Almy, Bigelow, & Washburn
The company was a town favorite in downtown Salem, operating on Essex Street in Salem from 1862 to 1985. Many fond memories are still recalled by locals who grew up shopping there with their parents. Could this famous store at its beginnings have received smuggled goods through the tunnels of Salem from Boston, Lowell, and Lawrence? Was this the first time this location was used for smuggling? First a little history of the famous store and the property’s history.
According to Helen Butler, who married a grandson of Almy’s founder recalls how the store began, “James Fergus Almy was a Quaker who came to Salem from North Adams and started a little store. Meanwhile, from Stowe, Vermont came Lurana Bigelow to Salem and she opened a millinery store. He fell in love with her and when he wanted money for the store, she had capital to give him. The union of Almy and Bigelow was forged when they married.”
Then Walter K. Bigelow became Almy’s business partner and the firm changed its name to James F. Almy & Co. Then around 1869, William G. Webber also became a partner and they renamed the store Almy, Bigelow & Webber, which it remained until Webber’s retirement in 1885. Then followed Calvin R. Annable and E. Augustus Washburn who worked their way up to become partners to make Almy, Bigelow & Washburn. The firm incorporated after the death of James F. Almy in April 1899, with Almy’s wife and daughter serving on the board.
The store was sold it in 1951 to the Gorin family.
Almy’s opened with four employees in 1858 originally at 156 Essex St., then 2 years later moved to 188 Essex St. When they closed they had 75 employees. The Salem store was one of five Almy’s outlets that were closed following the sale of the Almy’s chain to the Stop and Shop Corporation on March 16th, 1985.
The business’ second location was within the West Block. Nathaniel West bought the John Turner III mansion that was built in 1748 next to the Peter Palfrey House, opposite Central Street in 1833. Turner was the one in the family who lost the House of 7 Gables to the Ingersolls in 1782. West bought the property from Judge Oliver. Judge Andrew Oliver (1731-1799) was a judge and scientist who corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and authored numerous scientific essays. His son Peter Oliver was a subscriber to the Salem Common Improvement Fund and one of the subscriber’s who went deranged before 1821. The Salem Common Improvement Fund was a ruse behind a public work project to extend tunnels throughout town and hide the dirt in the Common which had five ponds and a river running to the sea. In April 11, 1817 Peter Oliver went into his house on the corner of Liberty and Essex Street and set it on fire with himself inside, but he lived. I think only a hole remained called “Oliver’s Hole” remained for years in which children played in. It reminds me of the failed RCG Hotel on the corner of Washington and Dodge Streets. Nathaniel West opened the old Turner mansion as a tavern called “The Mansion house” in time for President Andrew Jackson’s visit. West also bought the Gardener-Pingree House which is famous for the murder of Captain Joseph White in 1830 that inspired the game Clue and the story The Tell-Tale Heart. He had also owned the estate where the North Shore Mall resides now that he lost in a bloody divorce.
Jackson was in town in 1833 to meet with Stephen White on the Common in his home he bought in 1811. The house along with his uncle Joseph White’s home , the Gardner-Pingree House that Nathaniel West acquired, were bought from bribes from Baring Brothers Bank (working for the Bank of England) to create the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson was on a northern tour looking for support for his Bank War which would refuse an early renewal of the bank. The White’s held considerable shares in the bank and were going to suffer a loss; Jackson suffered from stomach ailments (Typhoid) and had to return to Washington early. James Knox Polk would suffer similar ailments as Speaker of the House under Jackson defending his stance on the future of the bank. Later Polk would die from Typhoid 3 months after leaving his tenure as president.
Later the Mansion House would be called the “West Block”. Jabez Baldwin, a Jeweler, who was also a Salem Common Improvement Subscriber had a business in the West Block. In around 1850 the building burns down. Maybe in 1860 it was a new building ready for Almy’s to move in. In the picture above it looks like the building was made in 1859.
