|Salem is the capital of Oregon and one of the state's
largest cities. This essay offers a brief overview of our
The Kalapuya Native Americans were the first residents of
what is now Salem. The Kalapuya traveled the Willamette River
in dug-out canoes. Game, fish, fruits, and berries were plentiful
in the Willamette River basin. It was a good place to gather.
Immigrants and pioneers from the Eastern United States also
found a gathering place in the Willamette Valley, arriving
by riverboat and wagon. They chose Salem as the territorial
and state capitals and built industries and agricultural enterprises.
Soon Salem became a center of government and commerce.
Today, when the "Willamette Queen" excursion riverboat
travels along the city's Willamette River shore, passengers
view the city parks lining both sides of the river and the
monuments to religion, commerce, and government which frame
the horizon. Plentiful wildlife is still close by. Salem remains
a gathering place for all.
Kalapuya Native Americans lived seasonally in the Salem area
for more than 5,000 years. They gathered wild foods such as
camas, wapato, and tarweed and hunted for deer and other game.
They favored this part of the Willamette Valley for winter
While an estimated 17,000 Kalapuya once resided in the Willamette
Valley, their population declined in the early nineteenth
century because non-Native American explorers and traders
from outside the valley brought Smallpox, Malaria, and other
diseases for which the Kalapuya had little or no immunity.
By the time the Kalapuya were moved to the Grand Ronde Reservation
in the 1850's, their group numbered fewer than 1,000. Descendents
of the Kalapuya continue to live in the area and many are
members of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.
Trappers, Missionaries, and Settlers
The first European-Americans arrived in the Salem area in
1812. Working as trappers and food gatherers for the fur trading
companies at Astoria, these early residents built a log dwelling
and trapping house near the Willamette River. Today the exact
location of these buildings is unknown.
Permanent American settlement of Salem began with the establishment
of Jason Lee's Methodist mission. Although Lee's first mission
was located north of Salem (in an area known today as Wheatland)
he soon moved the facility to Mill Creek (near present-day
Broadway and "D" streets.) He also built a sawmill.
Lee's house and several other pre-territorial buildings were
preserved and are now open to the public on the grounds of
the Willamette Heritage Center.
The Methodist missionaries organized the Oregon Institute,
an institution of higher learning in 1842. The Institute was
the forerunner to Willamette University, the first university
in the West.
Early Government and Commerce
As the community matured, residents built the Salem's first
schools, churches, industries, and agricultural enterprises.
Salem formed its first public school district in 1855 and
two years later the City of Salem received its first charter.
Although the Methodist faith predominated in early Salem,
soon a half dozen other religious denominations established
congregations. During this same period, Marion County built
its first wood-frame courthouse at High and State streets,
a location still held by the present-day county courthouse.
Oregon became the 33rd member of the United States on February
14, 1859 and in 1864 voters reaffirmed the selection of Salem
as its capital.
The governor, legislature, and Supreme Court conducted official
business in several downtown Salem locations. The state's
first capitol, a wood-frame structure, was destroyed by fire
in 1855 shortly after its construction. Construction on the
second capitol (on the same site) did not begin until 1872.
Transportation, Commerce, and Communication
Transportation and communication expanded in the mid-nineteenth
century with the arrival of the Hoosier, a steamboat, in 1851.
The Hoosier traveled the Willamette River south to the city
of Eugene and north to Oregon City, near Portland. The steamboat
carried passengers, mail, and outbound freight including agricultural
goods sold to miners in the California gold fields.
Inbound goods were unloaded at a dock on Pringle Creek near
today's Ferry and Commercial streets. Some of these goods
were sold in the city's first retail stores while other cargo
was sent by ferry to settlements on the western shore of the
Willamette River. The city's first newspaper, the Oregon Statesman,
which was moved to Salem in 1851, reported on the arrivals
and departures of the steamboat.
As a river city, Salem was subject to seasonal flooding.
One of the worst recorded floods occurred in 1861 when the
Willamette River overflowed its banks, destroying nearby farms
and food processing and manufacturing plants.
Salem's population grew to 2,500 by 1880. The city's growth
was accelerated by the expansion of agriculture and logging,
and the continued development of national and international
markets. Food processing plants and woolen mills, such as
the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, formed the base of Salem's economy.
The state's first agricultural fair, a forerunner to today's
Oregon State Fair, had been held about twenty years earlier,
Telegraph service had arrived in Salem in 1864 and a railroad
line to Portland was completed in 1872. Salem's first bridge
across the Willamette River was built in 1886. The city's
economic growth continued into the 1880s and 1890s, although
it stalled during the severe 1890 flood and the national economic
depression of 1893 to 1897.
During this same time, Salem's streets were improved and
its water and sewer systems were installed. Chemawa Indian
School, a federal boarding school for Native American youth,
moved to an area just north of Salem in 1885.
