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Salem's Post Office
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:

  1. On Commercial Street (possibly in the W. C. Griswold store on the southwest corner of State and Commercial) until July 1859.

  2. On State Street (one door west of the Marion House hotel) until 1863.

  3. On North Commercial Street (in the Moores Block n the northwest corner of Commercial and State) until about 1867.

  4. On South Liberty Street (later location of the Salem Steam Laundry) until 1870.

  5. On Court Street (north side between Front and Commercial) until late 1870s.

  6. On State Street between Commercial and Front until 1880.

  7. On the west side corner of Ferry and Commercial until late 1890s.

  8. 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.


Additional Links
Salem post office employees in 1895.
Salem post office employees in 1895. The employees are, left to right, James Allison, Ben P. Taylor, Sadie Palmer, Theophile Muelhaupt, Fred Lockley, Prof. J. A. Sellwood, Mollie Creighton, George Hatch.
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Postal workers in front of the Salem post office, 1890s.
An early 1890s photograph of postal
workers in front of the Salem post office on Commercial St..
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First cart used on Rural Delivery, 1901.
First cart used on Rural Delivery, 1901.
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