption of food and drinks in restaurants or bars.
  • In early April, the town Board of Health temporarily shuts down Tripoli Pizza, Cristy’s pizza and Swell Willey’s candy shop because customers fail to follow social distancing guidelines while waiting in line for take out.
  • In July, non-essential businesses in Salisbury Beach are allowed to reopen.
  • In August, Joe’s Playland is ordered to shut down when the state moves arcades from phase 3 to phase 4 of the reopening plan.
  • In September, Joe’s Playland is allowed to reopen.
  • On October 10, Dolphin Bar and Grill is shut down by the Health Department for violating state and local Covid 19 restrictions. It is allowed to reopen a week later.


  • A new Comfort Station and Welcome Center is constructed on Broadway.


  • On January 17, a 9-alarm fire destroys five buildings on Central Ave including Michael’s Oceanfront Motel.

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