Dynamic Nineteenth Century
Many influential people lived in Salem during the last half
of the nineteenth century. Some of the city's leading citizens
built large homes along Court Street between downtown and
the capitol, while others preferred more rural areas. In 1877
Asahel Bush, a banker and newspaper publisher, built his elegant
home just south of downtown in what is today Bush's Pasture
Park. Nearby, during the 1890's, Dr. Luke Port built his beautiful
Queen Anne-style home, a mansion known today as Historic Deepwood
Other notable Salem residents of the time include Myra Albert
Wiggins, an internationally known professional photographer;
future United States president Herbert Hoover, then employed
as an office boy for the Oregon Land Company; and Ruben Sanders,
an award-winning Native American athlete who played and coached
at Chemawa Indian School.
At the outbreak of the U. S. Civil War, Salem residents were
divided over which side to support. While most residents supported
the Union, they also did not want African-Americans living
among them. Although no military battles were fought here,
at least one stick-and-stone brouhaha took place over issues
related to the war.
The several hundred Chinese-American residents of Salem were
limited to living in a two block section of the city's downtown.
Most were employed in low-wage jobs, the only employment available
Several generations of Japanese-Americans, who farmed at
Lake Labish just north of Salem, were removed from their homes
and sent to detainment camps in 1942 at the outbreak of World
War II. Most never returned to Salem.
Mexican and Mexican-American families moved to Salem to do
farm work during World War II. After the war many became permanent
Willamette Valley residents.
Becoming a Modern City
Women, who had won the right to vote in 1912, were active
in the political and cultural life of the city during the
early twentieth century. The Salem Woman's Club appointed
a library committee in 1903 and operated the city's first
public library, eventually ceding its ownership to the City
of Salem. Members of the Woman's Club were instrumental in
securing library construction funds from philanthropist Andrew
Carnegie a decade later. In 1916, Salem's women helped establish
Deaconess Hospital, a forerunner to today's Salem Hospital.
High school instruction was first offered to Salem children
in the early 1900's. In 1907, the city's first high school
opened at High and Marion streets in downtown Salem. This
building was later demolished, making way for the Meier and Frank Department Store.
Largely due to an annexation in 1903, Salem's population
tripled from 1900 to 1920. Its municipal government began
paving the community's streets in 1907, with five blocks of
Court Street its first project. Paved streets had become a
necessity after the arrival of the city's first automobile
Salem took the nickname "The Cherry City" in 1903
in recognition of its food processing industry and for many
years the city celebrated an annual Cherry Festival.
The 1920's and 1930's
The 1920's marked a decade of rapid change. In industry, the
Oregon Pulp and Paper Company began operations near Pringle
Creek in 1920. Medical services expanded with the opening
of Salem General Hospital, and in 1923 the city established
its first full-time municipal fire department.
By the time the last streetcar ceased operation in 1927 (after
nearly 40 years of transporting Salem residents) the city
had more than 35 miles of paved streets. Two major downtown
buildings, the Elsinore Theatre and the Livesley Building
(today's Capitol Center) both opened in 1926. The city's first
radio stations also began broadcasting in the 1920s.
In 1930, Salem residents voted for a municipal water system
and by 1935 had purchased the private water works which had
served the city. Although telephone service had been available
since the late nineteenth century, Salem's first dial telephone
system was installed in 1931. Another technological innovation,
the police radio, arrived in Salem in 1933.
The capitol was destroyed by fire on April 25, 1935 despite
the efforts of fire crews from throughout the Willamette Valley.
With the help of funds from the federal government, Oregon
built a new capitol during the next three years, topped by
a twenty-two foot bronze figure with gold overleaf called
the "Oregon Pioneer." A new State Library opened
across Court Street a year later.
During the 1930's Salem residents watched the activities
of several national politicians with strong connections to
their city. Herbert Hoover was the President of the United
States from 1929 to 1933, while Charles McNary was a leading
United States Senator and Vice Presidential nominee in 1940.
Hollis Hawley was a leader in the United States House of Representatives.
Locally, Oregon Statesman publisher Charles Sprague served
as Oregon Governor from 1939 to 1943.
The 1940's and post-World War II
Salem celebrated its centennial in 1940. The city's population
was 30,908. Although the Great Depression of the 1930s forced
many residents from their jobs, Salem's economy was on the
rebound as the new decade began.
Salem's economy continued to be strong during World War II
as businesses turned their production to the war effort. Nearby
Camp Adair, a military training facility, brought many soldiers
Residents celebrated the end of World War II for two days,
but also recalled the hundreds of fellow Salem citizens who
were injured or killed during the war.
The postwar years saw the decline of Salem's downtown area.
Sulfurous odors from the paper mill penetrated nearby homes.
