November 01, 2023

Winter Island Maritime Park - Weird and Wonderful!

This is the second of two posts about Winter Island Maritime Park, a city-owned park and campground in Salem, Massachusetts.  Winter Island was the first of three stops on our 12 day “Little States Trip” in June of this year.

Winter Island in Salem, Massachusetts, is (hands down) the most unique campground we have ever visited.  It’s a magnificent piece of property located at the entrance to Salem Harbor and it’s quite popular.  The history of the island is fascinating, too.  Alan and I had been looking forward to staying at this one-of-a-kind campground, and we were thrilled to have landed a waterfront site adjacent to the boat launch.

Doesn't look like much, does it?

One of the reasons we bought this particular Outdoors RV model was the number of windows in the rig.  There are eight windows in the living area with two more in the bedroom.  Of the eight in the living area, three of them are huge, allowing larger than life views out the back window, over the sofa and from the U-shaped dinette.  At Winter Island, our back window looked out over the (very) busy harbor and our sofa and dinette windows over the boat launch.  It was right there!  Believe me, I understand that this particular set up wouldn’t appeal to many.  But for us, well, we couldn’t have been happier or more excited about this location.

Our view from the dinette - when I say the boat launch was right there, it really was right there.

We spent much of our time at the park watching the enormous amount of activity going on in and around the harbor.  Between 200 and 300 boats were moored in the harbor.  (Yes, I counted.)  Commercial fishermen would load their lobster boats with bait early in the morning and unload their take at the launch later in the day.  The harbor police patrol boat was tied up at the dock directly behind our trailer, and we watched them go in and out all weekend.  A lovely schooner would be out providing sunset tours each evening, and the ferry would come through on its regular schedule.  In addition to the large Waikiki Beach, there were several small pocket beaches near the RV sites in the parking lot, so the water’s edge was easily accessible to everyone.

All of those lobster traps on the trailer were loaded onto that small boat.

While I think our friend Ted may have used the word “unusual” to describe Winter Island when he told us about it, I took to calling it “weird” from the first day I saw it.  Since “weird,” at least in my mind, has sort of a bad connotation, I looked it up in the dictionary.  I was not surprised at the first definition reported by Merriam-Webster: “of strange or extraordinary character; odd; fantastic.”  That definition fits Winter Island to a “T.”  Imagine my surprise when I read the second definition: “of relating to, or caused by, witchcraft or the supernatural; magical."  Witchcraft.  Salem.  Now, if that’s not a weird coincidence, I don’t know what is.  And there is no way in, well, there’s absolutely no way you’ll find me camping in Salem at Halloween.  Ain’t EVER gonna happen.

A view of the very long boat launch from the Harbor Master's office on the hill

Winter Island encompasses 38 acres and is a half mile long.  Don’t let its small size throw you – this island lives big.  Its history is really quite varied and sort of odd.  There was so much going on at Winter Island, that it’s difficult to follow a timeline, so our little history lesson might seem a bit disjointed.  When colonists arrived in 1626, Native Americans were living on the island.  After Salem was settled, Winter Island became the center of the fishing industry until the mid-1700’s.  (Reading between the lines, I’m assuming that the settlers kicked the natives off the island – setting, perhaps, the precedent for many similar actions across the country by future generations.)  By the time the mid-1700’s came around, the demand for fish was so great that deeper waters and the larger ships that could access them became the norm, and the fishing industry moved from Winter Island to other locations.

There were always plenty of boat trailers parked in the lot.

I just found out that, between 1772 and 1821, four public executions took place on “Execution Hill,” the highest point on Winter Island.  None of the executions were related to witches or witchcraft.  I am pretty sure that I walked up one side of that hill and down the other on the way to drop our trash in the dumpsters.  Eeeewww!  I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.

The other section of waterfront sites located across the boat launch from us - event hall in background

Fort Pickering was built on the island in 1643, and in 1867 the federal government ceded the section of the island that wasn’t occupied by the fort to the city of Salem.  In 1799, Enos Briggs, a ship builder from Salem, opened temporary quarters on Winter Island in order to construct the Frigate USS Essex.  The deep water on the south side of Winter Island allowed for the construction of the larger warship – something that the shallower harbor in Salem didn’t.  The 32-gun frigate was commissioned and paid for by the people of (the city of) Salem and Essex County, and then donated to the U.S. Navy.  It was the only ship ever built on the island and, allegedly, one of the Navy’s first warships.

