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Brief History
Salem is the capital of Oregon and one of the state's largest cities. This essay offers a brief overview of our community's history.

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.

The Kalapuya
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 encampments.

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, in 1861.

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 Estate.

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.

Minority Residents
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 to them.

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 in 1902.

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 to Salem.

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 the changes.

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 courthouse demolished.

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 event.

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 business.

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 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 manuscript


1876 map of Salem

1876 map of Salem

Courtesy of Salem Public Library
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Jason Lee

Jason Lee

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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The Oregon Institute

The Oregon Institute

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection

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Oregon's First State Capitol Building

Oregon's First State Capitol Building

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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Early Steamboat

Ferries and steamboats brought supplies and people to Salem

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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First bridge across Willamette River in Salem

First bridge across the Willamette River in Salem, 1851

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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Salem Amusement Company

Salem Amusement Company Band, 1880

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection

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Deepwood Estate

Deepwood Estate

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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Looking west across Willson Park, 1890

Looking west across Willson Park, 1890

Courtesy of SPL Historic Photograph Collection
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Water pump station
Water pump station near riverfront - 1904
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