Busy railroad crossings and other traffic problems made it
easier to shop in the suburban retail areas. Construction
of Interstate 5, a highway on the east side of the city, accelerated
Salem adopted the City Manager-Council form of government
in 1947 with J. L. Franzen taking office as the first Salem
city manager. In 1949 Salem annexed the adjoining community
of West Salem, an independent city since its incorporation
in 1913. With the annexation Salem straddled the eastern and
western shores of the Willamette River; its citizens resided
in Marion and Polk counties respectively.
During the 1950's Salem improved and extended crucial utilities
needed in a growing city, including the sewage treatment system
and natural gas connections. The Marion County Courthouse,
still in use today, was built in the mid-1950's and the old
Salem received its first television signals in 1952 and in
1953 the Capital Journal and Oregon Statesman newspapers merged
business operations but continued as separate publications.
By the mid-1980's these newspapers would merge into one newspaper,
renamed the Statesman Journal.
The Detroit Dam in the mountains east of Salem was constructed
during the 1950s. Detroit Dam and other dams on the Willamette
River and its tributaries reduced the chance of flooding and
encouraged development in low lying areas such as Keizer,
an area north of the city.
In 1949, the Salem Art Association staged the first Salem
Art Fair in Bush's Pasture Park, a recent addition to the
city's park system. The Art Fair continues to be a popular Salem
The 1960's and 1970's
Salem garnered national attention and received the coveted "All-American
City" award in 1961. The award recognized Salem for its
efforts in inter-government and government-school cooperation
during the 1950's.
The 1960's and 1970's brought natural disasters to the city.
A heavy windstorm on Columbus Day 1962 caused extensive damage
as did a flood during December 1964. The Marion Hotel, a longtime
downtown landmark, burned in 1971.
Although many inner cities deteriorated during the 1960's
and 1970's, Salem's efforts resulted in a revitalized downtown.
Streams, once hidden beneath streets and behind factories,
were uncovered. New parks, plazas, footpaths, and bicycle
lanes were constructed.
The downtown received a new look with the construction of
a shopping complex, anchored by Nordstrom, a major retailer.
An adjoining mall facility was built in the 1990's and the
complex was renamed Salem Center. It soon became a flagship
for downtown businesses and services. Marion County joined
the Salem Mass Transit District to build Courthouse Square,
a centralized downtown transit center and county office facility
which opened in 2000.
City Hall, formerly at Chemeketa and High streets, was torn
down in 1972 and a City Hall/Civic Center was constructed
on the southern edge of downtown. A new Public Library and
a central Fire Station were included in the modern complex.
Educational opportunities for local residents expanded with
the opening of Chemeketa Community College 1970.
The 1980's and beyond
Salem' s population had climbed to 96,830 by 1980 and two
decades of rapid change had begun.
Large national retailers such as Costco, Shopko, Wal-Mart,
Target, and Home Depot recognized Salem's market potential
and opened outlets in suburban Salem.
Salem's roots in the lumber and textile industries gradually
gave way to high technology. In 1989, Siltec, a computer chip
manufacturer, established a facility. By 1996, the facility
had grown to more than one million square feet of manufacturing
and had been renamed Mitsubishi Silicon America. II Morrow,
a successful local high technology business was purchased
by United Parcel Service. Salem's diversification into electronics
and metal fabrication was praised by Oregon Business magazine.
The city's ethnic diversity flourished during the 1980's
and 1990's. Salem's Hispanic and Asian communities grew and
migration from the former Soviet Union brought numerous Eastern
European families to Marion County. Tokyo International University
of America, a Japanese college, opened a Salem campus in conjunction
with Willamette University in 1989. Restaurants and retail
stores catering to Salem's immigrant communities opened for
Salem citizens continued their active involvement in several
neighborhood associations. Crime prevention, parks, and livability
were issues addressed by the neighborhood associations. During
the 1980's, the Court-Chemeketa and Gaiety Hill-Bush's Pasture
Park neighborhoods were designated National Historic Districts.
Although the city no longer celebrated its Cherry Festival,
a new event, the Festival of Lights parade, attracted thousands
of spectators to downtown Salem each December. Riverfront
Park was dedicated in 1998, nearly fifty years after its initial
plans were discussed. A carousel, featuring horses and other
whimsical fixtures carved by local residents, opened in 2001.
Salem continues to
be the heart of Oregon state government and a center for finance,
retail, and services in the mid-Willamette Valley. New housing
developments cover hillsides in West and South Salem which
were once occupied by orchards and fields. In 2002, Salem
surpassed Eugene to become Oregon's second most populous city. Salem
citizens, like those before them, will continue to create
a new Salem.
Researched and written by Monica Mersinger
Edited by Kyle Jansson, Marion County Historical Society
Bentson, William Allen. Historic Capitols of Oregon...an
Illustrated Chronology, 1987.
"Chronology of Significant Events" Statesman Journal,
October 26, 1990.
Miller, Robert H. "Library Development Plan," Salem
Public Library, January 1997.
Postrel, Dan. Statesman Journal, July 23, 1997.
Strozut, George. "Salem History," pp. 13-39. Unpublished