Salem Harbor from near the Harbor Master's office on Winter Island

The Plummer Farm School of Reform for Boys opened on Winter Island in 1870, and transitioned to the Plummer (Group) Home for Boys in the 1950’s.  In 2017, it became the Plummer Youth Promise, a nonprofit organization that connects young people in group or foster care with permanent families.  In 1871, the Winter Island Light (also known as the Fort Pickering Light) was built.  It reminds me a lot of my favorite lighthouse (the Bug Light) in Maine. 

At the left is the small, dockside facility for the Harbor Master

In 1935, the Coast Guard opened an Air Station on Winter Island to house seaplanes for the purpose of search and rescue.  The Coast Guard buildings consisted of a hangar, barracks and several other outbuildings.  The installation included a 250’ paved apron (I’ll bet that’s where we were camped) and two seaplane ramps leading down into the water.  In the first year of operation alone, Air Station Winter Island completed 26 medivacs, honoring their slogan, “Always ready.”  The Coast Guard Air Station closed in 1970 and, at some point, all of the island’s 38 acres were ceded to the City of Salem with the understanding that it would be used for public enjoyment.  And it is.  The park was always busy despite some cloudy and rainy weather during the three full days we were there.

Several sites for smaller RVs were situated next to the old seaplane hangar.

In addition to the public campground (with tent and RV sites), there’s a boat launch, a beach, a (really creepy) group camping area, a walking/biking path, a picnic pavilion and an event hall.  Speaking of creepy, the Coast Guard’s old seaplane hangar and barracks are just derelict old structures at this point and truly creepy themselves.  There are supporters who would like to restore these buildings but, as with so many other projects of this nature, funds are the issue.  Incidentally, another weird thing about this campground is that the dumpsters are pretty much hidden behind the old barracks in an isolated area where you wouldn’t necessarily go.  I was looking over my shoulder a lot when I walked the trash over, and that was before I knew about “Execution Hill.”   

The dumpsters were on the back side of the old barracks.  Creepy, right?

As I mentioned earlier, there are two RV camping areas – a dirt field edged with grass sites and trees and the parking lot.  All of the RV sites have both water and electric.  Tent sites are scattered throughout the grassy areas of the park; I know they don’t have electric but I’m not sure about water.  Now, for the dump station situation.

The RV field

There is no dump station on Winter Island; however, guests are permitted to use the dump station at the South Essex Sewerage Treatment plant on the outskirts of Salem - just a mile or so away.  I believe this to be an unusual arrangement on the eastern side of the country, but it does solve (most of) the problem – and it falls under the heading of “Experiences We’ve Never Had Before.”  Winter Island guests are given explicit, printed instructions on how to access the dump station, including the “secret handshake” (the code for the padlock on the dump).  Also, due to the angle of the approach, advice on how to actually enter the plant based on the size of your RV is noted.  (Small RVs can make a left turn into the facility; large RVs cannot.)  The instructions were complete and extremely descriptive; they even included a photo of the layout of the plant and how the dump station was to be accessed once you were on the property.  The reason I said using the sewage treatment plant solved “most” of the problem is because it would be a real pain in the neck to travel out of the park and on the city streets with a portable waste tank.  Our black and gray water tanks are large enough that we can stay a week without needing to dump, but I know that’s not the case with all RVs.

You couldn't pay me enough to sleep in the concrete bunkers in the group camp.

Now that we got the weird part out of the way, I have to say that our stay at Winter Island was absolutely WONDERFUL!  Keeping in mind that boat launches are a favorite hangout of ours, the fact that we were in a parking lot didn’t bother us a bit.  Sure, it would have been nice if we could have had the gorgeous view we had from a site with grass, trees and a lot more space between us and our neighbors but, hey, Winter Island was a fun-filled experience for us and the most unique place we’ve ever camped.

The playground on the map?  It didn't exist.  Weird, right?

