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Evolution of a city: New book offers pictorial tour of Salem's past and present
By William Routhier   - 03/12/2009

Wicked Local

The only thing that never changes is the constancy of change itself. A new book just out from Arcadia Publishing, “Salem: Then and Now,” details in pictures the great changes that have taken place in Salem over the centuries.

Local authors and history buffs Jerome Curley and Nelson Dionne worked together as coauthors, more accurately co-creators, of this valuable and fascinating historical document. With old and current photos of familiar Salem scenes placed together on each page, the reader takes a journey from the past to the present, encountering Salem anew.

“A book like this reminds people that we have to preserve the historical parts of our city, and how much they’re worth preserving,” says Curley.

The book is comprised of six sections: Washington Street, Essex Street, Around the City, Along the Coast, Seascapes and Industrial Salem.

The birth of the book began with Curley, a fifth-generation Salem resident, now retired, who was rifling though his collection of old postcards of Salem, wondering if he could do something with them. Curley contacted Arcadia Publishing, the country’s leading local-history publisher, with a catalog of more than 5,000 titles in print. After some discussion, it was decided that the extensive, national “Then and Now” series, in which historical photographs and images are contrasted with contemporary photographs, would be the perfect fit for such a book project.

Curley began looking for someone with additional historical photos to use in the book, to supplement his own collection. Through the Salem History Society Curley came in contact with Dionne, who had an extensive personal collection of Salem photos.

Dionne, also a retiree, had serendipitously come into possession of an additional, large cache of photos by Salem commercial photographer Leland Tilford, who captured images of businesses and homes during the first part of the 19th century.

The Tilford photos were used in large part for the “then” photos and the “now” photos were taken by Curley, who recreated, whenever possible, the same pictorial angle of the old photos. In some instances, the old historic buildings were no longer standing, so a parking lot or modern building represents the corresponding “now” photo.

In some cases the viewpoint of the older photos couldn’t be duplicated from the modern-day street level, so Curley inquired of local businesses to get access to a similar vantage point.

Strega restaurant and Markwood Management allowed him rooftop access, and Mary Ellen Manning allowed him to use her office window, overlooking Essex Street.

“It was a challenge to get the right angles,” Curley says, “but the people were great, making access available to me.”

Curley also took the “now” aerial photos himself, leaning out the window of a small plane, flown by friend and pilot Ken Gandolfo. These photos presented a particular challenge, in flying near the power plant stacks or in areas where there were flight restrictions due to airspace usage.

The “then” photos, Curley says, were left largely untouched by Arcadia, as far as running them through computer photo software. This was in keeping with Arcadia’s policy of keeping the strictest historical accuracy possible. Curley’s contemporary photos were all taken on film, rather than digitally, also according to Arcadia’s guidelines.

In setting up the book, Curley and Dionne chose the order of the photos of Washington and Essex streets so that the images correspond to an actual walking tour. In other sections, by necessity, the photos jump from place to place.

Dionne had a vast amount of old Salem newspaper articles in his collection, which served as an asset in their combined research for creating the captions in the book. Old tourist guidebooks and tourist manuals were also used. There were a large number of these to choose from, as Salem has long been a popular tourist town as well as a seaport. One image that was among the most difficult to track down was the old Parker Brothers building. Surprisingly, the authors said, there are limited photo records from the company’s past.

In talking with Curley and Dionne, one encounters two men who are passionate about history and its importance, especially in regard to Salem. Both are walking history databases, encyclopedic in their knowledge, brimming with facts and anecdotes of what went into making this special city all that it is.

“The beauty of a book like this,” Curley says, “is that it gives you that overlay of history, it shows you what something looked like in the past. You can stand in downtown Salem and see where the docks were, then envision the clipper ships ... it gives you a whole different appreciation.”

Dionne adds, “You can show the kids of today what it was like yesterday, and they’ll understand it, with a photo.”

Several events for “Salem: Then and Now” will be held with Jerome Curley and Nelson Dionne over the next couple months. There will be a book-signing on Saturday, March 14, 1-3 p.m., at Barnes & Noble at the Northshore Mall, 210 Andover St. in Peabody, and at Borders bookstore, 151 Andover St. in Peabody, on Saturday, March 28, 1-3 p.m.

There will be a reading and signing at Cornerstone Books in Salem on April 3 at 7 p.m. The authors will give a talk about the book on Wednesday, April 8, 7 p.m., at the Beverly Historical Society, where Dionne is a longtime volunteer. Cost: $5; free to members. For information,

The book can be purchased at these author events or online at www.arcadiapublishing.com.

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