Salem, OR

Demographics, Politics & Society

The demographics, politics, and society of Salem from 1905-1929 was a plethora of changes. While there are a lot of things to discuss regarding all of this, I will discuss a few of the most influential and important changes happening within this time period. 

Looking at politics in Salem, in 1912 the women’s suffrage was passed nationally. This is interesting for Oregon because it had refused women’s suffrage prior to the 19th amendment more times than any other state. In Salem Abigail Scott Duniway was paving the way for women to vote many years before the 19th amendment and was well known for it. Because there was already a growing movement in Salem, being able to vote had the ability to propel women into positions of power.

Another political event was Salem voting to ‘go dry’ in 1913. This meant in the area of Salem, the sale of alcoholic beverages was prohibited. Salem ‘going dry’ is interesting because at the time Salem had a large brewery and a very profitable hop industry. As seen through archived newspapers; the decision seemed to be popular with judges and doctors, but not with the citizens.

Throughout 1905-1930 the demographics in Salem were increasing as well. In 1900 the population of Salem was about 4,258. By 1910 Salem’s population tripled to 14,094 and by 1930 it was 26,266 individuals residing in Salem. Finding the ethnicities of the residents is still very vague.

With the influx in residents, there was the potential to start forming communities. In 1913, 40 different Fraternal Organizations were running in Salem. These were for men, women, and people of all ages.

I also want to recognize a lot of the information about the demographics, politics and society is not diverse. Because newspapers were writing for their main demographic, it’s challenging to find records regarding the lives and culture of people of color in Salem. Additionally, I want to recognize Salem and anything built in the Willamette Valley is built on top of stolen Kalapuya land.

Economics & Infrastructure

Salem is described as a place that is focused on “modernity and progressive outlook”. Economics and infrastructure changed drastically in the early 20th century. In 1907 they began to switch the sidewalks and roads to pavement in attempts to do away with the old dusty version of Salem. Motorized vehicles was the start of a different Salem, Oregon. The fire department motorized in the early 20s and buses started to become normal street transit instead of Trolleys. The dynamics changed because this created the first shopping centers outside of the downtown area. This also caused Salem to expand as a city and have more room for its residents.

In 1923 there was a housing boom in Salem. Neighborhoods were built on the outskirts and the hillsides of the city, this is where the wealthier people typically lived. Salem became a place for shopping and entertainment. Around this time the city also adopted planning and zoning when establishing residences. Between the World wars, Salem opened up Movie palaces and radio stations as well as an addition of a semi-professional baseball team. Marion Square was a place where photoplay houses were common and also was a location that showed films from the silent era. Marion Square was known for the nickelodeons in the area. Salem was once looked at as a paradise with a majority of tress and other greenery, but quickly changed during the industrial revolution. Salem became a place where tourism and attractions became a norm.

An influx of churches also became true in the 1920s through the 1930s. Fraternal organizations also became very prevalent. The First Presbyterian Church had a huge membership and Catholics opened St. Vincent de Paul Church and a couple St. Vincent Schools in Salem. Salem had its railways along the Willamette River, which was a main source for shipments. The railway was built along the eastern side of the valley. The Willamette River was later discarded as drinking water in the '30s because of the horrible taste it provided. All of the industries of transportation and coal powered machinery, the river was contaminated with sewage and Industrial wastes.

Even with the industrial and economic expansion Salem was still small enough to be a walking distance city, which was beneficial for the poor. Salem was also a place where many people from the Midwest flocked towards during the depression because of the spry nature of the Salem economy. They were a city that sustained very well during the depression.

Key Events

Salem in the period from 1905 to 1930 continued its historical tradition of being a primarily agricultural center with strong civic life and growing metropolitan community.  A new agricultural crop, the loganberry, was introduced from California around 1900 and formed one of the cornerstones of Salem’s thriving agricultural industry for the next few decades. Reed’s Opera House, Salem’s best-known playhouse of the late 19th century, closed in 1900 and was soon superseded by the new Grand Opera House, which remains a city institution to this day. Around 1904 Salem constructed its first high school and continued to construct new school buildings of various kinds throughout the following decade.

Salem’s population more than tripled to 14,094 between 1900 1910, mainly because of annexations North, South, and East of Salem. Transportation development was key in assuring Salem’s continued success.  Paving of city streets began in 1907 and continued throughout the next decades. Railroad expansion started in 1912 when the Oregon Electric Railway linked downtown Salem with Portland, Eugene, and other towns in between. The Willamette-Pacific Railroad opened in 1916, connecting Salem to the coast and valuable sea access.

Salem experienced a period of remarkable civic, commercial, and industrial growth from about 1903-1910. In 1912 the Capital Journal, which began publication in 1888, was acquired by a new owner and thenceforward operated as a politically nonpartisan paper (it had previously been heavily Republican). After decades of loosely-formed and frequently-changing Boards of Trade, in 1913 the current Board of Trade merged with the Illahee Club, a social organization of Salem business and professional men, to form a long-term Chamber of Commerce. 1912 also saw the opening of the Salem Public Library, financed partly with Carnegie funds. Women’s suffrage was passed in Oregon in 1912, and in 1913 Salem as a city voted to go alcohol-free, despite a large industrial presence in the city centered around brewing and hop cultivating.

Another period of exceptional productivity occurred in the period just after World War I. Mechanization of city services occurred mainly in the 1920s; the fire department motorized early in the 1920s; the last electric trolleys were replaced by buses in 1927. Highway 99, linking Portland and many eastern Willamette Valley towns with Eugene, Roseburg, and Ashland, was completed in the early 1920s. In addition, forward-thinking Salemites voted in 1929 to fund the creation of an airfield, which was operational by 1930 and allowed regular airline traffic into the city by the early 1940s.

NOTE: This summary is essentially a condensation of relevant information from a 1992 historic context statement prepared for the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office by Marianne Kadas, the full text of which provides a much more comprehensive picture of Salem’s key developments during this period.

Works Cited

Latest Research

Weekly Chemawa American, July 14, 1911. At left is an advertisement for the program ‘The Best Our Ambition’ at the Ye Liberty Theatre in
On September 4, 1920, the Capital Journal in Salem, Oregon, posted an ad for the black and white silent film, Everywoman. The ad portrays pictures of…
Statesman Journal, July 22, 1928.