Further in the past we learn more information on this location that Almy’s occupied. Charles Wentworth Upham’s book “Salem Witchcraft,” published in 1867 states,“The ‘Ship Tavern’ was on the ground the front of which is occupied, at present, by ‘West’s Block,’ nearly opposite of the head of Central Street. It had long been owned and kept by John Gedney, Sr….John died in 1685. His widow moved into the family of her father-in-law; and, after his death in 1688, continued to keep house…The tavern, in 1692, was known as ‘Widow Gedney’s.’ The estate had an extensive orchard in the rear, contiguous, along its northern boundary, to the orchard of Bridget Bishop, which occupied ground now covered by the Lyceum building, and one or two others to the east of it.” The Ship Tavern was the defacto town hall. It was where the town already met, provided food and alcohol, and had more firewood in the winter than town hall. The Ship tavern led to the first death during the Witch Hysteria because the owner died leaving the property to his wife.
Born Sarah Warren, she married a prominent man by the name of Robert Prince. He was the brother of a woman who married into the prominent Putnam family who started the Witch Hysteria. Then Robert Prince died in 1674 leaving the tavern to her and the 150 acre farm next to the Putnam’s. His sister believed it should of gone to her and her father-in-law would of loved that acquisition and the influence it would of brought him in town. The widow then married Alexander Osborne, her Irish indentured manservant (who paid off his debt) causing a scandal. Sarah Osborne would be the first to die in jail in Boston from the Witch Hysteria.
Bridget Bishop would inherit a tavern from her second of three husbands, Thomas Oliver, which is on the site of the Salem Five Bank on the corner of Washington and Church Streets. Her orchard was behind that building and ran behind the Ship Tavern, who used to own the orchard under John Gedney Sr., on Essex Street. Now Turner’s Seafood sits in that old orchard on the site of the Lyceum that burned down when the Salem Boy’s Fraternity resided in it.
During the time of the Witch madness, a man had swore bewilderment had happened in his home and looked out of the window seeing Bridget Bishop running away through her orchard. The tale was probably a lie, but today real magic happens on this site for now it is the location of Coven’s Cottage and Angelica of the Angels. Both are psychic parlors and one is owned by real witches. Something that could only be found in Boxford, Ma in 1692.
Now back to tunnels; in the picture below you will see the foundations of these buildings after Almy’s was razed to build the Essex Condominiums and the retail stores below them. In the picture you can see the various bricks used to build the foundations of the Ship Tavern, John Turner III Mansion, and the West Block. In between these bricks you can see sections of bricks no wider than a hallway created with different building materials. These are the sealed tunnels that had led to this important seat of the town at various times.
Tunnels existed in Salem as far back as 1662 at least and around the time in 1655 that John Gedney (another Quaker) built the Ship Tavern on this location; could it have had tunnels connected to it at that time as well? John Turner I house, House of 7 Gables, was connected to tunnels; why would not his grandson keep up the tradition in 1742 when he built his mansion? Could this be a selling point for Nathaniel West who had previously owned the Gardner-Pingree house which famously depicts its secret passages on the board of the game Clue? He also owned his father-in-law’s wharf, Derby Wharf, and warehouse that was connected to tunnels; it might seem a new home must be connected as a priority before he purchased it. West was also a Salem Common Improvement Fund subscriber. Could of President Jackson in 1833 walked from the Pickering, Mack, Stone House at 21-23 Chestnut Street (he visited Robert Stone who Jackson sent the USS Potomac to blow up Sumatra/Indonesia for, after natives raided one of his ships in 1832) to the Mansion House through the tunnel? Could of Jackson walked to Stephen White’s House also through the tunnel from the Mansion House? In 1860 the Salem Wharf’s were only being used for coal and lumber, but could Almy’s have received smuggled goods from Boston, Lowell, and Lawrence through the train tunnel built by George Peabody, of JP Morgan Bank fame, through the underground train station where Opus Underground is now from Boston? I believe so… What do you think? Tell me below in the comments.
So there is the various history of the store Salem locals loved and the history of the property that was connected to the smuggling tunnel of Salem, MA.
For more information on the tunnels read Salem Secret Underground: The History of the Tunnels in the City available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, and other great booksellers like Wicked Good Books, Jolie Tea, The Witch House, and Remember Salem in town. Support local businesses!!!