|Before the 20th century innovations of telephones,
faxes and e-mail, people stayed in touch exclusively by letter.
The earliest pioneers to Oregon Territory--those who came in
the late 1830's or early '40s-had no contact with those left
behind in the East other than the random possibility of later
over-landers bringing letters from home, or a ship reaching
Ft. Vancouver from the eastern coast. The reverse was true as
well: they could not send letters home unless they fond someone
heading east to carry them.
That difficulty in sending or receiving mail was partially
alleviated in 1846 with the appointment by President Polk
of a postmaster for Salem. He was Turner Cox, father-in-law
of Thomas Cox, in whose early Salem general store the first
post office was located. This was on the northeast corner
of Ferry and Commercial Streets, but the first postal service
was confined primarily to correspondence within the Territory
as this was long before the establishment of the Pony Express
or train to carry mail to the East. (Under Provisional Government
contract, Hugh Burns had carried mail east in the Spring of
1846, but the six-month round trip overland--Oregon City to
Weston, Missouri--made it an impractical experiment.)
When J. B. McClane was appointed postmaster (for North Salem)
in November of 1849 by President Taylor, he was unaware of
the appointment until the following Spring of 1850 when a
ship bearing his commission appeared in port. McClane operated
an early general store in the Jason Lee house and began his
postmaster appointment with a ledger for recording delivery
of the mail using an ink pen to rate and postmark letters
sent out. Initially the rate for mail going east was 40 cents
per 1/2 ounce (letters were at that time folded and marked
by hand), until 1853 when actual stamps and a postmarking
machine were available. During this early period mail was
sent "collect"--the recipient paying the postage--but
this practice too was changed; as of 1855 no letter could
be sent without payment in advance.
When the Coxes sold their downtown store in 1853 and the
McClane family left for the East that same year, a more central
location in Salem was chosen for the post office. From this
date, for the next half century, postal services occupied
eight different locations in downtown Salem:
- On Commercial Street (possibly in the W. C. Griswold
store on the southwest corner of State and Commercial) until
- On State Street (one door west of the Marion House hotel)
- On North Commercial Street (in the Moores Block n the
northwest corner of Commercial and State) until about 1867.
- On South Liberty Street (later location of the Salem Steam
Laundry) until 1870.
- On Court Street (north side between Front and Commercial)
until late 1870s.
- On State Street between Commercial and Front until 1880.
- On the west side corner of Ferry and Commercial until
- On North Commercial Street (near Fry's Drug Store) until
April 1, 1903.
It was during the postmaster service of William H, ODell
and while the post office was situated on Ferry and Commercial
that urban free delivery to Salem residents was initiated;
the date was July 5, 1887.
Ben Taylor and George Hatch were Salem's first mailmen. Rural
free delivery increased April 1, 1901, when eight routes outside
the city limits were established. In 1901 federal funds were
allocated for a Salem post office building and construction
began on a site near the Marion County Courthouse for Salem's
first federal post office. A two-story steel and brick edifice,
featured Oregon products; granite and sandstone from Ashland,
brick and interior woodwork of Salem manufacturer. The new
post office opened April 1, 1903, serving customers for the
next three and half decades before the facility was outgrown.
A new federal building was dedicated October 16, 1937--the
only marble post office building west of the Mississippi River
(aside from Denver's)--completed at a cost of $310,000. Postmaster
General of the United States, James A. Farley, appeared for
the ceremonies and some 2000 citizens turned out--in a pouring
rain--to view the proceedings and dignitaries. (The old post
office building was not demolished, however; it survives today
as Gatke Hall on the Willamette University campus.)
Another three and a half decades passed before even these
postal facilities were outgrown as well and another move was
necessitated. By this time property in Salem was at a premium
and a site further away from the downtown section was selected.
Construction on the new postal plant at 1050 S. E. 25th Street
commenced in late 1975 and by August of 1976 was ready for
occupancy. (The old marble building on Church Street became
the State Executive Office Building.)
Now, after over a century and a half since a corner in the
mission store where one man handled all the mail for Salem,
the capital city has a facility with a personnel roster of
554, handling over a million pieces of mail delivered each
day to nearly 94,000 address.
Compiled and written by Sue Bell
James W. Cox, "Memoirs of Early Salem.." Marion
County History Vol. 3, P. 37 (1957).p. 32.
Harvey McKay, "St. Paul, Oregon 1830-1890," Portland:
Binford & Mort, 1980, p. 18.
Edwin R. Payne, "Marion County Post Offices," Marion
County History Vol. 1, P. 15 (1955).
Oregon Statesman 19 Julv 1859, p. 3 ; and 5 July 1887, P.
3; and 2 April, 1901
Daily Oregon Statesman 1 July 1911, P. 28.
Capital Journal 16 Oct. 1937, p. B;16 Oct. 1937, pp. 1 &
8;19 Ag. 1976, 0.1.
R. L. Polk Directory-1880.
Oregon Statesman Illustrated Annual 1 Jan. 1904, p. 78.
Interview with Bill Lahman, Customer Relations Coordinator,
U.S.P.S., 13 February 2001.