The best part about staying here is that we had nothing more planned than meeting up with friends.  Our arrival on Thursday was much later than we had expected because we got bogged down in the traffic on the Mass Pike and on the loop around Boston.  We ended up canceling dinner plans with our friends Ted and Karen – the fellow ORV owners who had originally passed on the intel about Winter Island.  We were able to re-schedule for Saturday evening, so it all worked out in the end.  Actually, it worked out even better.  Instead of meeting outside of Boston at a restaurant, on Saturday they were able to come to Winter Island – which satisfied their curiosity about this weird and wonderful park.  We all enjoyed our takeout from The Clam Shack, just a short distance from the park, and Ted and Karen got the chance to see the wacky campground for themselves.

One of several pocket beaches on the island - all had steps for easy access

Before we met Ted and Karen for supper, we got together with high school friends for lunch at an oyster bar in Salem.  We hadn’t seen this group in about five years, so a lot of catch up ensued and a good time was had by all.  On top of that, they wouldn’t let Alan or me contribute toward lunch no matter how much we insisted.  This group enjoys 50 continuous years of friendship – here’s hoping it won’t take us another five years to reconvene.

Another very tiny pocket beach behind our campsite

Sunday rolled around and we were joined by Alan’s former childhood neighbors, Leslie and Sidney and Sidney’s husband, daughter and son-in-law.  You might remember me talking about our meetup with Sidney and Jerry at their winter home in Florida back in March of this year.  Summer finds them enjoying the cooler weather in New Hampshire, and we appreciate the fact that they, Laurie and Rob were willing to make the drive down to Salem (on Father’s Day, no less!) to visit.  Leslie, Sidney’s sister, has lived in the Boston area for decades, but we think it may have been about two of those since we had last seen her.  Sidney brought a cake to top off our meal, and we celebrated Jerry and Alan, the dads in the group.  It was a day full of laughter, stories and shared memories, causing us to wonder why we allow so much time to pass between visits.

The schooner "Fame" sails past the Winter Island Light

There is something about true friendship, old or new, that allows you to pick up wherever it was that you left off.  It lets the fun times and camaraderie begin immediately.  And it celebrates the fact there may be people in your life who know you really well – and like you anyway.  The weekend hours just flew by and, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, we were waving goodbye to all of our friends.  Aside from making a run into Salem one day to top off the truck’s gas tank (and feed our homemade ice cream habit), we pretty much spent the entire weekend enjoying the activity in and around the harbor and good times with good friends.  Plus, we got to color in the state of Massachusetts on our camping map.  I’m thinking now that the miserable traffic and the lasagna episode were small prices to pay for the spectacular weekend that followed.

An early morning view out our back window

Despite the fact that we’re of the opinion Winter Island Maritime Park is really and truly weird, we absolutely, positively loved our stay there.  This unique experience was right up our alley because we’re pretty weird ourselves considering our penchant for hanging around harbors and the delight we take in watching the entertainment at boat launches across the country.  I think I can say with some certainty that Winter Island isn’t for everyone, but I know, without a doubt, it is for us.  Goodbye, Winter Island!  We’ll be back!  But next time, Alan will be the one on dumpster duty.     

After spending four nights in Massachusetts, our next stop on the Little States Trip would be Rhode Island.  We set up base camp at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park for a quick, two-night visit, and set out to explore the southern half of this tiny state.



  1. Mary, I join you and Alan with an affinity for marinas--there's always something going on and I love boats as well. If I were single, I would live on a boat in a marina. Looking forward to reading more about this trip. Keep it coming (pictures too). Joe

    1. Well, Joe, I give you credit. Having slept on both of the boats we've had over the years, I know I'd never be able to live aboard full-time. But we really can spend hours just watching all the activity. It looks like the three of us are cheap dates!

  2. Amazing is your ability to ferret out places of obscure historical interest AND visual potpourri that is, regretfully, observed by relatively few. We glampers will have to see them through your eyes. You should write a blog! Oh, wait...

    1. Mike, I'm happy to see that your sense of humor is operating at optimal "quip capacity" today. While Winter Island seems to be particularly unusual, we've been fortunate to find many places that have an intriguing history or appeal. It's through our connections with fellow RVers that we gain a lot of good intel. They are excellent resources!

  3. We camped at Winter Island in 2019 for a few nights....and we were there for Halloween! LOL. It was fun. :-)

    1. Better you than me! Halloween is not one of my favorite holidays. Spending it in Salem would have made it excruciating. I'll bet walking past or over Execution Hill on your way to the dumpsters didn't bother you either. 🥺


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