Newtown—Salisbury’s First Historic Neighborhood
Salisbury began in 1732 as a landing at the head of navigation on the Wicomico River with 15 acres of building lots. The Eastern Shore, laid open by numerous rivers flowing to the Bay, depended on water rather than roads to move bulk cargoes: first of tobacco, then of lumber, grain, and flour, and later, of other vegetables and seafood. By the early 19th century, Salisbury had mills, boatyards, taverns, churches, and tradesmen, and by 1830 it began to be visited by the new steamboats that linked its people and commerce to the wider world. By 1847 the town had outgrown its original boundaries and the area south of town, known as Camden, and the area to the north, known as Newtown, became part of Salisbury. Newtown, although it had some houses, such as the circa 1795 Poplar Hill Mansion* at 117 Elizabeth Street, was still largely undeveloped. In 1850, 118 years after its founding, Salisbury was incorporated.
By 1860 Salisbury was a town of frame buildings with a population of 2,000. Lumber, a major industry, was piled high on wharves waiting for shipment. Future prospects were brightened when the railroad reached the town in April, 1860 and provided a faster and cheaper connection to Wilmington and Philadelphia.
Four months later, a fire wiped out virtually all of the original town. Some of the buildings that bordered the town escaped—on Broad Street, Newtown’s southern boundary, Park Hall (115 Broad Street) built by General Humphrey Humphreys in 1856 and the John Wesley M. E. Church, (321 Broad Street) built 1838 (renovated in 1880 and today known as the Charles H. Chipman Cultural Center) are notable. Rebuilding Salisbury was hampered when the Civil War began the year after the fire. Salisbury became a major camp for Union troops on the Eastern Shore.
With the end of the war, the rebuilding of Salisbury was completed and the town became the seat of Wicomico County, fashioned from parts of Somerset and Worcester counties. Rail service expanded, and the town saw new prosperity. Newtown by now was dotted with houses. Surviving examples include the Dr. Cathell Humphreys House (1860-70) at 325 N. Division and the Alexander D. Toadvine House (1873) at 105 E. Isabella.
In 1886, fire again devastated Salisbury’s downtown. Residents in Newtown spread wet blankets on house roofs to save their homes from windblown flaming debris. As Salisbury set about to rebuild yet again, construction in Newtown accelerated. E. E. Jackson, with his brother the owner of a large lumber company, constructed a sprawling Queen Anne-style mansion he called The Oaks on the northern end of Newtown. Although the house does not survive, this area of Newtown, north of Isabella Street and west of Division, retains the name, The Oaks. Jackson would go on to serve as the governor of Maryland.
In the years between the 1886 fire and onset of the Great Depression, Newtown became, along with the Camden area, the neighborhood in which Salisbury’s elite lived. Income from lumber, seafood and produce packing, hardware, and clothing manufacturing paid for houses built in Italianate, Greek Revival, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival styles. The Gillis-Grier house,* an 1897 Queen Anne, is on the National Register. Built about the same time nearby on Gay Street is the mansard-roofed Perry-Cooper House.*
On Division Street, the Grier-Lawry House, another 1897 Queen Anne, incorporates the c. 1828 Federal-style Hooper house as its rear wing. Next to it, the Dulaney House (c. 1921) is a Colonial Revival built by Dr. Edgar W. Smith and purchased in 1970 by a member of a local family who prospered as purveyors of canned and frozen produce.
Further up Division, on the corner of Isabella, the Dickerson house, a massive Colonial Revival meticulously built with pressed brick laid in narrow butter joints, was erected in 1912. Newtown is full of wonderful houses that reward a visitor on foot with an eye for architecture.
Newtown remains a prestigious neighborhood, but the fortunes of Salisbury, and Newtown with it, declined after World War II. By the early 1970s, the neighborhood was obviously suffering. New residents, some employed at the expanding medical and academic sectors, saw potential. They bought and began restoring houses. Forty years later, many still live in the houses they bought and restored. The Newtown Neighborhood Association was formed, and Newtown became Salisbury’s first historic district. Newtown was again an elite address.
Nothing remains the same, however. A job market in decline, suburban development, and the Great Recession are once again challenging Newtown, and once again the Neighborhood Association has mobilized, determined to write a new and glowing chapter in this, Newtown’s fourth century.
*These houses are listed on the National Register of Historic Places