The wharf in front of you was Salem's longest, and was once one of the busiest in the nation. The first 800 feet of the wharf was begun in 1762 and completed about 1770 by Capt. Richard Derby, Sr. (1712-1783), one of the wealthiest merchants in pre-revolutionary Salem, and his son Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799). During the War of Independence, American privateers sailed from here to prey on British ships on the high seas. After the war, Hasket inherited much of his father's property, and his fleet of trading vessels sailed to the Far East and other international ports, bringing wealth to Salem and its merchants. Cargoes were stored in spacious three-story warehouses built on the wharf. In 1806 Elias Hasket Derby's heirs completed a 1300 foot extension to the wharf, and throughout the 19th century exotic luxury items from Asia as well as raw materials for Salem's growing industries continued to be unloaded onto the wharf. At the end of the 19th century, railroad tracks were laid on Derby Wharf so that vessels could unload cargo directly into railroad cars for transportation inland.
I remember now the queer spicy indescribable Eastern smell that floated out from those huge warehouses, wherein were stored spoils from every country..." - Caroline Howard King, When I Lived in Salem, 1822-1866, 1937
This sheet listing wharf fees and regulations was posted here about 1823. Fees for docking were based on the size of the vessel. Wharfage was the fee for storing goods in the warehouses. The wharfinger managed the wharf for its owners, and was responsible for collecting fees and enforcing the rules. At one time, as many as fifteen warehouses lined Derby Wharf. In addition to cargo storage, many warehouses had workshop space that would be leased to artisans such as riggers, blacksmiths, and coopers. In this 1887 photograph, taken at the end of the age of sail, you can see that one sailmaker still has a workshop on the second floor of the first warehouse on the wharf.